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BooksCartoon Culture

Life of the Party

If you are looking for a gift for someone this Christmas or just in the mood to buy something for yourself, my number one choice (and favorite picture book of the last year) would be Kirk Demarais’s:  Life of the Party: A Visual History of the S. S. Adams Company.

S.S. Adams was the mastermind behind many of the most popular gag/novelty pranks of the last century, including the Joy Hand Buzzer, the Dribble Glass, the Snake Can, the Squirting Nickel, the Bug in an Ice Cube, the Exploding Cigar, and hundreds of others.   As one writer put it,  “The man’s rivals must have felt toward him as other dramatists have felt about Shakespeare.” I’m not exactly sure who his rivals were – other fart-cushion manufacturers, maybe? – but the sentiment is right on.

This book is treasure and nostalgia all wrapped up in one, like reading the back of an old comic book and trying to decide whether to order the vacuum cleaner hovercraft or a new pair of X-ray specs.   The images are often enlarged so you can really appreciate the original art and packaging genius of Louis M. Glackens*, the cartoonist who Adams hired to bring all of his products to life.  I also confess a soft spot for the personal touch of ordering it direct from the factory in Neptune, New Jersey.  I wish all books were like this.

In 1906 Adams discovered the existence of a potent chemical called Dianisidine and began marketing it in small vials labeled  “Cachoo Sneezing Powder” (the company was originally called the “Cachoo Sneeze Powder Company”).   The powder was so powerful that you could fill a room with sneezing people simply by blowing it through a keyhole or a crack in a door.

While Adams was busy exploiting Dianisidine stateside for laughs, the Germans were on the other side of the Atlantic stuffing it into their artillery shells, wreaking further disorder in the trenches of their enemies as the chemical also inhibits breathing.  Fortunately for Adams, he had a good 35 years before the F.D.A. decided that Dianisidine wasn’t as “harmless” as his label proclaimed and banned it.  By then, Adams had built an entire business with the money he made and had already used it to create countless other novelty items, some of them just as successful, if not more so, than sneezing powder.

Asked to share some advice on what makes a great novelty item, Adams once said, “The best idea is to work with an ordinary everyday object which is around the house.”  Case in point is his “Snake Jam Jar”, also known as the “Snake Nut Can.”

Apparently, around 1915 Adams had a habit of leaving the jam jar lid unscrewed. His wife wasn’t too happy about it and she began checking the lid to catch him in an act of neglect.   So, Adams rigged the jar by stuffing a wire coil wrapped in colorful fabric, and sat in the wings waiting for his wife to come in and inspect it.  The rest is history: when the 4-ft “snake” jumped out of the jar at his wife, she let out a scream so loud that Adams knew instantly that he had a new classic.

You will spend hours soaking up the thousands of images in this unbelievably rich and beautifully-produced “Visual History.”  If you’re lucky, you may even find yourself curled up under the sheets with a flashlight and a magnifying glass, feeling just like a kid again.

Get it here directly from the S.S. Adams factory in Neptune, New Jersey.

*Glackens was also a successful director and animator.  Check his filmography here.  If anyone can turn up a sample of his work online, please share it in the comments.

  • amid

    You’ve convinced me Pes! Yet another book that I have to add to my library now.

  • zavkram

    I think I may actually have ordered a few gag items from this company when I was a kid: the little black pellets that turn into “snakes” when ignited, the “smoke cloud” pellets and the “garlic gum”.

  • James

    tremendous post.

  • Brian O.

    It is a super book.  The author, Kirk Demarais, is a super nice guy.  His site is a lot of fun as is his blog. He also directed a charming short film, FLIP!

    The S.S. Adams folks are also good people. It’s kind of amazing in this age of business failures and corporate bail-outs that a little practical joke and magic maker is still humming along for over 100 years in New Jersey.

  • Saturnome

    I can’t imagine opening this book without being tricked .. !

  • Wow! A happy review from PES on Cartoon Brew is a deluxe double honor! I’m a regular reader of the site and I’m a gleeful carrier of the PES virus, infecting others whenever I can.
    (Actually, make that a triple honor because Amid’s book is proudly displayed on my shelf.)

    It’s never occurred to me to play up the fact that the book comes straight from the factory as a value add. Some folks are just annoyed that it’s not on Amazon, so that’s a great way to look at it. The thought of those books sitting on a pallet in Neptune at this very moment, not far from the massive machine thats churning out springing snakes, effectively warms my ol’ heart cockles.

    I sincerely appreciate your article, and I’m truly thrilled that you enjoyed the book.

    (And thanks Brian O. for your further kindness. It seems that you are everywhere!)