Hank Green of Journey to the Microcosmos explored the dark history behind the mail-order packets of brine shrimp that were marketed as “Sea Monkeys”.
We all know that there’s kind of a feel to a dog person and a cat person. But also, take brine shrimp. That’s not a name that suggests a particularly exciting pet, but that did not stop me. Of course, they were not called brine shrimp. They were called sea monkeys.
Green explains that the idea was the brainchild of one Harold von Braunhut, a showman, marketer, inventor, and known white supremacist.
He’d successfully sold a product called Invisible Goldfish, which came with a fishbowl and fish food, but no fish. So, if you are a man who can sell no fish, then you are definitely a man who can sell Sea Monkeys, and Von Braunhut was able to do that by turning to comic book advertisements, and there, the kingdom of sea monkeys was built. …Harold von Braunhut was a white supremacist who, when he had to go see the U.S. attorney after lending a member of the Ku Klux Klan money to buy illegal guns, did bring some sea monkeys with him.
If that weren’t bad enough, the product itself was indeed questionable, as it was all about showmanship instead of good clean fun. As it turns out, the sea monkey eggs weren’t where they were supposed to be. Instead, they were put into the process early enough to hatch (in Packet 1). Packet 2, rather than containing eggs, the packet contained a water-soluble dye that would reveal the instant life of the “sea monkeys”.
But the showmanship wasn’t just in the advertising. …Because Packet 1, you know, the ozone that was supposed to condition your water, and make it nice and homey for the second packet of eggs that you’d add 24 hours later?… It also had some eggs. And Packet 2—the one with the eggs—didn’t just have eggs. It also had some water-soluble dye in it. And by the time you added that packet, the first round of eggs would already have been hatched, but they would be difficult to see…until the water filled with dye and made their hatched bodies visible. And the result, as the patent says, is “the impression of instant life.”
Not long after, comic books and advertisers ceased business with Von Braunhut and the “sea monkeys” business went by the wayside.
Harold von Braunhut created a story around Artemia that created an entirely different creature, to turn their most remarkable accomplishment into a sleight of hand. And the showmanship was certainly clever, allowing us to imagine that there are tiny individuals living tiny lives in tiny worlds like ours. But of course, that is not the life of the brine shrimp. Nor does it need to be.