A Brief History of Sea-Monkeys

ML5, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
ML5, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / ML5, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

You probably had Sea-Monkeys as a kid without knowing anything about what they were or where they came from. The short version? The product was a get-rich-quick scheme that actually got someone rich quick. But the long version—which starts in a pet store and involves the Ku Klux Klan, a self-defense weapon, and a TV show starring Howie Mandel—is worth sticking around for.

The Big Idea

In 1957, a man named Harold von Braunhut walked into a pet store and noticed a bucket filled with brine shrimp. He didn’t know it at the time, but that pail of fish food was Artemia salina, a species of brine shrimp found in salt lakes.

A. salina, as von Braunhut discovered, has some fascinating biological traits. It can exist in a state of suspended animation known as cryptobiosis, where living organisms shut down their metabolic processes in the absence of water—nature’s version of Carbonite freezing.

A. salina can survive for years in its protective casing in the event a lake dries up. But when you add water, their protective shells hatch, revealing a translucent creature born with one eye. They develop two more upon reaching maturity, and can breathe out of their feet. Males have tiny little whiskers under their chin, and the females can self-fertilize eggs.

To most people, the shrimp were just fish food. To von Braunhut, they were a way to capture the imagination of children by selling what he termed a “bowl full of happiness.” If he could send the dehydrated eggs in the mail, then have them come to life in water using his secret nutrient formula, he was certain kids would be amazed. Especially since this was 1957, when children were content to play with toys like Freddie Fireplug and Hobo Mutt, a one-eyed stuffed dog dressed like a homeless person.

Kids and Comics

Why did von Braunhut consider this secret world of shrimp so appealing? Maybe because he had a tendency to see magic in the world.

Von Braunhut was born in 1926 in Memphis but grew up in New York City. As a teenager, he performed illusions as the Amazing Telepo. After dropping out of Columbia University, he became a talent agent for acts like Joseph Dunninger, a famous mentalist, and Henri LaMothe, who spent decades jumping from a platform 40 feet in the air and landing in a kiddie pool as shallow as 12 inches without killing himself. The secret, LaMothe said, was arching his back, which gave him the posture of a flying squirrel. He lived to see his 70th birthday, which he celebrated—like he did many of his birthdays—by jumping into a kiddie pool from the Flatiron Building.

In other words, von Braunhut knew a good act when he saw one. Kids at that time were already fascinated by ant farms—and von Braunhut thought the A. salina could be a brine goldmine. He spent years working in a barn on his property assembling a mail-order package that consisted of one packet to condition tap water, one packet of nutrients including yeast and algae, and one packet of the shrimp eggs.

Owing to their amazing ability to emerge from something that looked like Kool-Aid powder, von Braunhut dubbed his product Instant Life and began approaching retailers in the early ’60s with what he thought was a guaranteed hit.

It wasn’t—because there was already something called Instant Fish. That idea came from Wham-O, the toy company responsible for the Hula Hoop, and had a similar premise. African killifish also lay dormant in dry conditions, and Wham-O marketed the eggs stuck in a cube of mud on the promise they would come to life in a water tank.

But the killifish weren’t as plentiful as the brine shrimp and Wham-O couldn’t raise enough to meet demand. It was a misfire, and one that retail buyers remembered when von Braunhut came calling. Instant Life was considered an instant failure.

Then von Braunhut had another idea. Instead of trying to convince executives his shrimpies would be lucrative, he decided to aim his pitch directly at his target audience—impressionable children. In 1962, taking out an ad in a comic book was inexpensive compared to the television commercials that major toy companies were producing.

Von Braunhut went on an ad-buying spree, grabbing space in everything from Batman to Archie to romance titles. He didn’t discriminate—at least, not with comics—and made his appeal to as many young readers as he could, using the time-tested method of selling straight-up crap to kids.

It's All in the Advertising

According to von Braunhut, who wrote the Sea-Monkey ads and the 32-page handbook that came with the kit, his little creatures were capable of all kinds of incredible things that were not at all scientifically sound. He said they could be hypnotized (brine shrimp will follow light around, but that’s not exactly a form of hypnosis), obey commands (aside from following light, Sea-Monkeys have as much regard for instructions as cats—they pretty much just do what they want), and dance (they seemed to like music, so, sure).

And that wasn't all: von Braunhut even said his Sea-Monkeys could play baseball (which involved sending more money if you wanted to purchase a patented baseball diamond), race on a speedway kit (shrimp don’t really feel a sense of urgency, and while they did swim along the track, they’re identical, so you couldn’t really tell who won), and rise from the dead (this referred either to cryptobiosis, or the fact dead Sea-Monkeys could be replaced by unhatched eggs, but this is not quite the same as reanimating them).

Von Braunhut later said the Sea-Monkey ads appeared in 303 million copies of comics annually. That was probably an exaggeration, but with popular comics selling hundreds of thousands of copies a month, he had plenty of prospective buyers. He began getting five sacks of mail every day from customers who were now shelling out $1 for this secret society of shrimp.

