Put it "Near The Refrigerator!" suggests the packet of fake vomit.


"It's so strange," mused George Carlin on his 1972 album Class Clown, "because some grown man had to think of that. Some guy was at work one day, and he said—Hey Phil, I got another one! Near the refrigerator!" Carlin's right: Somebody had to come up with that. But who?

The answer comes at long last with Kirk Demarais's Life of the Party: A Visual History of The S.S. Adams Company. Issued by the company for their 100th anniversary and sporting an introduction by Chris Ware, this gorgeous book has been as well hidden from the public as a carefully placed whoopee cushion—it can only be bought at magic shops or direct from the company (http://ssadams.com/book.php). But make no mistake: This is the insider's ur-text of childhood. If you care about the irreducible vernacular of American illustration art, or recall those childhood longings for snapping gum and exploding pens—and that would be all of us—then The Life of the Party is a must-have.

For one thing, it turns out there really was an S.S. Adams. In 1904, Soren Sorenson Adams was a Danish immigrant toiling in a dye factory bedeviled by a chemical byproduct that induced violent sneezing. Voila!—sneezing powder was born, and so was the Cachoo Sneeze Powder Company. By 1906 it was the S.S. Adams Co., and a new American industry in squirt rings and exploding cigars was born. Nickel and dime wackiness flew fast and furious out of their New Jersey warehouse: 1908 heralded the spring-loaded Snake in the Jam, and the next year brought us the immortal Dribble Glass. It's comforting to imagine Henry James's grandchildren afflicting him with this crap.

The patentee and inventor of some 700 practical jokes, Adams himself was the archetypal joyless comic. Sitting in a warehouse filled to the rafters with laffs, "he didn't even chuckle or grin when he spoke." The gags certainly do have their melancholy side. The dianisidine salts of Adams's sneezing powder were also used in World War I for chemical warfare, while for the intricate miniaturism of his crowning invention—the joy buzzer—Adams trekked overseas to "a Jewish craftsman who planned to use the money to escape Nazi Germany."

"After collecting his final payment," Demarais continues, "he was unheard from again by Adams."

Demarais also features the beautifully detailed designs of Theodore Deland, the paranoiac Philadelphia engraver who designed trick playing cards and marked decks for the Adams company; his life ended in an insane asylum. Most Adams art, though, is a pen-and-ink style that could be called Unemployed 1920s Commercial Illustrator. Every comic artist from Crumb onward carries these Adams drawings in his or her DNA. They're the work of illustrator Louis M. Glack-ens (1866–1933), and are still used today; in many ways, this book is a testament to his greatness.

What makes the book so compelling is the sheer pathos in the distance between what gags promise and what they deliver—in the naiveté of that 9-year-old loser in all of us that desperately wants to believe that with 50 cents and a bit of gumption, you can turn the social order upside down. Imagine your teacher's expression when she sits in a puddle of disappearing ink! The gales of laughter when Dad's cigarette bursts into a cloud of snowflakes! The heee-larity when the neighborhood bully shakes you down for a stick of... garlic gum! Oh boy oh boy, this'll be great!

"Wha... oh, I get it," your target would sniff. "Ha."

And then, after an agonizing moment waiting for vindication, you'd slink off to the comic-book ads again, wondering if the Hercules wristbands really could make you into a he-man.

"The slogan 'fool your friends' was especially inviting for those of us who didn't have friends," recalls Glen David Gold in a testimonial to Life of the Party, and he's seconded in Chris Ware's introduction: "Images of Crying Towels and Black Soap fill holes in my mind now that should be tucked with warm memories of afternoons spent outside, in the sunlight," he writes. "All I had to do was find the right one that would 'freak everyone out' and they would all stop hating me so much."

But they kept right on hating. Because let's face it... the fly in the ice cube was lame.

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Paul Collins's latest book is The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine.

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