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Today we can order just about anything with just a few taps on our cell phone screens. But there was a time when mail-order was king, and cash, a check, or a money order sent to the addresses below could procure whatever oddity or necessity you saw in the pages of your favorite magazine.
As you’d expect, OL has always featured many advertisements for reliable rifles, pistols, shotguns, and other hunting gear. Ads for fishing lures like the Daredevil and gun cleaning solvent like Hoppe’s No. 9 have been in the pages of Outdoor Life since the 1920s. You’ll see boats, outboard motors, riflescopes, and any manner of outdoor tackle, but there are also some things that are pretty odd in this day and age. Print issues from the 1950s in particular saw a boom in outlandish items and self-accoladed products. The deeper you dig, the more you’ll find, but here are 20 items you probably didn’t think you’d be able to get from an outdoor magazine (or wouldn’t want to). Looking through the Outdoor Life ads in the archives is a nostalgic and entertaining trip to a time when all manner of shameless advertisements promised the world to anyone with a few extra bucks to burn.
Gunstock “Kill” Studs, 1950
If you think carving notches into the stock of your rifle for each kill was something that originated in the 1980s movie Red Dawn, you’d be incorrect. Apparently it was a thing for hunters—at least enough hunters to justify something a little more high-class. Rather than “unsightly notches,” you could order species-specific pins to drive into the stock of your rifle if you wanted to “keep score.”
In 1950, you could get these (supposedly) 10-karat gold pins for $3 apiece and choose between elk, bear, moose, caribou, brown bear, grizzly bear, mountain goat, and mountain sheep. Less “noble” game like deer, wolf, javelina, and skunk (“a good gag”) came only in sterling silver for $1.25. In 2022, these pins would run you about $37 and $15 respectively.
Helen of Troy Hunting Knife, 1956
They don’t make them like they used to, and that’s especially true for the “Helen of Troy” hunting knife. A true multi-use item, you could gut a deer and have something pretty to look at by the light of your carbide headlamp. I’m sure they weren’t stretching the truth when they claim to have sold them to “thousands of sportsmen.” After all, what hunter can resist a blend of “utility and art” like that?
Jenkins Revolver, 1929
You’ve heard of a “Saturday night special?” Try the Jenkins Special, an imported Spanish revolver that you could have delivered C.O.D. (cash on demand) to your door in 1929! Guns of every type have been advertised in Outdoor Life, and looking through old ads certainly makes me appreciate the quality of guns we have these days. The “safety lock” on this pistol doesn’t quite offset my concern about the lack of a trigger guard. I’m not sure I’d have spent $5.44 (about $94 in 2022) on the Jenkins Special. Actually, I am sure—it’s a hard pass for me.
Hotcan Camping Food, 1952
My uncle Jerry always likes to tell the story of his uncle Johnny talking about “the good old days.”
“I hated the good old days,” he’d say while reminiscing about the cherry-red glowing stovepipe in the log cabin he grew up in.
I like to joke about how much I hate freeze-dried backpacking food, and make fun of anyone who eats the stuff when they could be eating anything else. Honestly, camping and backpacking food is phenomenal compared to what it once was, and I can’t imagine anyone thinking that a menu of “Hotcan” seemed appetizing enough to order. These early rations consisted of an inner can with the food, surrounded by an outer can with water-activated chemical heater. Any social media influencer can make Mountain House or Peak Refuel look good. Let’s see them do it with these.
Turtleneck Dickey, 1956
If you want that turtleneck look without being bogged down by wearing an actual shirt, then the Turtleneck Dickey is for you. I’ll admit that I have a couple of similar-looking fleece garments that are made for keeping cold air off of your neck while riding snowmobiles, but they don’t pair well with a cardigan. I’m sure you’d look sharp in this—just don’t forget and take off your sweater at a fancy dinner.
De-scented Skunks and Mexican Burros, 1956
The pages of vintage Outdoor Life issues also contained many advertisements for live animals, including hamsters and chinchillas. Forty five bucks (or about $491 in 2022) would pay for a genuine Mexican burro to be delivered to your door. I’m sure they made almost as good children’s pets as the armadillos and ravens you could also buy. The de-scented skunk and zoo animal business must have been profitable though, because this ad was run in many issues of OL—even into the 1960s.
Live, Pregnant Seahorses, circa 1950
Of all the live animals that one could order from ads in the pages of Outdoor Life, seahorses has to be the strangest. I’m sometimes a sucker for impulse buys, but this would take the cake. I’m not sure how much a breeding pair goes for today, but if the babies aren’t cute, I’m asking for my money back.
Marvel Mystery Oil, 1952
I probably wouldn’t have paid much mind to this 1952 plug for Marvel Mystery Oil, but I have to credit it for un-sticking a set of piston rings and bringing a dead cylinder back to life in a Ford V-8 I purchased this year. This stuff has been around a long time, and I usually have a couple bottles on the shelf along with other snake oils. It’s not odd at all, except it’s never occurred to me to use it for lubricating my spinning reels—maybe it will resurrect my fishing luck, too.
It’s a wonder that Swarovski or Leupold ever got a foothold in the market, considering these German-made optics existed. Hell, they were going so fast that you were limited to only two per customer! Binoculars, spotting scopes, tripod mounts, chest harnesses—child’s play. With a pair of Spectoscopes, you’re always glassing.
