By: Melissa Cole, Oshawa Community Museum Curator
So what does a Joy Buzzer, Whoopee Cushion, chattering teeth and the old “fly in the ice cube” have in common……they are novelty items. Throughout history people have loved to play practical jokes on each other. From one of the earliest being the exploding cigar to the Whoopee cushion, which is still funny today. Novelty items became a lucrative business in the 19th and still are today.
Recently the museum received a large donation of items that belonged to Gladys Muriel Mowbray (Adelaide McLaughlin’s sister). This collection contained over 50 items that included a wedding dress, jewellery, shoes, hats and many personal items including a few novelty items that were practical jokes. At first I thought the one was a tin that resembled others that were already in the collection held at the OCM so I inspected the items further and realized they were novelty items. This is something that I do not come across often in a donation to a local museum. I wanted to find out a bit more about the two novelty items that were donated and discover more about the history of practical jokes in general.
The first novelty item is called Adams Salted Mixed Nuts also known as the “snake nut can”.
The “snake nut can” is a practical joke device that closely resembles a can of nuts but contains a wire spring covered in cloth or vinyl, some are even printed like snake skin but not this particular one, which leaps out of the can and startles the unsuspecting victim. This could have been me….. I was very thankful to the donor who actually informed me of what the tin contained before I proceeded to open the tin of “Salted Mixed Nuts”. The reason I always open the tins when a donation comes in is because quite often they are filled with little treasures that even the donor may not be aware of.
The “snake nut can” was invented by Soren Sorenson Adams, was known as Sam Adams, the king of Professional Pranksters, of the S.S. Adams Co. circa 1915. Adams’ wife Emily had been complaining about the jam jar, saying that it wasn’t properly closed or that it was sticky. Adams was inspired by her nagging, then invented a spring snake – coil of wire wrapped in a cloth skin and compressed the two-foot snake into a little jam jar so that it would jump out when the lid was removed. The snake jam jar then evolved into the snake nut can. In 1928, S.S. Adams created the Joy Buzzer, and in later years also sold the squirting nickel and fake plastic ice cubes with bugs in them. He was considered the industry leader in the field of practical jokes after creating over 650 novelty joke items. He actively managed his company until the time he passed away in the 1963 at the age of 84.
The second item was a New Shaving Kit – with the headline WHAT EVERY MAN WANTS – NO BRUSH NO LATHER NO ELECTRICTY.
Around the edge of the lid are line drawings of assorted razors but inside the box is a fake pocket knife, a few sticks of wood and wood shavings. It has a 1939 copyright date by H. Fish love & Co. of Chicago. Stamped lightly on the front is; Souvenir of Wichita, Kansas. The back of the box is a mailer label with a place for To and From and it could be mailed anywhere in the U.S.A. for only 3c. The Howard Fishlove company was known for their fake vomit called “Whoops” the company manufactured 60, 000 units per year.
Practical jokes and novelty items have been making people laugh since the 19th century I am sure these two novelty items highlighted here have brought back memories for many.
Demaris, Kirk (2006). Life of The Party: A Visual History of the S.S. Adams Company. Neptune, NJ: S.S. Adams Co.
Newgarden, Mark (2004). Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item. New York: Abrams.
Rauscher, William (2002). S.S. Adams: High Priest of Pranks and Merchant of Magic. Oxford, CT: David E. Haversat.