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    History

    • Video of Bibo!

      We never even dared to dream that this video existed! Thanks to a comment on a previous post and some Chinese language Google searches, we have actual footage of Bibo in action on the show Flame Bathing Phoenix.

      Bibo happy. Bibo sad. Bibo's bodily functions. It's all there.

      We thought more explanation of Bibo might make us find him less intriguing, instead it just increases the mystery.

      We love you Bibo, now and forever.

      You read more about our history with Bibo in our book.

    • Interview with Kirk Demarais, Author of Life of the Party

      S.S. Adams, now owned by Magic Makers, was the original American novelty company. For their 100th anniversary, they released a pictoral history of their products called, Life of the Party. Kirk Demarais, the author, agreed to answer a few of our questions. Kirk is not just an author, he's also an ace designer and the blog-master of Secret Fun Blog. When J.J. Abrams was recently asked to name his top ten most wired things for Wired Magazine, Kirk's book was number one!

      So Kirk, what got you into novelties? Was it a particular toy or memory?

      I’ve had a raging affinity for toys since early childhood, from Fisher-Price to Weebles to Star Wars and so on. My introduction to the novelty world came at age four when my uncle took my family to the House of Magic at Walt Disney World where I scored a King Tut Magic Mummy trick and my first Beagle Puss (a.k.a. the Groucho disguise.)

      I graduated to pranks in second grade when my buddy brought an S.S. Adams Snake Nut Can to class. I’d been coveting these things in the comic book novelty ads for ages, and suddenly the gap between me and the impervious mail order world had closed. The gag was so intriguing because it was fun like a toy and yet something about that metal can with its serious graphics and the unforgiving snake made it seem so grown up. I was also fascinated by the notion of a store-bought product that was produced solely for the sake of deception. You could terrify your friends and family… and that was the whole point! The next weekend I talked my dad into a trip to the local novelty shop for a can of my own. It was there that I discovered a whole line of Adams products. A reputable company that endorsed and promoted mischief— this was truly a novel concept.

      How did you become a collector?

      When I was eleven I bought a small package of old plastic trinkets at a yard sale for fifty cents. The miniatures were similar to the ones I’d always found in gumball machines, but these were from a series called Goofy Gifts, which were packaged on a card that featured this stunning 1950s style illustration of a scientist. I valued the artwork so much that I couldn’t bring myself to tear it open and play with the trinkets; so I displayed it on my shelf. I consider it to be my first collectible.

      I didn’t start amassing pranks until I was a teenager. I’d always dreamt of being a master prankster, going everywhere with a concealed arsenal of gags under my jacket, equipped for any situation. There’s a scene in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure when Mr. Herman makes a routine stop at a prank and magic shop where he stocks up on what he calls “supplies.” The shopkeeper knows Pee-Wee by name and he obviously burns through a reserve of tricks on a weekly basis. I wanted that. So I eventually started buying tricks whenever I could get my hands on them, mostly during vacations at tacky tourist destinations. At some point I realized that I preferred admiring joke items to actually using them.

      How did you get involved with S.S. Adams?

      As a kid my enthusiasm for pranks was matched by my passion for drawing, so naturally I started putting gags in my artwork…

      This is my childhood version of a prank catalog…

      (I prefer not to speculate on what that hairy blob is supposed to be.)

      In the mid 1990s when I first got access to the program PhotoShop I asked myself what my dream design job would be, and working on a novelty catalog was the obvious choice. So in order to learn the program I assigned myself a layout for a faux S.S. Adams catalog page. The result was this now-shameful piece…

      (It should be noted that two of those items weren’t even produced by Adams.)

      By 2003 I was actually getting paid to design, but not by a novelty company. In fact, I often gave on-the-job soliloquies to my coworkers on how I would go about redesigning the S.S. Adams product packaging.

      By then I had also become an expert in the art of Ebay. One of my triumphant auctions involved a set of vintage S.S. Adams display cards. When I got the invoice from the seller I noticed that he was Christian Adams from New Jersey. Chris confirmed my suspicion that he was indeed a member of the royal family of novelties (Samuel Sorenson’s grandson) and the current owner of the business. He had no choice but to become my pen pal.

      The following year I mailed Chris a DVD of a short film (Flip) my friends and I created because we had used some vintage Adams product to dress the sets. I don’t know if he cared for the film or not, but he saw that I had designed the DVD cover…

      And he asked me if I would be interested in doing some work for them. When I got the news I looked exactly like the victim in the Joy Buzzer ads. My feet flew up behind my head and my entire body violently convulsed.

