Good Luck and Pirate Jinxes

This Johnson Smith Good Luck Ring (ad from 1922) intrigued me – because what it is, of course, is a skull ring. Skull rings were a form of memento mori jewelry created and worn to remember the deceased and literally to remind oneself of one’s mortality (which is, after all, part of the original meaning of All Hallows’ Eve). There are some spectacularly beautiful Georgian and Victorian skull rings here and here, for example. The 1922 ring looks a little bit happier than some of the other skull rings in old ads, and has curious horn-like eyebrows.

What is interesting about the novelty skull rings from the early 20th century is their detachment from this original meaning – in these ads, all from Popular Mechanics, the ring is supposed to be lucky or to frighten other people or, as in the 1952 ad, have something to do with a “Pirate Jinx.”

The earliest novelty skull ring ad I found was from October 1912 (ad at right), so was possibly a Halloween tie-in. It was made by Acme H. House of Milwaukee and was a “handsome up to date ring”  for “sporting men” guaranteed to “scare the timid.” What sort of sporting men would have worn this, do you think?


The “Skull Ring” on the left was advertised in 1917. The copy states that “women won’t like it, but for men or boys it is a great novelty.” 

In October 1947, Billboard advertised these “Superior” rings (for which read : “Cheap and Inferior”), including a multiple-snake ring and a skull ring. The skull eyes came in assorted colors and even though it was “truly a novel ring” you could buy them for “3.30 a dozen” (which hardly sounds novel, really).

The yellowed ad on the left is from 1952, by which time it is being called both a Skull Ring and a Pirate Jinx Ring. “Sterling silver” and yet only $1.98 – there’s a Pirate Jinx right there.

I had no idea where the Johnson Smith novelties ad was going to take me when I started yesterday’s post – but that is part of the enormous fun of writing about history and popular culture, and being able to pursue what seems interesting. This seems a bit more like a Dime Museum post, but it’s staying here anyway.

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Tomorrow starts National Novel Writing Month – which means that once again I’ll be writing a first draft of what I hope will be, after 3 previous NaNos, a decent mystery novel (I have 3 bad first drafts and I don’t need to have a 4th, since I don’t intend to use them as dining room chairs). I will still be posting here, because I’m certainly going to need some laughs – but if I miss the odd day, you’ll know why. And if I don’t answer comments sometimes, you’ll know why, too – apologies in advance.

Strange Novelties From the Jazz Age

Here are three things you will want to have for that Halloween party tomorrow night, from Popular Mechanics, October 1922 – thanks to Johnson Smith, the noted leaders in weird novelties.

1. The Mystic Skeleton – Not really very mystic, it will do the Monster Mash and the Twist while “the operator” mans the remote control from across the room. It is only 14 inches tall, though, so you’d better clear the dance floor first. Otherwise the Mystic Skeleton will get crunched up.

2. Serpent’s Eggs – A dozen fake eggs that you “light with a match” and then a dozen fake snakes hatch and “twist about in a most life-like manner.” They will enjoy dancing with the Mystic Skeleton. You might want to have a few fire extinguishers on hand, too – lighting eggs sounds a little tricky.

3. The Wonderful X-Ray Tube – Well, it’s wonderful all right. You can see what are “apparently the bones in your fingers” through it. The Mystic Skeleton will want to try this out when it’s taking a break from dancing up a storm. He might be able to see some plastic marrow – or something. Or possibly nothing at all. Which might be what you end up seeing, too, since it isn’t really a Roentgen-approved scientific apparatus. But Johnson Smith promises that you will see the lead in a pencil and “the interior opening in a pipe stem” – which believe me, no one wants to see, not even a pipe cleaner.

The fourth novelty was so interesting I started doing a little extra research on it and…I’m going to post about it tomorrow. It is the perfect thing to show you on Halloween. And on that note – I’m going to leave you guessing!

No One Will Ever Suspect!

Not to worry, it isn’t really National Use-Up-Your-Leftovers-in-a-Jell-O-Salad Week. And even if it was, you can opt out of this multiple-spoon disaster.  

Bet you have a dish of leftover peas or beans or carrots in the refrigerator right now…too little to serve everyone, and too much to throw away!

Well, I suppose there’s enough for just one person. Why can’t one person have them.  Or maybe I will just throw them out. Those peas are tired and so am I! As for the slice of olive, I think we can let go of that, too. 

Why not use them beautifully tonight in a tempting Jell-O salad. It’ll taste so good, no one will ever suspect!

Oh, I think they might suspect, you know? Jell-O is see-through. And unless everyone totally forgot what they ate last night, that horror of a Jell-O mold will bring it back to them. Vividly.

