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The Strange Perils of Running a Novelty Item Empire

Top-secret torpedoes and government agents get involved.

Archie McPhee. A mecca of nonsense. (Photo courtesy of Archie McPhee)

Handerpants, underwear for your hands! The internet’s favorite horse head mask! The librarian action figure with “Amazing Shushing Action!”

Seattle’s Archie McPhee is one of the largest and oldest novelty designers and manufacturers in America, providing the average Joe with items that seem like they were designed in some other dimension where the laws of practicality and common sense no longer apply. They have a long, colorful history of bringing weird and unfathomable items to an unsuspecting world. But it’s not all screaming pickles and wind-up teeth. Running one of the most successful novelty operations in the world can lead to some pretty bizarre disasters.

The company was founded around 1983 by curio aficionado Mark Pahlow, who would list strange, cool, often useless items in colorful mail-order catalogs. In the beginning, he would find bizarre items like acupuncture dummies and resell them explicitly as novelties to other outlets, such as head shops. As the business grew, Pahlow began importing odd items from manufacturers overseas whose warehouses he would visit to shop for oddities. By the 1990s, the well of odd items began to run a bit dry, so Archie McPhee (Pahlow named the company after his great uncle) began to design and manufacture their own, homegrown bits of strangeness as well.

Yep. They’re real. (Photo courtesy of Archie McPhee)

“One of the early big hits was a punching nun puppet,” says David Wahl, Director of Awesome (actual title) at Archie McPhee. Wahl has been with the company since 1994, and has had a hand in creating a number of their products throughout the years. Many of their early originals were simply modified versions of existing items, such as cheap, punching puppets, which they bought and dressed up like a nun. “They had an extra Margaret Thatcher head, because they had made those punching puppets for the British elections back in the ’70s. We just got Margaret Thatcher’s head, and stuck a habit on top of it.” Today Archie McPhee rolls out around 150-200 new products a year, selling them through their website, storefront location, and wholesale.

But dealing in fringe products has led to some equally strange situations when problems arise. They’ve had whole shipments of paper watches burned by Customs, after they were accused of trying to import counterfeit goods. There was the time they almost got sued by a Big Tobacco company for encouraging children to light up, thanks to a “Smoking Baby” doll. Or even the lunch box with the “Biohazard” symbol on it that the U.S. Department of Transportation informed them was illegal to sell. “They pulled out a little used rule, which is that the biohazard symbol can only be used on containers that can actually contain biohazardous materials,” says Wahl. And then there are those cases where almost threatened national security with their whimsy.

Why it’s a horse head squirrel feeder, of course. (Photo courtesy of Archie McPhee)

One such situation arose when Archie McPhee tried to sell some old dummy torpedoes. The company had bought a pallet of fake wooden torpedoes, which had been used in naval training exercises. They were painted to look like a real torpedo, and they even had a real propulsion mechanism built into the back, but they were not real weapons. They managed to sell a few of them to customers around the U.S., until one day, the Department of Defense came knocking. Agents came to the Archie McPhee store, collected the remaining torpedoes they had on hand, and demanded that the company get back the ones they had already sold.

“It turned out the mechanics of the torpedo were still top secret,” says Wahl. “They were specifically afraid that the Iranians were going to get ahold of the 1960s missile propulsion technology.” They were able to get almost all of the torpedoes back, save for one fiercely patriotic customer who refused to return his. As Wahl told us, they had to give the DOD the customer’s address so they could go get the dummy missile themselves. Wahl later received a letter from the customer that said two agents had come to his house, and after he let them in, they walked directly to where the torpedo was hanging, picked it up, and walked right back out in true G-Man fashion.

But this wasn’t the only time Archie McPhee ran afoul of government enforcers. In another strange case, the store bought a couple of pallets of shredded money that had been destroyed by the U.S. Treasury. It came to them on pallets wrapped in plastic, simply a huge mound of shredded money, and Wahl was tasked with writing it up for the catalog. Among the uses he whimsically suggested for the product included using it to start a fire or buying a lot of it and trying to glue it back together again. But these are specifically some of the things you are NOT allowed to do with shredded money, according to federal rules, and after not too long, the Secret Service paid them a visit, guns and all.

“They let us know, in no uncertain terms, that we were not allowed to sell shredded money for any of those purposes,” says Wahl. “They also specifically said that they were afraid the Iranians were going to buy all our shredded money, and try and destroy our financial system by flooding it.” 

FINGER MONSTERS! (Photo courtesy of Archie McPhee)

As it turns out, you can only sell shredded money as a novelty within a strict set of guidelines, including keeping the amount less than one dollar bill and encasing it in tamper-resistant packaging, like a clear plastic keychain. And with no easy way to repackage and sell the bales of destroyed cash, it simply sat in their warehouse, which is when the real problem started.

“One of the things you don’t know about money is that it is covered in human skin,” says Wahl. “So as it gets hot out, it basically starts smelling like human flesh.” The stench of the dead, rotting skin was overpowering, and any time the shredded money had to be dealt with, workers had to wear ventilator masks and gloves. Eventually, they were able to sell the reeking bails back to the original buyer at a steep loss.

Even through all the unforeseen weirdness, Archie McPhee continues to churn out some of the strangest and most delightful products imaginable, like an upcoming unicorn finding kit, or a set of finger puppets that turn your hand into a panda. To Wahl, even though most of their products are weird and impractical, they are more than worth getting into a little trouble for.

“If life’s a cupcake,” he says, “we make the frosting.”