During the 1950s the US presidents were Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) and Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) and the Cold War created a tense decade for the American people as schoolchildren prepared for nuclear war by being told to "duck and cover." We watched “training films” and had drills in which we hid under our desks with arms over our heads and teachers warned us that the Russians had nearby large cities targeted.
At the same time, prosperity reigned, salaries and disposable income were on the rise and consumers felt optimistic about the future. People were ready to spend money because for the first time Bank of America introduced the credit card; that was in 1958. A new home cost from $8,000 to $10,000 and they were often sold equipped with a washing machine and a television.
A lot of growth was due to television as many advertisers began to rely on TV to sell their product. Because of a lag in production after World War Two, it wasn't until about 1953 that supply caught up with demand and consumers had purchased the necessities of life. As a result, marketers began to offer continuously updated products which resulted in more consumer spending.
Auto manufacturer General Motors had introduced the concept of planned obsolescence in the 1920s and now the push was on to replace cars annually, simply to make sure they remained in style. At the beginning of the decade on 59 percent of American households had an automobile, but by the mid-1950s nearly every household owned at least one car.
In the late 1950s there was a big push to coax consumers into purchasing products that weren't necessities. To accomplish this, advertisers began to rely on techniques such as motivational research and demographic targeting. Children became a target market for advertising; teenagers, who came into their own as a separate demographic segment, saw ads for records and phonographs, radios, magazines, soft drinks and clothing designed just for them. Advertiser didn't forget about kids either.
Before and after television comic book ads lured kids to buy all kinds of junk. Who could resist purchasing X-Ray Specs? They were sold with the disclaimer that they were only an optical illusion, but the prospect of seeing through people's clothes caused one to ignore the fine print.
What you actually received was a pair of cardboard “glasses” printed with red and white spirals and the words "X-Ray Vision" where the lenses should have been. Did they work? If you stared at your hand long enough in bright light, you could almost imagine you were seeing a blurry x-ray image of you hand. Maybe that was because of the feathers glued inside each of the cardboard "lenses."
Equally alluring was the Hypno-Coin. Imagine what you could do with a pair of X-Ray Specs and a Hypno-Coin! With the X-Ray Specs you could decide if using the Hypno-Coin was in order. With the Coin, a swirly pattern on a badge that wiggled, the promise was that if you held it in front of the person you wanted to hypnotize and gently vibrated the disc the motion was so fascinating that it captured and riveted your subject's eyes on the whirling disc. You could then proceed to give hypnotic suggestions and commands. Imagine the possibilities! It cost a dollar. If it didn't work there was even a money back guarantee. The only catch was that you had to properly package it for return, pay the postage and...insure it. Hardly worth the effort and expense to get your dollar back.
The same fellow who gave us X-Ray Specs, Harold von Braunhut, also gave us brine shrimp as pets. If you ordered them you quickly learned that they could be observed only through a magnifying glass and they looked nothing like the cartoon characters featured in the ads. No matter; they were still pretty neat.
A dollar would get you a Frontier Cabin; $4 would get you five of them! And...get this! The ad said they were big enough to hold 2-3 kids! What you actually got was a padded 9"x14" manila envelope containing a tightly folded vinyl sheet that had the design of a frontier cabin printed on it. You had to drape it over a card table or other piece of furniture to make it resemble a log cabin. The vinyl fumes were a problem.
A quarter would get you a “Ventriloquist Device” that promised to astound everybody. What you got was swazzle. A swazzle is a device made of two strips of metal bound around a cotton tape reed that is used to produce the distinctive harsh, rasping voice. You placed it between your tongue and the roof of your mouth so that when speaking the air passes between the two metal strips, causing the reed to vibrate. Deft movements of the tongue allowed one to make squeaky, whistling high-pitched noises. It had to be soaked in spit before use. Care had to be taken not to choke on it. It also came with a small pamphlet that taught you "How to Become a Ventriloquist" that gave hints on how to speak without moving your lips. The swazzle wasn't mentioned.
The Charles Atlas program promised to turn scrawny 97-pound weaklings into he-men. Charles Atlas once won a bodybuilding contest and attempted to start his own mail-order business that never really took off, so he got into selling courses in comic books that promised to make you into a real man. I guess it was better that waiting until you were old enough to join the Marine Corps who promised that they built men.