How "Instant Life" Worked

But what about this instant life claim, the one that said the shrimp would materialize before your eyes in water? Ever the magician, von Braunhut was using a little sleight of hand. When kids dumped that first packet of nutrients in the water and were told to wait 24 hours before adding the second packet of eggs, they didn’t realize the first packet actually had some of the eggs. The second had more eggs, plus a dye that colored the water, meaning the first eggs that hatched were suddenly more visible. Hence, instant life.

It was also instant death.

The tiny shrimp usually didn’t live more than a couple of days, which prompted von Braunhut to team with a marine biologist named Anthony D’Agostino at the New York Ocean Science Laboratory, or NYOS, to create a hybrid species of shrimp, Artemia NYOS. They were more durable thanks to a process that von Braunhut “flamboyantly called superhomeogenation,” in the words of The New York Times.

Like Sea-Monkey shortstops, it was totally made up. Von Braunhut even offered a kind of shrimp life insurance, promising that kids would see their tiny pets thrive for years to come.

From Sea-Monkeys to X-Ray Spex

In the meantime, von Braunhut had become a mail order mogul, using a carnival barker approach to market an entire array of novelties. There were X-Ray Spex, which promised to let the wearer see through clothing; young voyeurs were disappointed to find out they were really just glasses stuffed with bird feathers that diffracted light, creating two images and a darker area where they overlapped that you could interpret as an X-ray image.

Those glasses led to Aqua-Spex, which promised to let you see right into water, eliminating glare. (The trick? Tinted lenses.) And then there were Hypno-Spex, which promised to put people under your control—but the spinning spirals on the lenses were more distracting than hypnotic.

There was Amazing Hair-Raising Monsters, which was a monster on a card that sprouted something resembling hair from mineral crystals when watered. He also marketed Crazy Crabs, which were nothing more than a hermit crab shipped in a box.

But von Braunhut’s real triumph, meaning the one thing that should have gotten him sued but didn’t, was Invisible Goldfish, a kit that guaranteed a breed of fish you’d never be able to see. Kids who sent away for it got a fishbowl, some seaweed, and fish food, but no fish. They were, after all, invisible.

None of it resonated quite like Sea-Monkeys, which got another boost in the early ’70s when a comic book artist named Joe Orlando drew the most famous Sea-Monkeys advertisement ever—a depiction of an entire Sea-Monkey family with human facial features. There was a disclaimer—“Caricatures shown not intended to depict Artemia salina”—but kids, who are not known for reading the fine print, were captivated. They could buy vitamins for their Sea-Monkeys, a mating powder that was supposed to make for some kind of Sea-Monkey date night, and a banana treat.

The tank came with a built-in magnifying glass to see the shrimp in all its three-eyed glory. There was even an Aqua Leash to relocate the Sea-Monkeys in case kids bought the optional necklaces or wrist watches that could temporarily house their aquatic pets. As an added bonus, the Aqua Leash could also be repurposed to suck out the corpses of dead Sea-Monkeys.

Thanks to von Braunhut’s new species of brine shrimp and his marketing techniques, Sea-Monkeys were a certifiable sensation—one that made him a millionaire. And really, the idea of attempting to breed a master race of pet shrimp wasn’t so far-fetched. After all, in the words of The Washington Post, von Braunhut was “active in the anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi right.” He was also Jewish.

Sea-Monkey Business

Von Braunhut was actually born Harold Nathan Braunhut, to parents Jeannette and Edward Braunhut. The family went to synagogue, at least occasionally, and Braunhut, according to his cousin’s recollection, probably had a bar mitzvah. His father died in 1957, the same year Braunhut stumbled upon the shrimp, and his mother passed away in 1960. Both were buried in a Jewish cemetery, which Braunhut paid maintenance fees on.

Somewhere along the line, he added the “von” so his name sounded more Germanic, according to the Daily Telegraph. And then he invented the Kiyoga Agent M5, a self-defense weapon von Braunhut began working on in the late 1960s. The Kiyoga was a collapsible baton with coils, which von Braunhut marketed as a tool for people unable to get a license to carry a firearm. It was responsible for a few of the roughly 200 patents he was awarded in his lifetime.

In 1979, he was actually arrested for bringing this type of weapon through LaGuardia Airport, though the charges of possessing an illegal weapon were dismissed when prosecutors realized it was too new and too strange to fall under the relevant legislation.

The Kiyoga is an important part of Sea-Monkey lore. In 1988, The Washington Post and the Spokane Spokesman-Review published stories revealing that the weapon was being advertised as part of a fundraiser for Richard Butler, the leader of the Aryan Nations who needed money to fight charges of sedition, the polite term for plotting to overthrow the government.

Butler wrote that for each Kiyoga his followers bought, the manufacturer—that would be von Braunhut—would pledge $25 to his legal fund. Butler, who was acquitted, called von Braunhut a longtime friend and a “member of the Aryan race who has supported us quite a few years.”

