When German physicist Dr. William Roentgen discovered the process that would lead to the creation of the modern x-ray back in 1895, he probably didn’t expect his important discovery to end up associated with the common gag product known as ‘X-Ray Glasses.’ They were initially an item you could only find in the Johnson Smith and Co. catalog, along with Whoopee Cushions, Joy Buzzers, live chameleons, luminous ghost masks, and home recording outfits. Of all of these, X-Ray Glasses seem to have found an iconic position among American gag articles of the 1950s.
Although it’s impossible to know why X-Ray Glasses caught on the way they did, it probably had something to do with the fact that few people at the time understood what x-rays actually were, or possibly it was because the precursor to X-Ray Glasses, called the “wonder tube,” was popular since the 1940s. It also helped that x-rays were not considered dangerous. Some shoe stores even used x-ray machines to wow customers and get a view of a person’s foot bone structure to aid in finding them a proper fitting shoe. Clearly, there was a dearth of knowledge about hazardous materials – kids broke thermometers to play with the mercury inside, and you could actually buy an “Atomic Energy Kit” that came with real chunks of radioactive uranium ore and a Geiger counter.
Today practically everyone knows it’s futile to peer through cardboard glasses with a quarter-inch hole punched in them in the hope of seeing through solid objects. Yet there remains something oddly fascinating about the positively pervy catalog and comic book ads, which portray a boy “seeing through” the dress of a girl whose body contours are subtly outlined in the drawing as the path of the ‘x-rays’ seems to emanate from the glasses themselves. The ad offers some secret power to allow you to gaze with impunity upon the object of your desire.
There was also something creepy about those thick, black, plastic, injection-molded frames. They certainly didn’t help offset the not-so-subtle hint of leering perversion. But what kept those ads for X-Ray Glasses from crossing over that line to where they’d be the subject of some manner of statutory offense was their cardboard lenses printed with this glaringly obvious black and white spiral pattern that made any suggestion that they’d actually work seem patently ridiculous. Of course they didn’t work, but then again…..
X-Ray Glasses may not be the go-to gag item they once were, but that’s not to say they’re gone for good. In fact, new technologies are making it possible that a product may soon be available that can deliver the images that x-ray glasses promised. This gadget doesn’t use x-rays but rather a light filtering process that blocks reflected light from clothing while allowing the infrared image of body heat to pass through. Who knows if they’ll be marketed the same way, or if they’d catch on, but I just might have to buy myself a pair.
The lure and lore of X-Ray Glasses continue to inspire imaginations. To get a free download of the song ‘X-Ray Glasses’ by singer-songwriter Eric Colville, click here.