The Strange and Fantastical World of Sci-Fi Pulp Advertisements, Part 1

Looking for a patriotic glow-in-the-dark necktie? How about a convenient portable garage? Can we interest you in a futuristic Sony micro TV? These are just a few of the interesting product advertisements that can be found throughout our Science Fiction Pulp Magazine collection in the Literature and Rare Books collection.

The Howard and Jane Frank Collection of Science Fiction Pulp Magazines contains 365 volumes of Sci-Fi pulps, with the majority being published between 1903 and 1961. Pulp magazines were inexpensive popular fiction works published from the late 1800s through the mid-1900s, characteristically printed on cheap wood pulp paper. Science fiction pulp magazines typically featured colorful cover art, along with short stories that embraced futuristic and fantasy themes. Within the pages of these magazines are also a multitude of advertisements that provide a glimpse into consumerism, novelty, and American life through the decades.

A common theme in pulp magazine advertisement is asking readers to send away for products in the mail. One example below is the handy “10 tools in one” multi-tool featured in a 1930 issue of Air Wonder Stories. Simply cut out the coupon and send in $1 to receive your own “small but handy article which serves every possible need of the all around mechanic.”

Pistol sling-shots for $1, humless radio tubes, a Dick Tracey radio watch sure to catch the attention of comic book fans, and prize money for the eagle eyed reader who can spot the identical cartoons can all be found within the pages of Air Wonder Stories and Fantastic Adventures in the 1930s and 1940s.

Magic tricks and small novelties such as the “ooh-la- la ring”, a lumnous skeleton, a “wizarddeck” of cards, invisible ink, and the curious “nose blower” could be sent away for as little as 10 cents. The full page advertisement below from the February 1930 issue of Air Wonder Stories, features more than two dozen of these small prizes, likely targeting young readers awed by fantastical sci-fi stories and inventions, looking to spend some pocket change.

In addition to the novelty items seen above, advertisements for today’s household names, such as the “ace thirst buster” must have for every party, the “wholesome and good” Pepsi-Cola can be found in science fiction pulp magazines of the 1940s.

Book advertisements were also popular, not surprising considering the target audience for these advertisements are avid science fiction readers. Mail-away book clubs urged readers to send away for romance, western, detective, and adventure novels. Miscellaneous books for a cheaper cost include a free book on how to raise “the new wonder animals from Syria” – Hamsters, or “toy bears”, printed in a 1949 issue of Startling Stories.

Popular films of the 1940s were, and continue to be, effective marketing tools for book sales. A full page advertisement in the June 1940 issue of Astonishing Stories, mentions the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame film as an incentive to buy the complete works of Victor Hugo. Pens were all the rage, with a free 10 day trial of the pencil pointed fountain pen advertised in Air Wonder Stories. Underwood typewriters we’re advertised with a “tremendous price slash” at $31.85. Both are a bargain for the ambitious reader perhaps considering crafting their own fantasy sci-fi tale.

With the United States fighting in World War II, many advertisements printed during 1944 struck a patriotic tone, such as an advertisement to “hasten the day – THE day of final unconditional surrender” by buying war bonds that “help pay for the bullets, shells, and bombs that will speed victory”. Full page color advertisements in Startling Stories for Baby Ruth candy feature soldiers and sailors. Along with a label at the top urging readers to buy war bonds. Another war bonds advertisement from a 1944 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries is sponsored by Calvert Distillers.

An advertisement from Startling Stories encourages Americans on the home front to aid those fighting overseas by bringing your own permanent container when shopping for groceries and “Carry Victory in Your Basket”.  At the time, groceries were wrapped in paper, so “paper holidays” were advertised to reduce paper use because “every scrap of paper you do save means just so much more ammunition for victory.”

Advertisements for patriotic novelties can also be found, such as an “magical” “bargain” glow-in-the-dark victory necktie from the Fall 1944 issue of Startling Stories. “You must see this miracle yourself” the ad line reads, “Imagine this beauty by day – the fighting man’s ‘V’ for Victory, in striking red, and white on rich dark blue background! And at night the Victory Code in Flaming beauty! Wear this tie with pride.”

With the end of World War II approaching, advertisements in the mid-1940s continued to feature the US military, as seen in the Eveready batteries advertisements from Famous Fantastic Mysteries and Startling Stories. Americans also looked ahead to a life after war-time. Advertisements for household names for everyday products also became more frequent. Readers looking for a close shave could trust the quality of the”the best low-priced blade you can get” Gillette razors, advertised in the March 1945 issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries.

An ad with the tagline “After War, What?” urged readers to consider LaSalle Extension University to learn skills for a new career. Printed in the Summer 1944 issue of Startling Stories, the advertisements reads “You are probably sitting pretty now. Almost anyone can get a fait job with good money. But when peace comes, when millions of men come out of the army and navy, when industry converts back – where will you be?”

Advertisements for careers with the United States Government, radio industry, nursing, and real estate can be seen in the advertisements below from Air Wonder Stories in the 1930s and Famous Fantastic Mysteries in the late 1940s. Readers were also drawn in by the chance to earn money as salesmen and saleswomen in various industries. Even the chance to “earn a regular monthly salary” as a “fingerprint expert” for the Institute of Applied Science.

Do you like what you see? For no money down and satisfaction guaranteed, you can explore the wonderful world of advertising in science fiction pulp magazines from the comfort of home!

Keep an eye out for part 2 of our exploration of Sci-Fi pulp advertisements, where we’ll take a look at advertisements marketing health, beauty, and more!

All of these science fiction pulp magazines, and many more are available to view in the Maryland Room in Hornbake Library. Browse the complete list of titles in the Howard and Jane Frank Collection of Science Fiction Pulp Magazines. Contact us to learn more!


Victoria Vera is a graduate student in the Masters of Library and Information Sciences program at UMD and a student assistant in the Literature and Rare Books Collections, Special Collections and University Archives.

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