      Incredibly, my first assignment was a destiny-fulfilling catalog cover…

      I went on to give them their first package redesign in decades…

      And as if all that wasn’t dream-like enough, one of my cover illustrations was adapted as a prop in the recent version of the movie Hairspray

      When all of this happened I was living in a tiny Arkansas town with relatively little design experience. Even after I’d crossed paths with Chris I never expressed my secret life-long wishes to create for his company. In case it isn’t clear by now—I didn’t just get involved with them, I was custom made to work for the S.S. Adams prank and magic company.

      How did the book come about?

      The manifestation of Life of the Party is just as miraculous as the rest of my Adams story. In the days when my relationship with Adams was merely a wild fantasy I purchased a copy of Chip Kidd’s Batman Collected book and decided that it was the greatest collectibles book ever conceived by man in both form and content. (This was obviously prior to the Archie McPhee Who Would Buy This? book.) My next thought was that commercial pranks and magic deserved the same treatment.

      But by the time I started working for Adams two books had come out on the subject of novelties; one was on Adams specifically. (They were S.S. Adams, High Priest of Pranks and Merchant of Magic by William Rauscher and Mark Newgarden’s Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item.) This shot holes in my aspiration and I never saw any point in pitching my book concept. That’s why I was floored when Adams co-owner David Haversat asked me if I’d consider doing a visual history book to celebrate their centennial anniversary. I remain astonished.

      More than a year later as I was putting the finishing touches on Life of the Party, in a moment of pure full-circleness, I got a surprise email from Chip Kidd. His unsolicited message contained a wonderful blurb for my book! It so happened that his good friend and legendary graphic novelist Chris Ware (who had generously contributed the foreword) had passed the layouts on to him completely unaware that Chip’s book was the very one I was ripping of--- I mean- was my inspiration.

      My favorite story from the book is the discovery of sneezing powder. Could you tell it?

      Cachoo sneezing powder was the first product Adams offered. S.S. discovered it while working for a company that sold coal-tar derivative. The outfit spent big money to extract an undesirable ingredient called Dianisidine from their product. Dianisidine was troublesome because it caused massive sneezing for anyone who worked near it. S.S. found that just a tiny pinch of the potent powder could turn a large room into a sneezing riot. In the 1940s, decades after Adams had built an empire on this bi-product, the FDA stepped in and banned it. Around this time, the Germans were adopting it as a chemical weapon. They poured it into shrapnel shells and fired it at the French, but its use was discontinued because “it has only limited ability to create casualties on the battlefield...” (quoting Chemical and Biological Warfare by Eric Croddy) Thus the unsavory ingredient in sneezing powder was eventually replaced with finely ground pepper.

      Is there a holy grail of novelties that you haven't found?

      Thanks to ebay I keep having to come up with new holy grails. In the past there were things like The Weebles Haunted House, the S.S. Adams Life of the Party joke set, and the original pair of X-Ray Spex (with plastic frames).

      Right now it would have to be the U-Control Ghost that was sold by Johnson Smith and Co. It consisted of a balloon, some string, stick-on eyes and a sheet of plastic that looked suspiciously like a trash bag. Countless kids were suckered into buying them, but for obvious reasons, nobody seemed to keep them. If anyone can direct me to one, please do! It’s okay if it’s not for sale; I just want to marvel at it.

      What product do you think has the largest gap between the promise of the comic book advertisement and what you actually get?

      Most any of the giant monster items that were hawked in comic book ads. There’s the U-Control Ghost I mentioned earlier and then there’s the Life Size Monsters that were offered by the Honor House Corporation. The ad for those specifically cited “durable polyethelene” which really misled boys into expecting a huge action figure, but in truth they were posters printed on sheets of plastic. There was also a crop of giant monsters and dinosaurs that turned out to be balloons.

      Was there ever a safety issue with an Adams product that got hushed up?


      From what I understand, there’s never been an involuntary product recall (heh, aside from the whole FDA sneezing powder thing. Oh, and the same thing happened with itching powder.) Their relatively clean record is especially remarkable considering some of their long gone products like the Bending Knife which was a knife with a hidden hinge where the blade meets the handle (constructed from a genuine steak knives no less), and the Auto Bomb which was a pyrotechnic device that was wired to the victim’s car battery which emitted smoke followed by an explosion.

    • The True Story of Zombie Jesus! (Even though you probably won't believe it.)

      The Accidental Zombie Jesus

      The story of the Zombie Jesus is hotly debated by our customers. They accuse us of cleverly importing a Zombie Jesus and trying to market it as a production mistake. Even when we tell customers the truth, they tend not to believe us. So, I'm here to set the record straight.

