SIOUX CITY, Iowa — When he was a child growing near Ottumwa, Harold Canny began collecting baseball cards.
After he and his late wife Marge moved to Sioux City, the couple raised four children.
And yes, Canny’s collectibles expanded as quickly as his family.
Now, vintage baseball cards, obscure marketing memorabilia and advertising displays fill nearly every room of the retired Sioux City Community School District social studies teacher’s Northside home.
“My favorite pieces usually have a story or a local angle attached to them,” Canny, 79, said. “That’s what makes the pieces personal.”
Born into a working-class family, Canny takes pride in the work ethic of his dad, a longtime employee at a meatpacking plant.
That may explain the 1926 John Morrell calendar hanging on the dining room wall or the company’s metal sign that hangs in his kitchen.
On closer inspection, many items in Canny’s collection pay tribute to businesses that no longer exist.
Chances are you’ve heard of the Hires Root Beer Company. But what about the Nichol Kola Company, which advertised itself as being “America’s taste sensation”?
Or can you remember Kayo Chocolate Soda, which featured Kayo from the “Moon Mullins” comic strip as its namesake?
Signs for all of these brands are displayed prominently in Canny’s kitchen.
“I remember seeing some of these brands as a kid,” he said. “But most are simply too obscure, even for me.”
For instance, Canny can readily identify TV’s “Howdy Doody” from an old promotional sign hyping the nutritional value of Wonder Bread. However, the redheaded marionette’s human co-star Princess Summerfall Winterspring is less well-known.
“It’s hard to miss Howdy,” he said. “But his Indian princess friend is a mystery to me.”
An advertisement for Ankle Deep Soda Pop led Canny to do some investigative work, the Sioux City Journal reported .
“I was intrigued in Ankle Deep Soda because it was a David City, Nebraska-based company that tried to play off the Nehi Sodas that were very popular at the time,” he said. “Also, I wanted to get more information on the model used in their ads.”
The swimsuit model turned out to be Marie Prevost, a former silent movie actress who died young after becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs.
“The actress’ best friend was Joan Crawford, who ended up paying for her funeral,” Canny said. “Like I said, some of the best collectibles come with a story.”
This is true for the Rube Goldberg-type cigar cutter that was used to promote Conway’s Fine Cigars, which had stores in Sioux City, Cedar Rapids and Lincoln.
“The cutter still works like a charm,” Canny said, showing off the metal contraption.
It’s also true for the miniature pickle barrel from the Monarch Pickle Company.
“Back in the day, you’d probably find this pickle barrel at some bar,” Canny said. “If you wanted to buy a pickle to go with your beer, you’d get it from it from this display.”
Placed on an upper shelf in Canny’s kitchen are tins that once contained oddball products. Did you know you could purchase Oscar Mayer lard or Peter Pan peanut butter by the can?
Canny knew that. This is why he scours antique shows throughout the Midwest. Up until recently, he also worked for a handful of local antique stores.
“Actually, it’s pretty common to see collectors working at an antique store,” he admitted. “That way, we get first dibs on the most interesting merchandise.”
Well, it’s clear that Canny has an eye for collectibles. Although he insisted he doesn’t have a favorite, a few items touch his funny bone.
“I love the old menu board that advertised Smile Orange Soda,” he said. “It featured the type of sandwiches you could get any lunch counter from the 1940s. Anything from ham and cheese to roast beef to a cold tongue sandwich.”
“I made sure to hang that sign next to my thermometer promoting Tums,” Canny added with a laugh.
Despite having a countless number of collectibles, he said he remembers the ones that got away.
“For the longest time, I wanted one of those old-fashioned strength machines,” Canny said. “You know, the ones where’s you grip a lever to see if you’re either a he-man or a wussie. I could have gotten it for a bargain one day. But I waited. When I saw it again, it was out of my price range.”
Still, he admits to more collecting victories than defeats.
Looking over Canny’s collections, you can see a remarkable slice of Americana from the age of the Greatest Generation to that of a Baby Boomer. You can spot obscure signs that would otherwise be cast aside.
That is, if it weren’t for collectors like Canny.
“You collect whatever captures your interests,” he said. “I love advertising because it’s art as well as history.”
“We can tell a lot about society through the products that we use.”