I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Laughter must be the best medicine because it kept Sam Adams alive for 84 years. During his long life he gave the world giggle inventions such as the bug in the ice cube, the joy buzzer, the dribble glass, and the stink bomb. What a genius. Few people can claim to have advanced the human condition more.
From Denmark With Laughter
Sam was born in Denmark in 1879 and given the name of Søren Adam Sørensen. His family moved to the United States when he was two and settled in New Jersey. His father was a clog maker and, as there was a limited demand for this kind of footwear in the Garden State in the 1880s, he became a saloon keeper.
In 1904, Sam was working in sales for a dye company. One of the products in his sales kit appeared to make customers sneeze. Some sort of light bulb must have glowed in his brain because he isolated the offending chemical, dianisidine, and created sneezing powder.
Friends and colleagues demanded supplies of the irritating substance. Sam saw an opportunity, sold everything he had, and sank it into the Cachoo Sneezing Powder Company based in Plainfield, New Jersey. It was an immediate success.
Of course, the sneezing powder craze faded as all such novelties do. Sam started designing new gags and changed the name of his business to the S.S. Adams Company.
Added to the product line were itching powder, and the stink bomb.
This last mentioned is manna from Heaven for the teenage male. What school corridor has not enjoyed the pungent foul-smelling stink bomb? Ammonium sulphide is the active ingredient and it emits the fragrance of rotten eggs and the by-products of the human digestive tract.
Sadly, this innocent bit of fun has been weaponized. The United States and Israel have developed stink bombs as a riot-control agent. Although, that’s probably better than using rubber bullets or live ammunition.
During the Great Depression the S.S. Adams Company went from strength to strength and moved into a large factory. People needed an inexpensive distraction from the grim reality of daily life and Sam Adams was happy to provide it for them.
Another item spilling out of the imaginative mind of Sam Adams in the early days was the Snake Nut Can (see video below).
Joke Catalogue Grows
Sam Adams branched out to simple magic tricks. It’s said that many professional magicians started out as children stunning their grandparents with the Magic Ball and Vase Illusion, or the Svengali Deck of Cards.
(Accomplished grandparents are very good at appearing amazed when the little ones make a coin vanish or sing an off-key version of You Are My Sunshine. Bless them).
Sam Adams claimed to have invented 650 different novelty items during his career.
Everybody should have the Shooting Book. The catalogue described that as “A large book which shoots when opened. Ten extra-large percussion caps are supplied with each book.”
This would go along with the Shooting Coaster. A glass of red wine and a coaster is placed in front of a guest. As the glass is raised an exploding cap goes off. This prank is especially popular with folks who have just bought white, upholstered living-room furniture and added a matching carpet.
More of Sam’s Inventions
The Cork Screw with a left-handed thread is another diabolical item. The S. S. Adams Co. catalogue notes that it “Usually takes the victim several minutes to wake up.”
The Squirting Cigarette comes in a package resembling a major brand but “contains three imitation squirting cigarettes, which may be loaded with water. The moocher gets it in the eye when he borrows one of these.”
The Joy Buzzer has an enduring appeal to a certain kind of, often unpopular, person. Held in the palm of the hand it emits a vibrating buzz when the unwary dupe returns a proffered handshake.
According to a 1946 profile in The Saturday Evening Post Sam introduced the Joy Buzzer to Henry Ford. “The next day, Ford went through the River Rouge plant and devoted the entire day to giving electrical handshakes to foremen and minor executives of the Ford Motor Company.”
Sam the Man
You would expect a man whose raison d’etre was the creation of pranks to tickle the funny bone to be a jovial character. Red faced, portly perhaps, cracking jokes, and trying out his latest novelty on innocent dupes.
But, Sam Adams doesn’t appear to be that kind of person at all. Vicki Hyman writing for New Jersey.com says he was “by most accounts, a sober, grim-faced businessman - one contemporary profile described him as a ‘God-fearing family man, quiet of dress, voice and manner, a model employer and a careful driver.’ ”
The man who gave the world the Doggonit pile of pooch poop decided not to take on the Whoopee cushion when it was pitched to him by its inventors. He said it was “too vulgar” or “in poor taste” depending upon which source you consult. When another manufacturer took up the product and made a fortune, Sam overcame his prudish opposition and introduced the “Razzberry Cushion.”
He was deeply involved in his company’s operations until his death in October 1963. With the heart and soul of the business gone, the S. S. Adams Company went into decline.
However, appropriately enough, on April Fool’s Day in 2009, the business was bought by Magic Makers Inc., rescuing many of Sam Adams’s products from oblivion.
The Whoopee Cushion Goes Digital
- In an undated interview, Sam Adams said “I guess if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been cussed I’d be the richest man in the world today.”
- Who Me was the stink bomb that morphed into a secret weapon. The U.S. Office of Strategic Services developed the device for use by French Resistance fighters in World War II. It was an atomized spray with a powerful fecal matter odour. The idea was that Pierre et ses amis would sneak up on a German officer and give him a burst of Who Me. This would humiliate the officer, undermine morale, and cause the Third Reich to collapse in a green haze smelling of rectal gas. It was a huge surprise to the Allied High Command that the plan didn’t work when field tests showed the sprayer caught as much of the foul whiff as the sprayee.
- “N.J. Gag Inventor Created Sneezing Powder, Dribble Glass: How N.J. Saved Civilization.” Vicki Hyman, New Jersey.com, December 10, 2010.
- “About the S.S. Adams Co.” Magictricks.com, undated.
- “S. S. Adams - Mischief, Incorporated.” Maurice Zolotow, CSAdams.com, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor