Boys’ Life is the official magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. It ruled my childhood.
I was in the Scouts, but that had nothing to do with it. All of my grade school buddies were in the Scouts. It was just kind of a given that we would be.
For us, it was essentially an afterschool “latchkey” program, held at a nearby church, with a few of our mothers rotating in and out of “den leader” roles. We wore the uniforms and we had the books, but it was more or less just playtime. Actual scout-like activities were few and far between. I didn’t mind going and neither did my friends, but we’d have just as soon stayed home.
Only one of my friends stayed in for the long haul. He seemed embarrassed whenever we brought it up, but his bedroom was full of Boy Scout things, including the fabled Webelos uniform that none of the rest of us achieved.
He’s the one who introduced me to Boys’ Life Magazine. In his room was a pile of them, nearly half as tall as I was. I don’t know what compelled me to begin thumbing through them, but once I did, something magical happened.
The articles in each issue were what you’d expect. Sugary stories about being a better person, or about making things out of egg cartons, or maybe about the logistics of rain.
I wasn’t enthralled until I got to the last few pages. The “GIFTS & GIMMICKS” section. At that moment, something clicked, and nothing would ever be the same.
I’ve written about old comic book ads a hundred times, but the truth is, I rarely ordered things from comic books. When I’ve alluded to a past filled with mail order madness, it was chiefly because of Boys’ Life Magazine.
The “Gifts & Gimmicks” section was typically 5 or 6 pages, very close to the end of each issue. It became as important to my childhood years as nearly anything else, and I can’t mean that more sincerely. With oodles of vague ads for oodles of vague things, it kicked off an obsession with mail order goodies that I still haven’t completely kicked.
I never subscribed to Boys’ Life Magazine, and it wasn’t the kind of thing that you could just buy anywhere. Instead, I’d visit my still-a-scout friend’s house every month, and rip the pages from his magazines. Sometimes he charged me a token fee; other times I just tore them up when he wasn’t looking.
I protected those pages like they were the most important things in the universe. I even went to the local pharmacy to make photocopies, so I could safely cut out offers without decimating whatever was on the flipsides of the pages. I was nuts.
I didn’t buy everything from those ads, but I sure ordered a lot. Anything in the realm of “pranks and gags” was my chief interest, in part because I was an idiot, but mostly because those were the cheapest things.
There was almost never a time when I wasn’t expecting a package to arrive. I think I enjoyed the anticipation more than anything, and I’d fall into a deep sulk if there were no postal miracles to look forward to.
For some reason, I’d always bring my purchases to school, still safely protected in their bubble mailers. For a few years, that was “my thing.” When we were getting our yearbooks signed by all of the teachers in the fifth grade, most of the ones I’d had penned thoughtful wishes for “good mail to come.”
I can’t say that these passions brought me much kinship or camaraderie.
The scans above come from a 1989 issue of Boys’ Life, but the “Gifts & Gimmicks” section looked very similar to that for many years, before and after. Below are closer inspections of several specific ads that piqued my interest back then…
Crazy knives! How were ads like this legal? They can’t still be legal, right?
The knife on the left doubled as a survival kit, with a bunch of random tools shoved into its hollow shaft. The “Action Knife,” shown right, was like the super mega version of a Swiss Army Knife. (Actually, that exact ad inspired me to request a Swiss Army Knife for some long ago Christmas. Its most useful tool was a slide-out plastic toothpick.)
I fell for Badge A Minit’s pitch, hook, line and sinker. Though the $33 price tag precluded me from ordering one, I spent countless nights imagining the fabulous riches waiting in the button business.
Regarding the two smaller ads, I’m sad to admit that I never experienced the thrill of pets-by-mail. My parents didn’t have many hot buttons, but “surprise animals” would’ve won me a beating for sure.
