Recently a friend mentioned a Slinky toy. Since he is considerably younger than I, I think his stimulus to get one during his tender years came from a TV commercial. I can remember when no one we knew owned a TV. Back then, the first glimpse, as well as the “urge to buy,” came from an awesome, up close and personal demo at the annual Kentucky State Fair.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a popular way to see what was new and different and “all the rage” was by making a full day of it at the Kentucky State Fair. Big, ornate wooden barns, numerous shade trees and a sawdust midway, among other amenities, gave it a 19th century appeal.
Then, of course, the State fairgrounds was moved to where it remains today. But, while vintage sawdust charm gave way to concrete and steel and miles of asphalt, in the new digs, we had room for many more “pitchmen.”
The East Wing of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center was a place of wonder for me. I wanted one of everything. I was particularly fascinated by the hard-sell gizmo demos. Pitchmen, much like carnival barkers, were great crowd-pleasers. They would step up little stages in the exhibition aisles and do a fast-talking show to attract a crowd. Whatever their product, they would do a magical introduction of the new thingamabob — and the gathered crowd would be spellbound.
We often went home with new impulse purchases and high hopes for the new doohickey. The pitchman would make his product “sing.” Most all of us know a Slinky toy can “walk” down a staircase, but the pitchman could make it walk up one arm, across his back and down the other. Of course, this was due to his agility and much practiced acrobatics, not to any capability of the coiled spring toy. If I were the first in my neighborhood with one of those, I’d be the envy of all my friends. I had to have one.
I don’t recall the price for a Slinky, but it must have been some convenient rounded-off figure, because people would surge forward to the stage, hold one or more dollar bills in the air, and the pitchman would relieve them of their cash and hand over a boxed Slinky. After a magical demo, crates of them would walk right out the door!
The Sperry Gyroscope Company, founded way back in 1910, marketed a toy gyroscope at the Fair for several years going. The pitchman would pull on the wind-up cord and that little apparatus could walk a tightrope string like a circus high wire aerialist; we were mesmerized. The pitchman would pump up the crowd, crowing about this device’s technological potential in today’s modern world as it balanced on the tip of his finger. More hands would shoot into the air with money. My dad thought this “scientific marvel” was just the thing for his only kid, so he was willing to foot the bill, whatever the price might have been.
I still have my Sperry gyroscope, and my Slinky, too, but not all such family purchases were merely for my educational benefit. My mom was fascinated with the kitchen gadgets demonstrated and sold on spot by State Fair pitchmen in the East Wing. What we purchasers discovered at home later was that washing and cleaning the crevices of these multi-bladed molded plastic gizmos was altogether another story.
Not everything was a disappointment though. The very best kitchen knives I’ve ever owned were sold in this manner, and I have several to this day. Each had a “no questions asked,” lifetime, free replacement guarantee — if only I’d kept the boxes with the warrantor’s address on it. They seemed to stay sharp for a very long time.
I still have three or four of those “state fair knives” in my drawer right now. For years, I’d ask friends who were headed out to the Fair, “Please get me a couple more of those state fair knives. I’ll gladly pay you back!” What a delight when they took time to do just that.
If I had a truckload of those state fair knives, I bet I could demo them myself in the East Wing and sell a bunch. In my case, people might conclude, “If that fumbling, old duffer, can use one, I can, too!” I’d grab up the proffered cash money and hand them a boxed. Then I’d make like a Slinky, head for the nearest stairway and bounce along toward home.
– Jim Reed
*Edited for space.
Created on August 8, 2013