      It was a mistake. As the description said, the Jesus Action Figure was one of our best selling products and we wanted to duplicate the success with a Deluxe Edition. The sample we got was great, the actual product when it arrived was not OK. I wasn't the one that came up with the idea of calling it Zombie Jesus, but I was the one who thought some of our customers might want one. We set aside a few hundred of them to sell, the rest had to be fixed. (It wasn't the first production mistake we sold - the He/She Doll was our favorite.)

      I got to go down to LA to appear on Attack of the Show! a couple of days after they arrived (August of 2005). So, I decided that in addition to the folks on our Cult Email list, I'd open it up to the geeks of the world. After my television appearance I learned two things. One, I needed a haircut really badly. Two, Attack of the Show! viewers loved Zombie Jesus. I had to grab more of them to sell.

      Here are the original description and announcement of the Zombie Jesus in our Cult Email.

      Production Error Jesus!
      Here it is, our super secret stash of rare, Factory Mistake Jesus Action Figures. Let us take a moment to explain. We are doing a Deluxe edition of our Jesus Action Figure in a special "Miracle Edition." We made a new mold of the figure and asked the factory to make the palms of his hands glow-in-the-dark. Imagine our surprise when the figures showed up with evil red eyes and translucent glow-in-the-dark hands. Somebody (Satan? Beelzebub? Gary Busey?) really made a mess of things. Jesus looks like a zombie or a Sith Lord instead of a healer, teacher or Messiah. Obviously, we couldn't release a savior with the steely, ferocious glare of a damaged Terminator robot to the general public. That's where you come in! Before we send them back to be melted down, we thought we would give you, our best customers, a chance to buy one for your very own. These will only be sold until August 30th! We make no claims that this incredibly collectible piece will increase in value, but remember the Rocket Firing Boba Fett! Cha-ching!

      FACTORY MISTAKE ZOMBIE JESUS - CULT ONLY OFFER
      In addition to the librarian, we're also making a Deluxe Jesus Action Figure, but when we got our first shipment from the factory, they made a horrible mistake! Instead of the subtle glowing, healing hands we had asked for, the factory gave Jesus hands of shocking, bright green. And instead of the calm thoughtful eyes of a messiah, they gave him the red, evil eyes of a Sith Lord. Put the parts together and you have Zombie Jesus! This horrible and unfortunate mistake is being made available only for a limited time and only through this link! If you have a friend who might be interested, please pass the link along. There is no link to this page anywhere on our site! Web only! Cult only!

      PS: If we did do it on purpose, it would have been a lot better. Just imagine the package!

    • Archie McPhee Catalog 56, 1997

      Archie McPhee Catalog Cover

      Catalog 56 was our most controversial catalog ever. It marked our move from black and white on newsprint to beautiful color on glossy paper. Believe it or not, we lost customers over this! Or so they said, we got lots of letters from people who said they were giving up on us because we dared to show the products in color. We have a feeling that they continued to order, but we don't hold their initial resistance against them. Change is hard. In the end, it did help us gain new customers, but as this letter from inside the catalog points out, we mostly spread by one Archie McPhee customer finding a kindred spirit and sharing us.

      Hey Archians!

      I've procured a new sacrifice to the gods of silliness. He's actually my math teacher (he grew enamored with your catalog after he confiscated it in class).

      I also wanted to take this opportunity to thank you again for existing - you guys always make my week.

      Mucho Respecto,

      Eva S.

      See Catalog 56 here!

      Post about Catalog 1

      Post about Catalog 18

      Post about Catalog 32

    • Archie McPhee Catalog 32, 1994

      Archie McPhee Catalog Cover #32, 1994

      By 1994 Seattle had become a hip place. While most of this is because of the number of amazing bands on the Seattle scene and some amazing comic artists, we like to think that we helped a bit. This catalog cover featured our store staff and one of them (Pete on the far left) still works there. The layout in the catalog is a bit tighter and more traditional, but it still has a funky feel. One thing to check out in this catalog is the collections of stuff, our Tiny Treasures were one of the most awesome things we've ever sold.

      Also, Archie McPhee started to help people find one another. We got calls from people in remote areas pleading with us to tell the name of anyone else in their zip code so they could find friends or romance. Here is a letter, from the catalog, telling one story of love through Archie.

      Dear Archie McPhee Pals

      Another true romance story! We met, we talked a lot, we went out to lunch, sparks flew, we went to the movies, we were too shy to do anything but talk. Then we went back to his place for some innocent Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewing. I spot your catalog on his coffee table! I place it strategically between us and lean forward to peruse it! I mention many of my favorite items... he leans forward to look... we are both leaning forward and reading your catalog intently... his arm slides around me as he leans closer to check out something I'm pointing at... and... we look at each other, realize true Archie McPhee love, and finally kiss! Wahooo! Thanks for providing a great starting point for people to meet and connect.
      Yours forever,

      Michele M.
      San Carlos, CA

      Catalog 32 is here!

