Racine family has mischievous hobby
By Rob Golub
photo by Liana J. Cooper
CALEDONIA - If a friend shows you a kaleidoscope today, don't look inside. It's April Fools' Day, you know.
There's a pretty good shot the kaleidoscope will press a ring of ink around your eye. And odds are even worse for you if your "friend" is a member of the Timm family - watch out for those Timms today.
"We just like practical jokes," said an innocent Mardi Timm of Caledonia, who has turned nostalgia for old-fashioned practical jokes into a hobby. Mardi heard mischief's calling at a tender age: "I'm sure I was 8 or 10 years old. My favorite joke of all time was the black eye. I pulled that on so many people when I was a kid. I did it to my uncle. I did it to my mom. I did it to my brother - only my brother didn't fall for it."
Mardi and her husband, Stan, are building a collection of practical jokes, both old and new. It's an offshoot of their interest in collecting other items, like magic tricks. And cameras. And bathroom items. And potato mashers, which hang in a long row on the Timm family ceiling, reaching from the kitchen to the foyer. There's a lot of collecting going on at the Timm house.
"It's kind of intoxicating," said Stan, referring to the Web site for collectors, eBay. "It's a monstrous marketplace. You never know when something might pop up."
Speaking of pop-up, imagine Stan offering a sinless smile as he approaches a frightened reporter: "Here. Have a cigar." A halting reach for the cigar box was greeted with a not-so-sudden plastic head, popping up out of the cigars.
"That's supposed to scare you," explained Stan. You see, the Timm family's collection of practical jokes dates as far back as the early 1900s. And some of it is a little outdated.
"This is a car bomb," said Stan, holding a cigar-shaped tube that was produced decades before permanent car-bomb barriers would be erected around the White House. Wires from the tube were to be hooked up to an unsuspecting driver's ignition, and the tube would hiss, smoke and bang once the car was started.
Of course, such practical jokes aren't practical anymore. For one thing, Stan said, you can't get around the fact that lawsuits are more prevalent these days. Plus, Mardi cautions, "The whole point of a practical joke is you look at something that looks perfectly normal and the unexpected happens. It should be something that's funny and never hurts anybody." For example, she said, pulling a chair out from under someone is never funny.
Here's funny - one of the practical jokes in the Timm collection is an antique book, "A Collection of Full Color Pin-Ups, In Full Color But Stripped of All Their Clothes." The book, produced in 1944, opens to reveal six multi-colored clothes pins.
Although the Timms only started to focus on practical jokes over the past year (they now have close to 100), the couple has been buying all sorts of vintage novelties for a decade or more. Back in 1993, the Timms put some of their collection on display at the Racine County Historical Museum. The exhibit was a testament to Johnson Smith & Co., the Racine novelty firm that was responsible for popularizing the whoopie cushion. Throughout the roaring `20s and the Great Depression, joy buzzers, stink bombs and whoopie cushions arrived at homes across America with a Racine postmark.
Stan was an adult when he discovered that Johnson Smith & Co., his childhood supplier of trouble, had spent some time in Racine. He thinks he was browsing in Waldenbooks in Regency Mall when he saw the old Sixth Street address in a reprint of the 1929 Johnson Smith novelty catalog. That was the day that launched the Timm family's collecting addiction. "When I was a kid, I had a Johnson Smith catalog. I always remembered it," explained Stan, standing in his dining room, a Hitler pin-cushion on display in the case behind him.
Johnson Smith had reached America's youth through comic-book ads and big, bible-sized catalogs. Mardi keeps about 100 old novelty catalogs in her collection, "I can't pick up a catalog without spending time with it. A half-hour, 45 minutes goes by."
She loves finding the gems that were once for sale: A book, "How to be Happy, Though Married."; An envelope, "One Dozen Rattlesnake Eggs. Caution: Keep in a cool place to prevent hatching."; A universal fisherman's ruler that intones, "Be honest, use this rule."
The Timms put on a workshop Saturday at Teacher Place & Parent Resources in Burlington. They handed one woman a box that opened up to reveal a giant cockroach. "She shook for awhile," said Mardi. "You almost have to be careful with that one, who you show it to."
"I like the unusual," explained Stan. "I like things that people look at and say, `What's the heck is that?'"
With that, Stan offered a box of chocolate. He pushed a button, jetting sparks up out of the fake food. Stan, 60, grinned with the joy of a child ordering out of a Johnson Smith catalog, "Scared you, didn't it?"
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.