A Triumph of Genius! False mustaches, magic babies, rubber cravats and the “kurious” mail order catalog of George Blackie & Co.

Kuaint Kueer Sometime midway through the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, one might out of understandable curiosity have opened the small “Kurious” pamphlet from George Blackie & Co. to read,

We have done a large and increasing trade through the mails for more than twelve years, and from this experience we think we can do this kind of business more promptly and satisfactorily than anybody else.

Since I myself run something of a mail-order bookselling concern, relying on the periodic publication of catalogs and short lists (see for instance my recent Occasional List 4: Sex and Marriage and Sundry Diversions), I can only take my hat off and do honor to the enterprise and industry of booksellers and mail order purveyors George Blackie & Co. of New York City, whose periodic catalogs sallied forth under the name of Kuaint, Kueer & Kurious and Book of New Receipts, with Catalogue of Novelties and Wonders (New York: George Blackie & Co., 75 Nassau Street).

Fake mustachesSuch scattered library holdings as exist for this catalog locate editions of 64 pages, 94 pages (as with my copy) and 96 pages; speculative dates for publication seem to hazard at either [ca. 1870] or [ca. 1874], though from a coin dated 1878 in a woodcut in my copy to hand (the woodcut illustrating “the Coin Casket”–a coin purse of such simplicity, “you can readily make change in winter time, without removing your gloves”), I would suggest a publication date of ca. 1878. Such receipts as are offered here–fixing cracks in stoves, whitening the teeth–occupy but a few pages and seem offered up as a desultory obligation amid the wonders of the novelties sown thick throughout the pamphlet.

Certainly, Blackie & Co. claimed a willingness to serve the customer’s every whim with a zeal that seems only fitting for energies of the Gilded Age; as their prefatory note suggests,

Residing, as we do, in the heart of this great city, and having the many facilities resulting therefrom, we can, on the shortest notice, get any book or engraving, map, photograph, &c., no matter where printed or by whom published.

We do not confine our purchase alone to books, but will, to oblige our customers, get anything they may want–from a boot-jack to a locomotive–guaranteeing in every instance perfect satisfaction.

The customers here seem to have been both retail and wholesale (allusion is made to the success agents have had in selling a number of the articles; a wholesale catalog for peddlers and agents is advertised on the rear wrapper) and the whole offering smacks of a peculiar kind of novelty genius. The catalog is replete with lists of colored engravings for sale on various sentimental subjects, as well as the expected cheap books on dancing self-taught or the proper interpretation of flirting with a fan, as well as how-to books on ventriloquism, guides for the practical clairvoyant, sparring in theory and practice, the black arts of sorcery, cheap cook books, songsters, and a key to mnemonics.

Revolver means businessFeeling as though your lessons in the volume of fistic arts have not proven sufficient for self-protection? One could also order a seven-shot 22 caliber revolver ($2.50 blue steel, $5 chrome). Unable to squeeze the trigger of your new handgun? Perhaps you should order the $6 People’s Electrizer (“A Compact, Cheap and Powerful Electric Battery for Popular Use”), intended to treat rheumatism, neuralgia, paralysis, and colds, and certainly a remedy that might allow you to put the itch back into that trigger finger.

For the more peaceable dandy about town, Blackie & Co. would suggest one of their “Beautiful Genuine False Moustaches” (see above) since “many young men are constantly writing us for Moustaches and Imperials, or Goatees, to make them look manly.” (The “genuine French article” is made with real human whiskers woven into lace and mounted to the face with wax.”)

Triumph of GeniusOnce made suitably masculine with these luxuriant false whiskers, one might then don the latest patent triumph of fashionable genius, “the Hard Rubber Bow and Cravat”–“An Indestructible Neck Tie, A Perfect Imitation of Black Silk.” What advantages might one find in wearing a molded rubber cravat? “They will not soil with wet, sweat, or dust, or look dingy by long usage. They can be washed without injury.”

(The patent rubber cravat is of course not the only boon to the habiliment of modern man; one should also consider the manifold benefits of the P. T. Barnum brand of Elastic Straps and Buckles for Pants, Vests and Drawers. As the uncharacteristically restrained advertising copy would so succinctly have it, “Away with Suspenders.”)

The Magic BabiesHaving thus arrayed yourself in India rubber splendor, with a fine set of whiskers and drawers that will not sag, one might then feel sufficiently confident to perform any number of the card tricks or illusions noted for sale in the pages of the catalog of Blackie & Co. (the illusion of “the Magic Babies” is a “rich joke on the ladies,” esp. “some timid young miss or aged spinster,” while “The Barber’s Pole and Wizard’s Supper” will have the parlor magician drawing from his mouth “a variegated colored Barber’s Pole” that stretches for such length that he might draw it out “till the audience beg him to stop.”) For those whose confidence is such that they choose to sail a little closer to the edge of danger, one might either communicate with the spirit world using “the Mysterious Planchette” (similar to the Ouija board) or fix a poker match with the company’s fine selection of marked cards.

The catalog is, in brief, a compendium (Kompendium?) off all that makes the story of American invention (and personal reinvention) of such fascination to this bookselling concern. Would that we could but aspire to a tithe of the kuaint and the kueer that one might find from our bookselling forebears George Blackie & Co.

The catalog itself:

George Blackie & Co. Kuaint, Kueer & Kurious and Book of New Receipts, With Catalogue of Novelties and Wonders [wrapper title]. New York: George Blackie & Co., 75 Nassau Street, [ca. 1878]. Small 8vo, original printed salmon wrappers, [94] pages. Illus. First edition?

OCLC notes scattered holdings for editions of 64 pages, 94 pages and 96 pages, all undated and all with speculative publication dates of ca. 1870 or ca. 1874; publication date here assigned from a woodcut for a “coin casket” that displays an 1878 quarter. Soiled and worn; old drink rings (with residue of the drink) on the rear wrapper; a good, sound copy.  —  $150.00


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