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Dead medium: Kids' Dead Media 1929: The Mirrorscope, the Vista Chromoscope, the Rolmonica, the Chromatic Rolmonica
From: (Stefan Jones)
Source(s): _The Whole Fun Catalogue of 1929_, Chelsea House, New York, 1979 (ISBN 0-87754-079-9)

If you have ever read a comic book, then you almost certainly know about the Johnson Smith Company. They're the folks that have been placing jam-packed advertisements in the backs of DC and Marvel comics since the dawn of time. You know: the ones that push whoopee cushions, fake dog crap, ventriloquism kits and glow-in-the-dark yo- yos. In addition to supplying generations of class clowns with stink bombs and squirting daisy buttoneers, Johnson Smith's mail order business offers more respectable educational and recreational items.

I recently reread my reprint edition of the 1929 Johnson Smith catalog -- and a genuine copy of the 1947 catalog that my brother picked off a garbage heap -- with the intention of finding some examples of Dead Media. I was somewhat disappointed, particularly in the 1947 catalog, but I did find some items of interest in the 1929 reprint edition.

Note: I'd love to supply page numbers, but there are none. The reprint is at least 300 pages long, with no index or table or contents. I am still finding new things after owning the thing for over a decade.

In blocks of quoted copy, my comments are in (((triple parens))).

Many of the media we are familiar with today were already well established by 1929. The catalog offers:

Two portable, spring-driven phonographs. Nothing radical here. If it weren't for the crank, one of them would look like the Beany & Cecil portable my sister and I got when we were toddlers.

Two movie projectors ("Be a Movie King. Oh Boy! Some Sport! Surprise the bunch--have a barrel o' fun!" Keystone Moviegraph, No. 6575, $5.75; Keystone Rewind Model Moving Picture Machine, No. 6198, $12.50. ). These had electrical lamps, but were hand-cranked. The kits came with a free roll of film (Johnson Smith's choice, apparently), tickets, badges and arm bands for the crew, and a "U-Draw- Em" slide for announcements. Both models could also be used to project "lantern slides."

Johnson Smith sold "Extra Reels of Movie Film" for $5.00. These were _generic_ pieces of motion picture entertainment; the buyer got what the folks in Racine had on hand. (Note that if these potluck offerings were on nitrate stock, an unlucky junior theatre operator would be getting bombs even if the features on the reels happened to be good.)

Interestingly, the projectors -- and all other electrical devices in the catalog -- had power cords that ended in screw-type plugs shaped like the base of a light bulb.

Two opaque projectors. ("The Mirrorscope or Projecting Lantern: The MIRRORSCOPE is a great improvement upon magic lanterns because you have an UNLIMITED SUPPLY OF PICTURES free of cost. Post-Cards, photographs, engravings from illustrated papers and, in fact, any opaque object, such as moving works of a watch, living insects, and so on, can be projected upon the screen in exactly the same manner as the transparent slides in a magic lantern.") The cheaper model (No. 6011, $5.00) had one "carbon electric" bulb; the fancier two.

Stereoscope slides were still around. A two-page spread invited browsers to "See the Wonders of the World Through THE VISTA CHROMOSCOPE. Magnified Life-Like Views and Scenes of America, Europe, The Holy Land, The World War, etc. Interesting! Instructive! (((DRUM ROLL PLEASE!))) Educational!"

Despite the hype, this appears to be a standard stereoscope. Its chief advantage was that it was cheap (No. 6608, Vista Chromoscope (without the Views), $1.50).

Stereo pairs, also offered in the catalog, cost $.35 for a set of 25. Thirty-nine sets are offered. They range from #48101, Historical Spots of America, to #48139, Big Cities of Europe. Some of the sets caused me to raise an eyebrow (#48108, "A Trip to the Philippines with Uncle Sam's Soldier Boys," #48121, "French Cook and Comic Lover Series. No. 1"). Hmmm.

Near the beginning of the catalog is a small section devoted to musical instruments. Most of these are variants of the kazoo and harmonica. The capper: two nifty items that qualify as genuine dead media: The Rolmonica and The Chromatic Rolmonica.

(No. 4470, THE ROLMONICA, Complete with 1 Roll, $1.50)

The engraving shows a flat box, opened clamshell style, with a projecting mouthpiece and two metal crank handles. A sliver of a roll is visible within; it looks quite a lot like a small player piano roll.


The Pocket Player Piano

Mouth Organ that Plays with a Music Roll


A Wide Selection of Rolls to Choose From


"Rolmonica is an automatic harmonica, that plays a music roll just like a player piano. It is a whole brass band all in one -- the biggest sensation of the musical world in the last few years." (((etc.)))

"The Rolmonica has a very simple mechanism, yet so strongly built that it may be entrusted without hesitation to children. The volume can be regulated by the user. When sounding at is [sic] full power reproducing a band performance, it can be almost deafening in the strength of its tones, yet it will deliver with perfect clearness a pianissimo passage in an instrumental solo." (((I imagine parents regretting the Rolmonica's sturdy construction after a few nights of "Turkey in the Straw" played at "deafening" power.)))

Over a hundred rolls are offered at $.10 a piece. They range from the familiar ("Swanee River," "Yankee Doodle,") to the obscure ("It's Unanimous Now," "True Blue Lou," "Chant of the Jungle"). It's possible that a _lot_ more than the hundred or so titles shown in the reprint version were available; the numbering scheme runs from 201 to 263 on one page and 477 to 536 on the second page. A significant number of the popular songs of the day may have been transcribed on these things.


The first part of the copy, verbatim:

"The tremendous success and popularity of the Rolmonica has induced the manufacturers to bring out this new 16- note CHROMATIC ROLMONICA. This new model is larger than the $1.50 12-note model described on the following page and is ENTIRELY CHROMATIC. (((Do not confuse this with cheap imitations that only have a thin _veneer_ of chromatic!)))

"This enables you to get a larger range of music, to play in various keys, and to get the beautiful tremolo effects as produced on the regular harmonica, which is impossible with the lower-priced Rolmonica. The CHROMATIC ROLMONICA is a bigger and better Rolmonica, still built to conveniently slip into the pocket upon the same happy principle of the player-harmonica operating with a music roll, but with certain additions and refinements of its tone varieties and combinations, so that now in the CHROMATIC ROLMONICA you have an instrument that enables you to play your favorite composition, either classical or jazz, with all the trimmings."

(((If you can read that last sentence of copy out loud without taking a breath, YOU may have the lung capacity required to take full advantage of the CHROMATIC ROLMONICA!)))

Only sixty rolls are available for the Chromatic Rolmonica; they are apparently incompatible with those made for the lesser model ("Do not confuse these with the Rolls for the ordinary Rolmonica.")

Judging from the trademarked Rolmonica logo proudly displayed on the top of the page, these were gadgets with name recognition. The Rolmonica company also had heavy hitters pitching product for them: In one of the very few photographs in the entire catalog, five of the early Little Rascals are seen blowing and cranking away. Their ring-eyed dog, Pete, is seen cowering at the bottom of the picture, a paw over one ear.

Stefan Jones