St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Johnson and Smith Novelties

“The boys are wasting their allowance,” I overheard Mom telling Dad one evening back in the late 1950s, “they don’t seem to understand how hard money is to earn.” 

Was that the end of our income?  Maybe that squirting flower from Johnson and Smith for 50 cents I bought, and Ev’s 75 cent whoopee cushion were wasteful, but didn’t they remember we each bought a gun too?

My three brothers and I didn’t get much spending money when we were young.  We worked hard on the farm, especially in the summer when school was out.  If we wanted something, we had to ask Mom or Dad for the money—and rarely was it forthcoming.  

Then in 1955, in recognition that we did work hard, Mom and Dad decided to give us each a heifer calf.  In three years, when it had a calf of its own and started producing milk, we would get a share of the milk produced.  

Prior to the allowance, we earned money by picking pickles for Gedneys and string beans for Stokelys.  Of course, we never saw any of it as it was saved for school clothes—3 pairs of pants, 3 shirts, five underwear and socks, coat, hat and boots. 

Back in the 1950s, with Ezra Taft Benson keeping farm prices low, milk averaged about $3 per hundred pounds.  Our Guernsey’s produced about 10,000 lbs of milk per year, so doing the math a cow should earn $300 per year, an allowance of about $6 per week, a vast sum of money for us three older boys ranging from 10-13 years old.  And by 1957, our calves were mothers and in production with the money rolling in!

My first buy was a single shot 22, Western Field from Montgomery Wards.  It was not quite the cheapest 22 you could buy, but I liked it.  Brother Everett, at age 11, the magic age for owning a 22 in our family, got his for $12, a J.C. Higgins model.    
Some of our money went for clothes, some for junk food, and even a little for the church collection plate. One month we saved up and Ev and I put in $25 each and Dad the other $25 to buy a Sears Jon boat.  No motor, just oars, but a boat of our own.  It is still in use here at the cabin.

I can’t remember what Marv, the oldest, spent his money on.  I do remember he was always getting postage stamps “on approval” for his stamp albums.  He bought a 16 gauge shotgun with an adjustable choke from Wards—I think that was almost a half year of savings. As an older man of 14, his money didn’t burn a hole in his pocket so quickly as Ev and me. 

I got into radios and electronics and spent money on magnet wire, double cotton covered copper wire and crystals to make my own radio sets.  I bought a Slinky, a gyroscope, a drinking duck, a crooks radiometer, items that matched my interest in science.

What caused our downfall, and eventually dried up the allowances was the Johnson and Smith catalog, promising 3000 novelty items.  

We loved to read the Johnson and Smith catalog.  It had everything in the order of magic tricks, whoopee cushions, chattering false teeth and x-ray glasses to see through clothes. Nearly each allowance we ordered something new from the catalog.  What came in the mail rarely met our heightened expectations from reading the catalog.  The wonderful tame “seahorses” turned out to be microscopic shrimp.  We bought all sorts of items; toy steam boats, and finally some magic tricks and the whoopee cushion and squirting flower. Rarely did we receive items that were as good as promised, but our optimism was unbounded for the next order.

If we had been able to curb our enthusiasm in squirting every adult in the neighborhood and having every visitor sit on the whoopee cushion it is likely our allowance would have continued beyond the one year trial.  But, life is harsh and lessons too often are learned the hard way.