Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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Dollymania: When Dolly the Sheep Created a '90s Media Sensation

Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Dolly the sheep at the National Museum of Scotland
Paul Hudson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was Saturday, February 22, 1997, and British researchers Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell were expecting a final moment of calm before the results of their unprecedented scientific experiment were announced to the world.

The team had kept the breakthrough under wraps for seven months while they waited for their paper to be published in the prestigious journal Nature. Confidential press releases had gone out to journalists with the strict instruction not to leak the news before February 27.

But that night, the team was tipped off that journalist Robin McKie was going to break the story the very next day in the British newspaper The Observer.

Wilmut and Campbell raced to the lab at the Roslin Institute on Sunday morning as McKie's story hit the media like a thunderbolt. International news outlets had already started swarming at the institute for access to Wilmut and Campbell's creation: Dolly the sheep, the world's first mammal successfully cloned from a single adult cell. Shielded from the general public, she stuck her nose through the fence and munched calmly on the hay in her pen, unperturbed by the horde of news photographers. Dolly, a woolly, bleating scientific miracle, looked much like other sheep, but with a remarkable genetic difference.

By the end of that Sunday, February 23, nearly every major newspaper in the world carried headlines about Dolly the sheep.

A Long-Awaited Breakthrough

Born on July 5, 1996, Dolly was cloned by Wilmut and Campbell's team at the Roslin Institute, a part of the University of Edinburgh, and Scottish biotechnology company PPL Therapeutics. The scientists cloned Dolly by inserting DNA from a single sheep mammary gland cell into an egg of another sheep, and then implanting it into a surrogate mother sheep. Dolly thus had three mothers—one that provided the DNA from the cell, the second that provided the egg, and the third that carried the cloned embryo to term. Technically, though, Dolly was an exact genetic replica of only the sheep from which the cell was taken.

Following the announcement, the Roslin Institute received 3000 phone calls from around the world. Dolly's birth was heralded as one of the most important scientific advances of the decade.

But Dolly wasn't science's first attempt at cloning. Researchers had been exploring the intricacies of cloning for almost a century. In 1902, German embryologists Hans Spemann and Hilda Mangold, his student, successfully grew two salamanders from a single embryo split with a noose made up of a strand of hair. Since then, cloning experiments continued to become more sophisticated and nuanced. Several laboratory animal clones, including frogs and cows, were created before Dolly. But all of them had been cloned from embryos. Dolly was the first mammal to be cloned from a specialized adult cell.

Embryonic stem cells, which form right after fertilization, can turn into any kind of cell in the body. After they modify into specific types of cells, like neurons or blood cells, they're call specialized cells. Since the cell that gave rise to Dolly was already specialized for its role as a mammary gland cell, most scientists thought it would be impossible to clone anything from it but other mammary gland cells. Dolly proved them wrong. 

A Worldwide Reaction—And Controversy

Many scientists in the '90s were flabbergasted. Dolly’s advent showed that specialized cells could be used to create an exact replica of the animal they came from. “It means all science fiction is true,” biology professor Lee Silver of Princeton University told The New York Times in 1997.

The Washington Post reported that "Dolly, depending on which commentator you read, is the biggest story of the year, the decade, even the century. Wilmut has seen himself compared with Galileo, with Copernicus, with Einstein, and at least once with Dr. Frankenstein."

Scientists, lawmakers, and the public quickly imagined a future shaped by unethical human cloning. President Bill Clinton called for review of the bioethics of cloning and proposed legislation that would ban cloning meant ''for the purposes of creating a child” (it didn't pass). The World Health Organization concluded that human cloning was "ethically unacceptable and contrary to human integrity and morality" [PDF]. A Vatican newspaper editorial urged governments to bar human cloning, saying every human has "the right to be born in a human way and not in a laboratory."

Meanwhile, some scientists remained unconvinced about the authenticity of Wilmut and Campbell’s experiment. Norton Zinder, a molecular genetics professor at Rockefeller University, called the study published in Nature "a bad paper" because Dolly's genetic ancestry was not conclusive without testing her mitochondria—DNA that is passed down through mothers. That would have confirmed whether Dolly was the daughter of the sheep that gave birth to her. In The New York Times, Zinder called the Scottish pair's work ''just lousy science, incomplete science." But NIH director Harold Varmus told the Times that he had no doubt that Dolly was a clone of an adult sheep.

Dollymania!

Because she was cloned from a mammary gland cell, Dolly was named—dad joke alert—after buxom country music superstar Dolly Parton. (Parton didn’t mind the attribution.) Like her namesake, Dolly the sheep was a bona fide celebrity: She posed for magazines, including People; became the subject of books, journal articles, and editorials; had an opera written about her; starred in commercials; and served as a metaphor in an electoral campaign.

And that wasn't all: New York Times reporter Gina Kolata, one of the first journalists to give readers an in-depth look at Dolly, wrote Clone: The Road to Dolly, and the Path Ahead and contrasted the animal's creation with the archetypes in Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau. American composer Steve Reich was so affected by Dolly's story that he featured it in Three Tales, a video-opera exploring the dangers of technology.

The sheep also became an inadvertent political player when the Scottish National Party used her image on posters to suggest that candidates of other parties were all clones of one another. Appliance manufacturer Zanussi used her likeness for a poster with her name and the provocative caption "The Misappliance of Science" (the poster was later withdrawn after scientists complained). In fact, so widespread was the (mis)use of her name that her makers eventually trademarked it to stop the practice.

Dolly's Legacy

Following Dolly, many larger mammals were cloned, including horses and bulls. Roslin Biomed, set up by the Roslin Institute to focus on cloning technology, was later sold to the U.S.-based Geron Corporation, which combined cloning technology with stem cell research. But despite her popularity—and widespread fear— Dolly's birth didn't lead to an explosion in cloning: Human cloning was deemed too dangerous and unethical, while animal cloning was only minimally useful for agricultural purposes. The sheep's real legacy is considered to be the advancement in stem cell research.

Dolly’s existence showed it was possible to change one cell’s gene expression by swapping its nucleus for another. Stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka told Scientific American that Dolly’s cloning motivated him to successfully develop stem cells from adult cells. He later won a Nobel Prize for his results, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) because they're artificially created and can have a variety of uses. They reduced the need for embryonic stem cells in research, and today, iPS cells form the basis for most stem cell research and therapies, including regenerative medicine.

Dolly had six offspring, and led a productive, sociable life with many human fans coming to visit her. In 2003, a veterinary examination showed that Dolly had a progressive lung disease, and she was put down. But four clones created from the same cell line in 2007 faced no such health issues and aged normally.

Dolly is still a spectacle, though, nearly 25 years after her creation: Her body was taxidermied and put on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.