I was especially interested in the quail eggs — likely because they came with an incubator that looked like an alien spaceship. That ad wasn’t long for the world by 1989, and I remember being so regretful when it finally stopped appearing in Boys’ Life. In hindsight, thank God it stopped. Putting the kid version of me in charge of baby quails had many potential endings, but they were all very, very bad.
*panic excitement die words here*
These ads mean A LOT to me.
The first two are from Brad’s Fun Shop and the much larger Johnson Smith Company. (Don’t let the size of Johnson Smith’s ad fool you; this one is unusually small.) For years, these two companies battled for supremacy in the “cheap jokey shit” arena, constantly tweaking their wares and prices. Their doodads fell from a dollar to eighty-eight cents, finally settling in at a seemingly impossible fifty cents. (Loss leader?)
Venus Flytraps! Whoopee cushions! Fake vomit! Snap gum! All of the best things ever made, for the best prices ever seen!
Brad’s Fun Shop generally had cruder stuff than Johnson Smith. The upside was their reckless abandon regarding any laws about selling low-grade fireworks by mail. Still, Johnson Smith was the gold standard, and even if you don’t recognize their tiny ad, you probably know their work. If you’ve ever paged through a Things You Never Knew Existed catalog, that’s them!
Oh, and about that third ad. Garner’s Pranks & Magic desperately wanted a slice of the pie, but they just wouldn’t commit to an across-the-board low price. I have no facts to back this up, but I like to think that it’s what put them out of business.
The Pinewood Derby is one of the few true “Boy Scout things” I can remember taking part in. My father built a real beauty: A Corvette-looking thing with shiny red paint, and just enough random metal shit stuck in the back to give it ample weight.
All of my friends were just as into their cars, and come race day, we were AMPED. When we arrived, the Official Scout People had set up a two-lane raceway. Two kids would race, and then another two, and then another two, whittling down the contenders until we had our grand champion.
Unfortunately, it became immediately clear that the right-side lane had a much steeper slope, and so, the only way to lose was to be on the left. None of the adults seemed to believe us, even after a car that I swear only had two wheels managed to win three races. It’s been more than twenty years, and I still clench my fists when I think about this.
Oh, and the other ad? As a kid, I was just gullible enough to believe that building such a hovercraft was possible. And I guess it was, technically. Still, there’s no way that thing did what I imagined it doing. I saw myself flying over houses and being all over the news.
I dabbled in stamp collecting for several years, all thanks to ads like these.
Each sold you a handful of stamps (or coins, or bank notes) for an enticingly low price. The catch was that they’d send you tons of extra stamps (or coins, or bank notes) on “approval.” If you wanted to keep them, you had to send in more money. If not, you had to send them back.
I don’t know if that arrangement was purposely sneaky, but if it hurt anyone, it was the companies themselves. Even if I didn’t outright intend to “steal” from them, I was never any good about sending the extra stamps (or coins, or bank notes) back. It’s not like I feared jail, or bat-bearing stamp shop heavies.
It was always neat when “big brand real stuff” turned up in the classifieds. You know, for lack of a better term.
I actually did join that World Wrestling Federation fan club. I remember owning everything described, except for the alleged quarterly newsletter. The big draws were the autographed 8x10s, even if they were just copies of autographs. Kids believe what they want to believe, and as far as I was concerned, Koko B. Ware set aside five seconds just for me.
No matter what I ordered, I was really in it for the simple joy of getting mail. Focusing on the cheaper things just meant that I could get more mail. I didn’t care what was coming, so long as things were.
To this end, I must give a special shout-out to the various ads for free catalogs. (Even if “free” meant I had to pay the shipping costs, or worse, figure out what a “SASE” was.) I never turned down the chance, even if I knew that I would have absolutely no interest in what the particular company was selling. I didn’t care. Just send me mail!
Oh, and I just confirmed that Boys’ Life Magazine is still around. Would it be weird of me to subscribe, just to see if they’re still running ads like these in the back? I guess it wouldn’t be any weirder than writing about magazine ads from 1989 at three in the morning.
I think I’m gonna do it.