      Post about Catalog 1

      Post about Catalog 18

    • Jesus Action Figure in the Weekly World News

      Jesus Action Figure in the Weekly World News

      Click

      Sure, we've been featured in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but for us the highlight of our mentions in the press came in 2002 when the now web-only Weekly World News called about the Jesus Action Figure. They were everything you would hope they would be. The woman who called had a scratchy smoker's voice and was shocked when we said we were big fans. My guess is that no one had ever told her that before.

      We were happy to supply a quote that implied the action figure had healing qualities without promising anything. She was glad to get it because, she said, they had to make up quotes most of the time. The article was published under her pen name, Max Durango.

      They published a follow up story without asking for another quote.

      Although we did sell a lot of action figures as a result of the articles, we got returns from people who didn't get healed by it.

    • Martian Cuke - The Forgotten Cousin of the Martian Popping Thing

      Cuke - Distant Relative of the Martian Popping Thing

      The Martian Popping Thing is one of our best sellers, why wouldn't we want to replicate its success? Well, the 20 year old Martian Cuke from our archives pictured above was an attempt to do just that. We tried to make it look a little less phallic by coloring it green, but people still found it disturbing. They would have found it even more disturbing if they knew it was designed originally by the manufacturer as a baby toy. If it could yodel, it would probably have sold.

    • The Worst Selling Item in Archie McPhee History - Jabba Jam

      Jabba Jam

      In the early 1990s, we found some musty boxes of Jabba the Hutts on the third floor of an open air parking garage in downtown Chicago. The guy offering them for sale also had all of the ex-Shah of Iran's stained glass collection, but we weren't big enough customers that he would even let us see that. He had just been released from the Illinois State Prison where he had been held for burning down a warehouse full of unsellable merchandise for the insurance money. When asked about it, he would reply with a more than a hint of pride in his voice, "Guilty as charged!"

      We haggled him down to ten cents each for the Jabba heads and slightly more for the whole Jabbas. We had greedy visions of rabid Star Wars fans beating down our door for this rarity. Once we offered them up for sale, the whole Jabbas sold quickly, but the pieces didn't move at all. What were we supposed to do with thousands of Jabba heads and arms?

      This is when the pure Capitalist impulse took over. We decided to match them with plastic fruit slices that didn't sell and turn them into jam! This was back in the days when anyone with Print Shop considered themselves a graphic designer, so it took no time at all to print out the labels and bottle Jabba.

      Of course, we never sold a single one. Like Boba Fett in the belly of the almighty Sarlacc, they sat on the store shelves and in our warehouse gathering dust for years. No one is entirely sure what happened to them. Some think they went in Surprise Bags, others think they were sold to the Science Fiction Museum at vastly inflated prices. The only thing we know for sure is that we wish they were in that warehouse fire and we had never seen them at all.

    • Archie McPhee Catalog 18, 1990

      Archie McPhee Catalog Cover, Catalog 18, 1990

      Here's another scanned catalog - Catalog 18 from 1990. This catalog featured the muddy black and white pictures and awesome writing our customers had come to expect. Also included was a statement of purpose that is as true now as it was then. Except for the part about robots, we now welcome our robot overlords.

      OUR PURPOSE IN LIFE
      We are folks who have a great time finding, creating and providing you with hard-to-find, hard-to-beat, wonderful things. When we select something for the catalog, we think about quality, fun, astonishment, aesthetics, and the object's place in the History of the World. If we may go on a bit more, we'd like quote an excerpt from The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell (Set in India, Sepoy Uprising, 1857): "...we are raising ourselves, however painfully, so that mankind may enjoy in the future a superior life which now we can hardly conceive! The foundation on which the new men will build their lives are Faith, Science, Respectability, Geology, Mechanical Invention, Ventilation and Rotation of Crops!"

      We work hard, the old-fashioned way, without robots, and every order gets personal attention. We try our best to ship fast and correctly. And if we screw up, we will make it right! We appreciate your business and our mission is to make you laugh or exclaim with wonder and to deliver good value fast. And to remind you to rotate your crops.

      Click here to see McPhee Catalog 18.

    • Archie McPhee's Owner on NPR

      Our owner Mark, discusses his book about the history of our company on NPR with Jeremy Richards!

      Click here to listen, Mark starts about 12 minutes in.

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