The Appeal of Novelty Items

The June 1949 issue of Radio-Electronics showing the "Man-from-Mars, Radio Hat." Radio Hat, while a practical item, was a novelty when it first appeared
The June 1949 issue of Radio-Electronics showing the “Man-from-Mars, Radio Hat.”
Radio Hat, while a practical item, was a novelty when it first appeared

Novelty is by definition something that is new, original or unusual. Therefore, it stands to reason that novelty items have exactly those qualities.

You won’t likely find much use in a novelty item, as they serve no practical purpose, but are rather sold for their humor or uniqueness. Of course, there are novelty objects that do serve some purpose, like novelty slippers, for example. Needless to say, the marketing world has plenty to gain from our curiosity, need for prank and gag gifts and, well, our lack of self-control when it comes to spending money on random, impractical stuff.

According to Pierre Herigone, a French mathematician who lived between 1580 and 1643, describes what is believed as one of the first novelty items. It was a camera obscura (used to project images of its surroundings on a screen) in the form of a goblet.

A drawing of a camera obscura
A drawing of a camera obscura

Herigone practically constructed an effective way on spying on people. How? Well, the device was built with a 45-degree mirror, an opening for the lens, and the goblet’s lid also had a magnifying lens. It also had a glass cup in which images could be seen. So, when you’d take a sip from the goblet, the lens and mirror projected the image of whatever was behind you on the glass cup that was on the table.

One of the most popular and likely the most hated novelty items ever made is probably Big Mouth Billy Bass, the singing fish. A staggering 20 million originals were sold between 2000 and 2001.

Big Mouth Billy Bass
Big Mouth Billy Bass
Sigmund Freud bobblehead
Sigmund Freud bobblehead
Another annoying, yet great example of a novelty item: the bobblehead. It serve no purpose, but far too many people have a baseball player, dog, or just a random bobblehead figurine in their cars, or at home. The Styrofoam cheese wedge hat was all the rage at baseball games all over the United States back in 1987 and you can still see it today.

Groucho glasses
Groucho glasses
By far, the most famous, used and maybe even abused novelty item has to be the Groucho glasses, also known (back in the day), as beaglepuss. Based on the unmistakable makeup of comedian Grouch Marx, big nose, bushy eyebrows and mustache, these glasses were also sometimes accompanied by a plastic cigar. One of the most iconic of all novelty items, the Groucho glasses were first sold back in the 1940s and are almost instantly recognizable. Hell, even cartoon characters wore them!

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