Review: Mail Order Mysteries

Sea Monkeys! A great deal of my childhood in the early 1980s was spent puzzling over this oddity listed in the back of my Uncanny X-Men comics. What were sea monkeys? Where can I get sea monkeys? I need sea monkeys, damnit! It also didn’t help that I lived in the UK where many of these offers were not available, which only added to the mystique of these out-of-reach creatures. Finally though I have an answer to my question thanks to Mail Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!

Mail Order Mysteries, written by Kirk Demarais and published by Insight Editions, is a collection of reproduced vintage mail order adverts for novelty goods of the type often found lurking in the back of American comic books. The adverts date from the 1960s to the late 1970s. This 156-page collection is wrapped up in a hardback sporting a nifty spot UV glow-in-the-dark effect on the front and back cover. Divided into chapters such as Superpowers and Special Abilities, House of Horror and Trickery, the book is nicely laid out with either a page or a spread dedicated to each item. It includes all the favourites such as ‘X-Ray Spex’ (See Thru Clothing!), ‘Muscles of Steel’ (Real Results in 30 Days!) and the aforementioned ‘Sea Monkeys’ (Just Add Water!). 

The main appeal is in the adverts, which are reproduced from their original newsprint quality in all their tacky glory. This includes their vintage lettering/typography styles, line art illustrations, use of bold colours and the (often bordering on the fraudulent) sales copy. Even greater are the accompanying photographs of the actual delivered products and the author’s tongue-in-cheek write-ups expressing his bitter disappointment. So many of these treasures promised so much and so very few actually delivered! My favourite, I think, is the ‘U-Control 7-Foot Life Size Ghost’, which in reality is just a large balloon (featuring an un-scary likeness of Casper The Friendly Ghost) controlled by a piece of fishing line. Sort of like a kite then.

Mail Order Mysteries is an entertaining read and a great resource of inspiration for retro-style design. Oh, and Sea Monkeys, as it turns out, are actually freeze-dried brine shrimp that reanimate in purified water. Shrimp. Not monkeys. At least I saved some money there.

Page sample from 'Mail Order Mysteries'. This shows the classic advert for 'Sea Monkeys'.