The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History

Khalid Elhassan - October 30, 2022

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
A Sea Monkeys ad. Fine Art America

Generations of Kids Fell for These Dumb Ads

Comic book ads have long promised kids unbelievable products for unbelievably low prices. “X-ray” glasses that would let you see through people’s clothes. A submarine big enough for you and your best friend to pilot underwater. A manual that promised to transform you in just a few weeks from a skinny dweeb who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach by bullies, and into a muscle-bound Charles Atlas lookalike who kicks ass and takes names. The only guarantee when the product finally arrives is the guaranteed look of disappointment on the recipient kid’s face when he finally sees what he’d shelled a good chunk of his allowance on.

Of all the disappointing products, however, few were more disappointing than “Sea Monkeys”. A hallmark of comics for decades, these ads depicted a family of anthropomorphic sea critters. They stood on two feet, with skinny arms and slender fingers, a crown on their heads, and a kind of sexy mommy with her legs crossed suggestively, looking at the mostly prepubescent readers with a seductive smile. All that can be yours for a dollar. As seen below, reality fell short of expectations.

The Dumbest Get-Rich-Quick Schemes in History
Brine shrimp. Pet Place

The Disappointment of Actual Sea Monkeys

Sea Monkey ads screamed: “Enter the WONDERFUL WORLD OF AMAZING LIVE SEA MONKEYS!” For a measly buck, the reader is promised instant pets that are “SO EAGER TO PLEASE, THEY CAN EVEN BE TRAINED“. All you have to do is add water, and they will hatch as soon as they are wet. It was an irresistible lure for many kids, who eagerly cut out the coupon, placed it in an envelope along with a dollar, scrounged a stamp, and mailed it to a New York City address. After weeks, or sometimes months, of waiting on tenterhooks, the postman finally delivered an envelope that contained a packet and instructions.

As kids soon learned, their pets did not hatch in a second as advertised. Instead, they first had to add a nutrient packet to a bowl of water that transformed it into an icky sludge, wait 24 hours, then add a packet of eggs. Eventually, as the sludge settled on the bottom of the bowl, some tiny whirring motions could be seen. With the help of a magnifying glass, kids finally got to see their Sea Monkeys. Except that they looked nothing like the ad, but more like some strange kind of lice. Contra the fanciful claim in the comic book, what arrived weren’t sea monkeys – there is no such species – but brine shrimp eggs. “Sea Monkeys” was just a marketing term to sucker kids into paying for brine shrimp.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

ABC News – The Pet Rock Captured a Moment, and Made its Creator a Millionaire

Central European History Journal, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2003) – The ‘Captain of Kopenick’ and the Transformation of German Criminal Justice 1891-1914

Dexter, Timothy – A Pickle for the Knowing Ones (1805)

Encyclopedia Iranica – Carrhae

Esquire, August 3rd, 2020 – Tasaday: The Stone Age Tribe That Never Was

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Part II (1994)

Groovy History – Comic Book Rip-Off Ads: Sea Monkeys, X-Ray Specs, and More

Head Stuff – Crassus, the Richest Man in Rome

Historic Ipswich – Lord Timothy Dexter

History Collection – Strange and Delightful Holiday Traditions of the Victorian Era

Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo – Life of Lord Timothy Dexter, With Sketches of the Eccentric Characters that Composed His Associates, Including His Own Writings (1858)

Live Science, June 25th, 2008 – A Savage Hoax: The Cave Men Who Never Existed

Mental Floss – Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

New England Historical Society – Timothy Dexter, the Ridiculous Millionaire Who Sold Coals to Newcastle

Plutarch – Parallel Lives: Life of Crassus

Priceonomics – The Strange Life of ‘Lord’ Timothy Dexter

Sweatpants & Coffee – Sea Monkeys: False Advertising of Science Can Still be Fascinating

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