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As Seen On TV: Acme / Sears


Specializing in anvils since the 1950s.

The Road Runner cartoons made the Acme Corporation a household name. The word became synonymous with outlandish products with equally outlandish failure rates -- products that failed in the most outlandish ways at the most outlandishly inappropriate times.

Acme products first appeared in Road Runner cartoons on September 17, 1949, in an episode called "Fast and Furry-ous." Written by Michael Maltese and created, produced, and illustrated by the legendary Chuck Jones, the 'toon introduced Wile E. Coyote -- a loyal Acme customer, despite the fact that the devices he ordered invariably squished him into an accordion, left him burned beyond recognition, or worse.

Animation aficionados believe that the famous Sears (SHLD) catalog was the model for Acme. They were both mail-order-only, and the Sears house brand went by the name Acme (which, today, is Craftsman).

Early Sears catalogs even offered Acme anvils, which are possibly the most famous of all Acme products that Wile E. Coyote employed in his pursuit of the Road Runner.

The Acme Catalog, published (sort of) by Warner Brothers (TWX), looks remarkably like a 1950s Sears catalog, and includes items such as the Acme Do-It Yourself Tornado Kit; Acme Hand Grenades; Dehydrated Boulders; the Acme Jet Propelled Pogo Stick; Triple Strength Fortified Leg Muscle Vitamins; and Instant Girl.

As poorly-manufactured as Acme products may have been, the Road Runner cartoons hewed to a highly specific set of rules -- put in place by creator Chuck Jones -- that ensured consistent quality for the life of the show, according to his book Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist:

RULE 1. The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going "Beep-Beep!"

RULE 2. No outside force can harm the Coyote -- only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products.

RULE 3. The Coyote could stop anytime -- if he weren't a fanatic. As George Santayana explained, "A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim."

RULE 4. No dialog ever except "Beep-Beep!"

RULE 5. The Road Runner must stay on the road – otherwise, logically, he wouldn't be called a Road Runner.

RULE 6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters -- the Southwest American desert.

RULE 7. All materials, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.

RULE 8. Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.

RULE 9. The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

Wile E. might have had better luck shopping in a Sears catalog. In an essay on the catalog, Reyner Banham argued that the it was pivotal in the growth of the American West, and that "the delivery of consumer goods -- from stoves to the Stetson hat -- enabled the colonization of the infrastructure-less frontier landscape."

"Sears delivered a kind of 'gadgetecture,' an out-of-the-box urbanism and for this reason, gadgetry was deeply involved with the American mythology of the wilderness," Banham wrote.

In today's terms, that would be called out-of-the-box suburbanism. Between 1908 and 1940, one could actually buy a house in the Sears catalog. The company sold about 75,000 homes through the catalog, from the ritzy "Ivanhoe," to the simple, three-room, no-bath "Goldenrod" cottage for summertime vacation use.

Sears bought a lumber mill and shipped kits via railroad boxcar, then trucked to the buyer. The average kit contained 25 tons of materials, with over 30,000 parts and a 75-page instruction book. Prices for these build-it-yourself kit houses ranged from $600 to $6,000," according the book The Houses That Sears Built.

Wile E. never was able to order a house from Acme, but there's evidence that one of his modern-day descendants may have finally abandoned Acme in favor of Sears. From last December's Morning Call newspaper of Nazareth, Pennsylvania:

"Wildlife officers removed a coyote from the Sears Appliance & Hardware store in Lower Nazareth township this afternoon. The animal had been inside the main vestibule of the store located along Route 248. It was tranquilized and carried out of the store in a pet carrier by Northampton County Wildlife Conservation Officer Bradley Kreider and Deputy Officer Kevin Halbfoerster."

He was probably just checking out their selection of Acme Earthquake Pills.

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