the joke’s on jersey

many of the greatest joke products of the past century were made in jersey

BY VICKI HYMAN
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

This is the house that the Joy Buzzer built. The S.S. Adams Co. factory in Neptune is a turn-of-the-century white brick building topped by a squat clock tower. It is utterly devoid of whimsy; indeed, lacking of any indication of the madhouse props manufactured within — not unlike the founder himself, Samuel Sorenson Adams.

Heralded as the Thomas Alva Edison of practical jokesmithing, the Henry Ford of foolery and the Marconi of Merrymaking, Adams was described in a 1941 Scribner’s Magazine article as a “God-fearing family man, quiet of dress, voice and manner, a model employer and a careful driver.” In most photos, the portly, suit-clad Adams can barely crack a smile.

Adams, who died in 1963 at the age of 84, invented more than 700 practical jokes in his lifetime and held dozens of patents, including for three of the century’s most iconic gags — the Dribble Glass, the Snake in the Jam and the Joy Buzzer.

He was so prolific that the company relies on his backlist when it wants to freshen up the catalog. Most of the magic items and some of the gag gifts are still made here, on punch presses that date back to the factory’s founding or plastic injection molds from the 1950s.

Born in Denmark in 1869, Adams’ family emigrated to America and settled in Perth Amboy when he was 2. He never attended high school, honing a talent for pool playing, then trapshooting, but eventually he went to work for a dye company whose manufacturing process left behind a problematic gray powder: It made people sneeze.

Adams started selling the powder to friends as a gag and, in 1906, launched his empire from a Plainfield office, calling his concern the Cachoo Sneeze Powder Co. after his first blockbuster. Other early gags included the Rackett Exploding Cigarette Box, Itching Powder and Stink Bombs, and oodles of squirting objects. He also expanded into magic trucks, puzzles and party favors.

The Joy Buzzer, perfected in 1928, proved so successful that Adams was able to move from his small Asbury Park factory into the three-story building in Neptune. But his gift for gag was not infallible: Adams did pass when offered the original Whoopee Cushion, deeming it in “poor taste,” says David Haversat, an amateur magician and former magic shop owner who bought a 50 percent interest in the company from Adams’ grandson, Chris, in 2004.

When the farting cushion, um, exploded in popularity, Adams had his own Razzberry Cushion in production within a year.

His stable of gags grew to include fake dog poop, exploding cigars, snapping gum, rubber pencils, magic smoke, bugs encased in ice cubes, finger choppers, foaming sugar, disappearing ink, hot toothpicks, onion-flavored chewing gum, shooting cigarette cases, milk blobs, ink blots, fake bird poop and fake vomit.

Some of the items would never pass muster with safety authorities today, and other items were eventually discontinued, including Adams’ Laff Tissue, cartoon-printed toilet paper sold from the 1930s to the 1950s, according to “Life of the Party: A Visual History of the S.S. Adams Company,” put out to celebrate the company’s centennial in 2006.

When they stopped selling Laff Tissue, Adams’ son, Bud, who took over the business, mandated that the employee bathrooms be supplied with any leftover stock, in a fit of fiscal prudence that would have done his father proud.

The workers soon discovered the gag toilet paper left ink stains, er, behind. And that would have done his father proud, too.

Sneezing Powder, 1905

In the early 1900s, Samuel Sorenson Adams worked for a dye company that went to considerable trouble to extract a substance called dianisidine from a coal-tar derivative it sold. The substance produced massive sneezing fits, and Adams divined its “laff” potential. He set up shop in Plainfield, packaging the powder in little vials and selling it as “Cachoo Sneeze Powder.” It became a national craze (or disgrace, according to some news reports). Pranksters unleashed the powder in movie houses, churches, classrooms — even, according to one report, the Pennsylvania Legislature, where it “made the air so bad that many persons, among them women visitors, were forced to leave.” A 1915 letter to the editor of the New York Times called it “an outrage that such things are to be placed on sale.” Dianisidine, used in chemical warfare during World War I, was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in the 1940s. The current version uses finely ground black pepper.

Snake in the Jam, 1908

This classic gag reportedly stemmed from Adams’ frustration at his wife for failing to seal the jam jars properly. The original snake was coiled inside mus lin and tucked inside a realistically painted jam jar, with seeds and all. Later versions include snakes in cold cream jars, jewel boxes, cigar lighters, screw-top fountain pens and compacts, and now they hurtle from mint and yogurt containers, potato chip canisters and the iconic mixed nut can. The serpents have grown from 3 feet to 5 feet, and their skin is now a printed plastic. It’s one of several items still made in the Neptune factory, on a machine that dates back several decades.

Dribble Glass, 1909

By now, Adams saw the most ordinary objects had the greatest potential for pranks. The leaking glass, with slits disguised in a grape leaf pattern, was, Adams once told the Saturday Evening Post, “probably the most pirated item I ever had,” though “no other dribble glass ever dribbled as much as the Adams’ Dribble Glass.” “Scarcely a state legislature can convene without one,” a 1941 article in Scribner’s Magazine reports. The plastic version sold today has holes hidden in the facets of the tumbler.

Joy Buzzer, 1928

The Joy Buzzer evolved from an earlier noise-making prank, and it took Adams some time to refine the bulky design, finally turning a die maker in Germany who produced a contraption only a quarter of an inch thick. According to the 1946 Saturday Evening Post profile, an auto parts manufacturer who was friendly with Adams showed the 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.” The popularity of the Joy Buzzer during the Great Depres sion prevented layoffs, and even allowed him to buy the brick building in Neptune that still houses the factory. Adams’ son, Bud, refined the spring-wound design in the 1980s and unveiled the sturdy Super Buzzer, still one of the company’s top-selling items.

Source: Staff research, “Life of the Party: A Visual History of The S.S. Adams Company, Makers of Pranks & Magic for 100 Years”

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Rose Flynn on August 26, 2016 at 4:57 PM

    Still have my husband’s joy buzzer. Works great. Recently bought my grandkids a new one. Made of plastic, will never stand the test of time. Too bad!!

    Reply

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