According to news reports, von Braunhut had attended numerous Aryan Nations gatherings, sometimes as a guest speaker and sometimes as the honored lighter of the burning cross. He was also leader of the Imperial Order of the Black Eagle, which was affiliated with Aryan Nations. Even though they always suspected he was Jewish, the white supremacists didn’t seem to care, probably because he was a generous donor. In 1985, it was reported he lent a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan named Dale Reusch $12,000 to buy 83 illegal guns. Reusch was indicted and received a fine and probation, but von Braunhut was never named in the prosecution’s case. He was said to be happy to cooperate, though, and even brought some Sea-Monkeys to his meeting with the U.S. attorney.

Von Braunhut refused to comment on the allegations, other than to tell the Seattle Times that, quote, “You know what side I’m on.”

If you think lighting a cross on fire at a white power rally is a bad look in the toy business, you’d be right. And that isn’t a hypothetical—according to The Southern Poverty Law Center, von Braunhut did exactly that. As the Sea-Monkey empire grew, he enlisted a company called Larami Limited to handle distribution. After his ties to the Aryan Nations were revealed, the company confronted von Braunhut, who told their vice-president that Hitler wasn’t a bad guy, he just got bad press. They distanced themselves from von Braunhut, and many comic book publishers stopped taking his ads.

The Many Lives of Sea-Monkeys

But that wasn’t the end of the Sea-Monkeys. In fact, their highest-profile project came not long after, in 1992, when Howie Mandel co-created, produced, and starred in a CBS Saturday morning live-action series titled The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys.

Mandel played a professor who left his human-shrimp creations alone in his lighthouse laboratory to get into trouble. Some sequences used animatronics and others were done in a hybrid animation style featuring puppets and miniatures provided by the Chiodo Brothers, who produced the Large Marge sequence in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Mandel said he did the show after his daughter became curious about Sea-Monkeys and he thought the premise could be the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon.

CBS said it was one of the most expensive kid’s shows to ever air on Saturday mornings. They eventually found a way to cut costs by canceling the show after 11 episodes.

That wasn’t their only moment in the pop culture sun, though. Sea-Monkeys have been name-dropped in songs by Liz Phair and the Pixies, and they’ve been featured on TV shows like South Park, Roseanne, The Simpsons, and Desperate Housewives, to name just a few. There was even a sea monkey video game, though its reception wasn’t particularly warm. One review online called it, “a cheap knock-off of The Sims mixed with a cheaper knock-off of Black and White.”

The shrimp had more success off of planet Earth. In 1998, they joined astronaut John Glenn on a mission to space. They returned to Earth to hatch to see what effects cosmic radiation has on organisms. Brine shrimp are also used to test toxicity of chemicals, which is not a recommended practice in the Sea-Monkey handbook.

The $10 Million Shrimp

The Sea-Monkeys continued to sell to the general public, too, going from one distributor to another. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that a company called Educational Insights was distributing it under their ExploraToy division with the full knowledge of the allegations against von Braunhut. Company executives said they never asked him about the charges directly and didn’t think he’d be the type of person to spread hate speech. When the reporter showed them newsletters from the National Anti-Zionist Institute, which used a P.O. Box also used to order Sea-Monkey paraphernalia, executives said he denied the allegations.

Meanwhile, von Braunhut—who was also an ordained minister—officiated over the funeral of Richard Butler’s wife one month after signing his licensing deal with the company. He also was photographed wearing Aryan Nations lapel pins to planning board meetings in Charles County, Maryland, according to The Washington Post.

Von Braunhut died in 2003 at the age of 77. Transcience, the company he started to produce Sea-Monkeys, was inherited by his second wife, Yolanda Signorelli von Braunhut, whom he married in 1980. She replaced him as CEO of the company.

A former model who appeared in bondage films in the 1960s, Yolanda claimed her mother was one of the inspirations for Lois Lane. She continued to run the Sea-Monkey empire from her home in Maryland and signed a deal with Big Time Toys in 2007 for that company to package and distribute the kits for Transcience. The actual shrimp and the nutrient packet, which are all considered trade secrets with the nutrient formula locked in a vault, would be supplied by Yolanda. Big Time had the option to pay $10 million for Transcience and the secret recipe to own them outright.

That’s $10 million. For genetically-altered brine shrimp.

All of this turned into a crustacean controversy in 2013, when Yolanda sued for breach of contract and trademark infringement, alleging Big Time had big-time stiffed her on her contractually-obligated royalty checks. Big Time insisted they now had exclusive rights to the Sea-Monkeys after making enough payments to cover the purchase price.

But rather than using her husband’s carefully-cultivated Artemia NYOS, they were sourcing the shrimp from China. Yolanda, meanwhile, claimed she had no income coming in and was forced to live with no electricity or running water.

The two parties settled out of court in 2017, though the details of the agreement haven’t been made public. Yolanda continues to sell Sea-Monkey kits online. She also appears to be planning a documentary detailing her struggles to maintain control of her husband’s shrimp dynasty. She’s long said she had no idea about his reprehensible views and doesn’t share them.

We’ll probably never know why Harold Nathan Braunhut, born and raised Jewish, grew into Harold von Braunhut, who funded anti-Semitic groups and stood up for Hitler. We’ll also never know why he saw a bucket of fish food and decided it would send him on a path to success. People, like Sea-Monkeys, can be mysterious creatures.