I should probably start a new category that reads, “What the F*** Were They Thinking.” I can only envision the backlash of marketing machetes for kids in today’s world. And I’m pretty sure I played the Turbo Tops at least one time, but they couldn’t light a candle to Rock Em, Sock Em Robot.
Founded by friends and business partners Rich Knerr and Arthur “Spud” Melin in 1948, Wham-O is best known for amusement staples like the Hula Hoop, Frisbee, Hacky Sack, and Slip ‘N Slide.
For every hit, however, there were more than a few misses: Knerr and Melin never had to answer to a board of investors and were free to experiment with almost any far-fetched idea that popped into their heads. Check out 12 of their lesser-known offerings—some of which would be impossible to market in litigious, civilized society.
1. EDGED WEAPONS
Before Knerr and Melin dominated the novelty toy market in the 1950s, they specialized in weaponry no suburban child should have had any use for. In addition to a “jungle machete,” Wham-O sold throwing daggers, a tomahawk, and fencing swords. (The company tried separating the two markets by selling their killing tools under the name Wam-O, fooling no one.)
2. A BLOWGUN
Assuming your child had a machete and a bad attitude, the thing to do would be to simply stay out of arm’s reach. But with the introduction of distance weapons, more covert attacks could be implemented. The company also marketed a slingshot that was packaged with real ball bearings. Surprisingly, none of these resulted in real lawyers filing for real damages.
3. INSTANT FISH
On safari in Africa in the 1960s, Melin discovered a species of fish that lays eggs in dirt; they later hatched after the ground was soaked in rain. Thinking there was money in peddling mud, Melin and Knerr marketed Instant Fish, and took $10 million in pre-orders from retailers. But the fish they brought back never mated in sufficient numbers. Sea Monkeys, which were released around the same time, became the standard in lazy aquariums.
4. GREAT WHITE SHARK TEETH
Wham-O was never one to let a fad pass without trying to capitalize on it. When Jaws became the then-biggest film of all time in 1975, the company marketed a plastic shark-tooth kit that clearly took inspiration from Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley’s creation. Molded, apparently, from a species that has “probably killed more humans than any other shark.” Wear it with pride.
5. MR. HOOTIE EGG RAKE
According to Tim Walsh, author of the Wham-O Super Book, Melin and Knerr probably drew this up just to make themselves laugh. In true Wham-O fashion, it was sold anyway. The idea, according to Melin, was to have a utensil that could remove the string (which he dubbed “woogers”) that connects the yolk to the egg shell; more sophisticated owners could use it as a bar tool for olives. In the end, no one used it for anything.
6. DRAW YARN
It’s unlikely Europeans were all that crazy about—or even aware of—a method by which one would draw using yarn. Then again, who would ever think to check? The company marketed this bizarre art kit in 1959.
7. HOME GYM
Wham-O entered the sporting goods market in the 1950s as a kind of segue between their death utensils and the popular outdoor products that would come later. This Charles Atlas-esque resistance band purported to enhance the female form. Melin and Knerr drew up the ad before any product was made to gauge interest before committing to a production run.
A kind of futuristic sombrero following the space-age trend of the ‘50s, the Sun-Vu promised to shield the face from harmful UV rays. Throwing an entire sheet over one’s head may have been more fashionable.
Figuring kids were their own best energy source, Wham-O marketed this giant, eight-foot-long cardboard tank that was operated by climbing inside and walking on all fours. Due to non-military issue materials (paper), it probably didn’t stand up to the wear and tear of a normal backyard siege.
Cool kids had train sets; cooler kids had monorails. At least, that’s what Wham-O was counting on. But few amateur conductors saw any significant difference to warrant the $12.95 asking price.
11. TURBO TOPS
Asthmatics were best served avoiding this tabletop game, which required players to huff and puff until light-headed victory set in. Previously known as Knock Yer Top Off, Turbo Tops was one of Wham-O’s final releases under Melin and Knerr’s original ownership: They sold the company in 1982.
12. BOMB SHELTER COVER
Consumers needed to supply their own ditch-digging in order to survive nuclear annihilation. Released to capitalize on Cold War paranoia, people thought the concept of preparing for doom too depressing to labor over.