Riddle answers from the last post:

What begins with a P, ends with an E and has a thousand letters in it? A Post Office. (The Bewildered Brit got this one.)
What does a cat have that no other animal has? Kittens. ( Jen at The Transmogrifier’s Tale got this one – and thank you both for playing!)

The Weeny Witch Monarchy

This is just what the youngsters always wanted: to eat a witch made out of a hot dog. Therefore, your kids will be “kings and queens of the neighborhood” if you serve this to their friends. Granted, a hot dog is not generally interpreted as a mandate to rule, but perhaps the neighborhood does not know this.

What this really means is that YOU will be the acting Queen of the neighborhood, since your children will be too young to assume their royal duties. OK, now we’re talking! Bring on the weeny witches.

Now, after you have made the children eat weeny witches, and grabbed control of the monarchy, you can enter the “Make the Baby Talk Contest”* (that’s at the bottom of the ad). After all, you are the Queen, right? So the baby must have something to say about this. What will you make the baby say? How about:

- No, Your Highness, I will not throw my strained peas on the floor any more.

- Why certainly, I would love to sit in the playpen. Perhaps you could hand me a few magazines through the bars. If you would be so very kind. Or perhaps one of the courtiers could do this [hint: that would be the cats].

-Those Weeny Witches were an inspired idea, Your Highness! I simply cannot wait to see what delights you have in store for the Christmas season.

[From Life, October 26, 1953.]

* This referred to putting a cutesy caption on a baby photo, actually.

The Cereal Box Masquerade

Even the inanimate objects are dressing up in Halloween costumes here. The little cereal boxes decided to be -  treats.

So picture this:

You’re all dressed up like Grandpa from The Munsters.* Grandpa from The Munsters with a bad case of seasickness. So he’s grumpy and green and he really needs something good to happen. As for you, you want candy. It’s Halloween after all – the festival of free candy! And boy, things need to get better soon. It’s been pencils and apples mostly, so far. Oh, and a few molasses taffy kisses, the kind with the orange and black paper wrappers that are welded right onto the taffy.

Ding-dong, trick or treat!

This can’t be happening. Surely it is a bad dream. Maybe Grandpa never got off that boat and you’re both drifting in a skim milk sea of bad luck and Alphabits that spell L-O-S-E-R.. Because – mini boxes of breakfast cereal? For Halloween? Oh, Mrs. Post, you just didn’t!

Oh yes she did though! And the box even says Treat-Pak. The corporate Post Ghosties think this is a great idea. They even think you won’t play any tricks, you will be so happy!

At the bottom, a tiny picture of the same kid is saying “All Post cereals happen to be just a little bit better.” Just a little bit better than – than what? What else has Mrs. Post got on hand tonight? Goody bags filled with Bran Flakes? Skim milk cartons and spoons? Or something even more sinister?

Guess which house everyone’s going to be covering in toilet paper tonight.

*Good trick that, because this ad predates the TV series by several years. The Munsters ran from 1964 to 1966, and this ad is from 1958.

What was the worst treat you ever got trick-or-treating? Please share! (Mine were mini boxes of Chiclets, and pencils.)

[From Life, October 27, 1958. That gave everyone four days to rush out and buy Treat Paks. Oh, and toilet paper.]

Hold Your Hat, Bermuda Is Charming!

I was just looking through The Complete Letter Writer, from 1957 – which is full of examples of letters you can write to people who have moved away from your home town and miss the gossip, or to someone who is about to give you a job (you hope!) or thanking them for that swell orange Banlon sweater. They suggest that you begin a “newsy letter” with a peppy opening like “Bermuda is charming!” (which only works if you are in fact in Bermuda) or “Hold your hat! I have news for you!”

Well, hold your hat! I have a blog post for you! And it isn’t about Bermuda, though I have no doubt that that is a charming place. I’m sure I wouldn’t mind sitting on a beach somewhere like that, in a chaise longue, with a cold pina-colada type drink and a really good book and…well, and so on. But I’m not and you’re not. So what have we got? A book from 1957 about letter-writing etiquette, that’s what.

One of the practice letters is to a child at summer camp. It’s full of the usual sorts of things: mind the poison ivy, you forgot your baseball mitt, Mom says wear your long underwear. That is, until the Dad who is writing it says that Sis is telling riddles all the time, and did she get this idea from the camping child? Dad includes the latest one and says he wrote the answer on the back of the letter.