.22 Caliber Dueling Pistols, 1955
The peak of outlandish, unnecessary crap advertised in Outdoor Life seems to be circa October 1955. You’re seeing this correctly: it’s an ad for mail-order .22 rimfire dueling pistols that are designed to look like flintlocks. I’m not really sure where to start with this one. As stated, the extremely accurate, finely crafted weapon has perfect balance and digests any .22 rimfire ammunition. I’m not sure that “dueling pistol” is the most appropriate marketing term to promote recreational marksmanship and hunting. Fortunately whoever ordered the pistols had to state their age. I’m sure no one under 21 years of age ever ordered one, then took to the backyard to shoot it while wearing the Spectoscopes they also ordered from this issue.
Geiger Counter, circa 1950
Most folks in the 1950s and 60s would have likely viewed a geiger counter as a doomsday prepper device to store in their backyard fallout shelter, but a few folks were actively hunting for radiation. Lots of ads in the OL archives are for get-rich-quick books and equipment, and this geiger counter was marketed to would-be uranium prospectors. Who needs gold anyway? Fortunately for newbies, you can order a slingshot to take game (above) and a guide to using a map and compass (below) so you won’t die while you’re out exploring the wilderness for radioactive deposits.
The Dart Knife, 1955
At least we know they’re being honest when they implore the reader to be among the first to “revive the use of this ancient Bavarian hunting weapon.” I guarantee you would, in fact, be the first. I’m just not sure if they’re talking about the knife or the darts. The knife is no “Helen of Troy,” but it looks pretty useful. I’m striking a blank on the darts, but I guarantee it would have been more popular if they’d added a third, and a bottle opener on the pommel of the knife.
Shotgun Reflex Sight, 1946
Some vintage Outdoor Life ads are ridiculous, but others are pretty damn cool. Most of us think of red dots and reflex sights as relatively new technology, but they’ve been around a while. The Nydar Model 47 was advertised here in 1946 and was a reflex sight designed for wingshooting. You can still even find some for sale on Ebay. The reticle was a white-colored bullseye visible on a large glass lens. They didn’t seem to really catch on at the time, but reflex sights are some of the most popular and fastest-growing optics today. We just don’t really use them for wingshooting.
Nose Hair Scissors, 1963
If you were lucky enough to survive the 1950s with your dueling pistols, pet burro, and uranium mining, it was probably time to worry about hygiene. It’s comical today, but many ads of the mail-order era truly had no shame in the claims they made to justify the products they were peddling. If I believed pulling an errant nose hair might cause a fatal infection, I’d probably place a double order for Hollis’ rotating nose scissors. They’re even chromium plated!
Shrunken Head Replicas, 1956
Most of the vintage Outdoor Life ads make sense in some context of hunting, fis hing, shooting, or the outdoors, but sometimes I think advertisers were just throwing stuff at the wall: You could even order replica shrunken heads. I do admit though, that there were likely some pretty serious scares, laughs, and likely divorces as a result of this mid-1950s ad.
Stick-on Facial Hair, 1972
In the early 1970s, you could order “quick-change” facial hair, and no, it’s not part of a disguise kit or costume. I don’t know too many men who feel the need to change their facial hair layout at a moment’s notice, but hey—it was the 70s. You just had to hope that your sideburns didn’t drop into the pitcher when you were out having some drinks with the boys.
Exploding Targets, 1940
They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and apparently that’s true for reactive rifle targets too. I find it more fun (not to mention cheaper and sustainable) to shoot steel targets, but I’ll never forget when Tannerite became a thing. It seemed to burst onto the scene perhaps a dozen years ago, and it was pretty damn cool. Although “exploding targets” is probably a relative term, this ad from 1940 states that exploding targets will give you more practical pleasure in long range shooting than shooting anything other than game itself. They’re not exactly wrong. I’m not sure what would happen if you stuffed an order of Cole’s targets in a refrigerator and shot it from half a mile away, but for their time, I bet they were cool.
If there’s anything to be found in Outdoor Life ads that’s more dangerous than dueling pistols, dart knives, or the Handyman jack (left), it’s gotta be the Skee-Devil. Nothing says safety and stability like a single ash runner and an elevated wooden seat. Assuming you have the balance and an icy-packed slope to pick up some speed on, you’d likely be ripping out of control, sure to go ass-over-teakettle to an abrupt and painful stop.
Savage Lawnmower, 1958
By 1957, rifles like the Savage Model 99 had seen decades of success, so why not branch out into lawn care? That’s exactly what Savage Arms did when it began advertising a lawnmower. I’m not sure how long the venture lasted, but I know that in 1958, they came out with the Savage Model 110—something that seems to have worked out pretty well for them. You couldn’t mail-order this mower, you had to go to a dealer. Perhaps the problem was that the advertisement didn’t specify whether it was the gun dealer or the lawnmower dealer you needed to visit.
Remington Chainsaw, 1968
Looking back through vintage ads reveals early looks at things that would turn out to be great, but most of the items you see were short-lived. Husqvarna was able to dip in both the rifle and wood-cutting worlds, and Husqvarna rifles were featured in many early Outdoor Life ads. Why shouldn’t Remington take a crack at it, too? To be fair, I know nothing about the history of Remington chainsaws, but I know that it didn’t work out in the end.