Aren't these amazing...
The exhibit is arranged very nicely in chronological order, beginning with the turn of the century pitchmen at county fairs throughout the midwest, and at open air markets like the Maxwell Street Market in Chicago. I've never seen so much tin plate.
The exhibit went on to describe the rise of the Popeil family from run of the mill street pitchmen to manufacturers and distributors throughout the entire midwest. Samuel J. and Raymond Popeil founded Popeil Brothers in 1945. They made products specifically to be re-sold by peddlers and pitchmen. Interestingly, they were some of the earliest advocates of plastics as better than traditional choices in house wares. At the time, plastics were seen as cheap and unreliable, but the Popeil Brothers changed that perception by presenting lower cost, well made plastic versions of common kitchen items, like this "Cooky Press".
In order to sell plastic dishes and serving utensils, they not only made them in innovative marbled plastics, but even sent artistic pitchmen and women to department stores to sell "Hand painted" dishes - painted while you wait!
The Rise of Ronco
Ron Popeil, Samuel J.’s son, Co-founded Ronco in 1964 with his former college roommate, and a hot new idea: Take the pitch to TV. The exhibit made it clear that Ron was by no means the first to use television for pitching, but he was, and is one of the best.
The major portion of the exhibit was a collection of Ronco's products from 1964 until the present day. Here are images and descriptions of some of the best.
Some of Ron's gadgets just shine a little brighter than others.
The auto cup was designed so that it sealed unless the drinking lever was depressed, thus keeping hot drinks from spilling. This was over 20 years before Starbucks.
Mr. Microphone allowed anyone to sing along with radio songs, or broadcast their political views on local radios who happened to be tuned in.
The Pocket Fisherman, and it's younger brother, the Tadpole, were released in 1972 and 1975, and were actually very well-made products. The Popeils were very proud of the quality of their products, and it is evident in many of their designs. Note the "As seen on TV" logo on box
The Smokeless Ashtrays were simple, novel designs that addressed a niche market - A trademark Ronco tactic
This is the only Ronco gadget that we still want. Motorized, it rotates the record automatically, while a vacuum pump and graphite fibers clean, dust, and discharge static. Completely wonderful. Ronco even released a "Stylish Pyramid" version, probably in response to people passing out from the bare-bones design of the first.
Very early on, Ron hit on the utterly amazing idea that everyone loves automation. And nothing says automation more than putting "O-Matic" at the end of every item name. So, Ronco released a string of very successful kitchen appliances using this rule. Among them are some of their most memorable.
It slices, it Dices, and it makes Julienne fries. Not much more to say than that. Definitely one of the most famous.
The Peel-O-Matic peeled tomatoes. and probably pears. The box is great. Especially the big red tomato-O.
So, you can see the pattern developing...
And the pattern breaks down. the Corn-O-Matic seems like one of those "Lets push a good thing to see how far it will go" products. Although, without a doubt the most beautiful design out of all the Ronco pieces. Sadly, it was only used to scrape corn off the cob.
Inevitably, such a successful run of products will attract attention from comedians, and the O-Matics are no exception. Regarded by most as the ultimate SNL parody commercial, Dan Aykroyd plays a speed talking TV pitchman hawking a quick and easy way to prepare your bass.
Also inevitable, with so many successes, come many failures and wrong turns. Some of our favorite Ronco Bungles are:
"Frost glasses for a touch of class in your own home" Says the packaging. Unfortunately, the can says "Contains internationally controlled chlorofluorocarbons" and the warning on the side is enough to make you wonder what the stuff is doing to your fertility. Luckily, this product sold in the 70s, when freon leaks were legal, and people didn't even know about fertility.
Beautify Plastic Foliage Kit
Mold your own ridiculous plastic plants. Bonus bright pink and yellow uranium glazed pottery included!
This stool was a sitting-powered trash compactor. And, if the idea of sitting on garbage wasn't enough, the compactor came with stickers to "Customize" the look. Brown and green paisleys is a GREAT look.
The Egg Scrambler
The Egg scrambler scrambled the egg inside the shell by rotating a bent pin inside the egg after piercing the shell. If you didn't allow 10 seconds for the egg to stop spinning wildly inside the shell, it would splash out of the egg when you broke it. Weird.
GLH "Great Looking Hair" spray system
GLH was thick, hair colored paint. In a can. It was paint for your head. In a can. There is no explanation that will make this make sense.
The Pitchman behind it all
This exhibit would not have been possible, had it hot been for the amazing dedication of the exhibition curator, collector and author Tim Samuelson (left) who is also the Cultural Historian for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. He painstakingly assembled this collection from garage sales, flea markets, and online auctions. Tim gave us a great tour of the entire gallery, using a Mr. Microphone to help his voice reach the people in the back.
Tim even showed off his favorite Ronco gadget, the Whip-O-Matic, by whipping up some fresh whipped cream, and then inverting it over his head with great confidence; unfortunately the proof was not in the whipping cream, and there was some spillage.
But minor mishaps aside, The Appeal and Spiel of Ronco and Popeil was a great event, and is still going on at the Chicago Cultural Center through May 16, 2004. Tim Samuelson has a book about the history of the Popeils available for purchase. What an incredible salesman, and incredible part of history.
Yes Ron, that IS amazing.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team