The riddle is: What begins with P, ends with E, and has a thousand letters in it?*

That’s it, I thought to myself. I have riddles for the Doubletake today! That’s newsy, isn’t it? I guess it will do. Since I’m not in Bermuda or anything. I even have a bonus riddle for you, on the Victorian picture card: What is it which a Cat has but no other animal?*

I’m not doing Halloween-themed posts over here, because there are plenty on Kitchen Retro and I will do one at least for Virtual Dime Museum. But over here, we’ve got riddles. And shameless links to my other blogs, but you already knew that.

And next time we’ll have the answers plus a 1950s Jell-O idea that will perhaps tax the limits of your imagination (and digestion)…

The Bermuda postcard from Cartophilia. I won’t tell you where the cat card is from, yet, because the answer is over there, too.

Scotch This

How Your Kids Can Have A Happier Halloween:

1. Use an excessive amount of shiny Scotch tape on Halloween mask.

2. Forget to attach an elastic cord to mask. Attempt to Scotch tape mask to head. Give up, removing tape (and some of your hair). Spend the evening holding it up to your face instead.

3. Realize that if you have to hold the mask like this, you won’t actually be able to hold a candy bag.

4. Further realize that even if you could use one hand to hold a candy bag, the other hand would not be able to hold large mask up to adequately cover face.

5. Now start to worry about how cats probably do not go around wearing blue and white polka-dotted shirts. This is what happens when you spend all your time Scotch taping together a fancy mask. But at least you did manage to make a cat tail.

6. However: tail is stuck on with last few bits of linty tape (having used it all on the mask). Worry about efficacy of Scotch tape holding cat tail to the back of your pants.

[From Life, October 20, 1961. Scotch is a slang term meaning to put an end to something, as in scotching a rumor - aside from its being a synonym for Scottish, somewhat disliked by the Scottish.]

I Dreamed A Green Pelican Disliked My Halloween Costume

If you’re looking for a good Halloween costume – keep on looking. Because this is not it.

You will just look like you forgot the top half of the ballerina outfit. I guess you could go as a forgetful ballerina, though. A forgetful ballerina with a lion head. Or a bird head (don’t forget the cage and the jelly bean bird seed!). Or any number of other animal heads. There’s a definite animal theme (except for the moon, at the bottom left, who seems to be hunting down the animal ballerinas for some reason).

What I really want to know is what the model is supposed to be for Halloween, in the big picture. She is wearing the worst looking plant-hat ever! It does distract one’s attention from her shirtlessness. Sort of. But mostly it just makes her look like the unpredictable sort of guest who’s going to cause a ruckus at the punchbowl at some point in the evening.

It also looks like her head is being squeezed by a rabid green pelican. Clearly, it does not approve of this semi-costume of hers. And it is all kinds of hungry, too.

If I were her, I’d stop preening for the camera and try to locate some jelly beans, pronto.

Many thanks to Althouse for this one. She got it from one of her commenters, so many thanks to him or her as well.

The Ventrilo

The Ventrilo was manufactured by the fabulous Johnson Smith & Co., makers of novelties such as this fake money. This one is also a little – irregular. Shady, even. I mean, yes, you could use it to make pretty little bird calls. But why not fool people instead? 

That is obviously a ventriloquist on the right, with some creepy pals on his knee, – but what in the world is going on in the picture on the left? Is the schoolboy making the pack on the guy’s back talk? And if so, why? 

Lots of fun fooling the teacher, policeman or friends. Why, that does sound like fun. Possibly followed by detention  – either in the principal’s office or the local station house, your choice.

Pretend you are in a trunk or under the bed “or anywhere.” That sounds like fun,too. How about pretending you’re in a trunk, under the bed? There’ll be lots of laughs if you do that, say, at a party. Or when it’s time to go to school. Or when they’re coming to arrest you for using that Johnson Smith counterfeit money all over town.

[From a 1922 Popular Mechanics. Guess which city Johnson Smith & Co. was based in? Hint: we've been to this city many, many times before - and are never disappointed by the weird products there.]

The all-Halloween kitsch and retro starts tomorrow and runs through the 31st …

A Three Stooges Jack-O-Lantern

A little Halloween decorating idea from Popular Mechanics in 1935: make a “safe and cheap” jack-o-lantern from a balloon, a flashlight and some wrapping paper. Before you start, though, you have to blow up the balloon and paint on a grumpy Curly Howard face. You could make Moe and Larry lanterns to go with it.

I’m not sure where you would put this, since the flashlight has to be laid flat in order for people to see the balloon face. And someone also needs to be flashing the light on and off. I’m sure someone at your house will gladly volunteer to just hold the Curly balloon-and-flashlight and flick the on-off switch, all evening. And they can say “woo woo!” instead of “boo!” That will be fun.