Wednesday, February 15, 2012

52 Trade Houses Part 45: Johnson Smith & Co.

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Over the course of the next year, we'll be detailing the history of 52 companies that sold branded fishing tackle. 52 trade houses in 52 weeks -- some obscure, some famous, and all available exclusively here on the Fishing for History Blog! If you have any items from the week's entry you'd like to share with us, please send it my way and I'll make sure it makes it on the blog.

For a discussion of what exactly trade tackle is, Click Here. Enjoy the 52 for 52!

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Trade House Tackle, Part 46:

Johnson Smith & Co.

Sometimes you run across a piece of tackle that causes you to re-evaluate what you think you know about fishing tackle trade houses.

As some of you may know, I've been helping out on Field & Stream's fishing blog run by John Merwin and Joe Cermele with their Vintage Tackle Contest. We just celebrated out first year last week! It's been a ton of fun and a few of the entries have been surprising and taught me some new things about the tackle field.

What hasn't happened until this week was a new trade house arriving via the entries in the contest. This week's entry, in fact, caused a bit of a ripple in our understanding of trade houses and the tackle they sold.

As you can see, it is a Greer Patent Lever Hook -- a nifty auto striking hook covered in both Mierzwa and Blauser's fine book as well as Jeff Kieny's Patented Hooks, Harnesses & Bait-Holders. The Greer has always been one of my favorite hooks, but this particular hook came with the onion skin paper noting it was sold by Johnson Smith & Co. of 6615 E. Jefferson Ave, Detroit, Mich.

Who was Johnson Smith & Co.? It was a wildly popular mail order house founded in 1914 in Detroit, Michigan and that gained legendary status as a purveyor of novelty goods ranging from ventriloquism goods to magic supplies.

A British-born merchant, Alfred Johnson Smith actually founded his company in Sydney, Australia in 1906 before moving to America in 1914. By 1923, the company's catalog grew to 576 pages -- meaning it was one of the largest of its kind in the world.

What has not been known until now is that they sold fishing tackle. Well, we can conclusively note that this massive company (based out Chicago, Racine and Detroit) sold the Greer Patent Lever Hook. This hook dates to the 1910s or 1920s, so tackle was a part of their stock from the earliest days.

A ca. 1930 Johnson Smith & Co. catalog featuring the Greer Hook (Courtesy Jim Garrett and Skip Brooks).

But what else did they sell? Did they hawk tackle marked "Johnson Smith" or "Johnson" or "JS&Co.?" I own several reels marked "The Johnson Casting Reel" I long felt were products of J.S. Johnson & Co. of Baltimore--a sporting goods trade house known to have sold a lot of fishing tackle. But are these reels actually Johnson Smith products?

We know that Johnson Smith sold guns (see the catalog scan below from 1938). But how much, and what kind of tackle, did they sell? The 1938 catalog, which I've looked through, has no tackle in it.

There are absolutely legions of Johnson Smith & Co. fans out there and thousands of web pages dedicated to their crazy stuff. But this, I believe, is the first mention of their fishing tackle.

It's funny how a company this big and popular--and still in business today--can have escaped our attention for so many years…but now we proudly add the name Johnson Smith & Co. to the long list of fishing tackle trade houses.

How much tackle they trafficked in--and what kinds--still remains to be seen.

-- Dr. Todd

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