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E.J. Cossman, 84; Ant Farm, Spud Gun Made Him Fortune

Times Staff Writer

E. Joseph Cossman, who made millions marketing such must-have items as shrunken heads, spud guns and the now-ubiquitous ant farm, and then made millions telling entrepreneurs how to do the same thing, has died. He was 84.

Cossman, a door-to-door salesman who perfected mail-order salesmanship and pioneered the television infomercial, then wrote books and conducted pricey seminars to demonstrate the route from rags to riches, died Dec. 7 in Palm Springs. His daughter, Ronna Binn of Tarzana, said he died of complications from a stroke.

Nothing seemed to escape Cossman’s notice. He once was at a trade show selling reproductions of famous artworks for 50 cents each, pitying his next-booth neighbor, who was touting shrunken heads at a whopping $2.98. But in three days’ time, Cossman also noted that he had sold about two dozen Da Vincis and Van Goghs while the other fellow had sold 3,000 shrunken heads.

So, as he later would advise those attending his seminars, he acted. Fast. He formed a partnership with the seller of shrunken heads, abandoned cheap art and in a year sold 2 million of the little skulls.

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Cossman was offered tooling for making the “spud gun,” a toy pistol that fires pieces of potato, for $500 by a toy maker who had made 100,000 but sold only 10,000. Dubious, Cossman checked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and learned to his delighted surprise that the country was in the middle of its biggest potato glut in two decades.

Cossman bought the spud gun-making machinery and solicited potatoes from growers, promising the toy would solve their economic problems. He had more than five tons of spuds delivered to him in New York City, dumped them on a sidewalk and got arrested. Predictably, the publicity got him on the morning network television talk shows, where he gleefully discussed his potato-firing pistol.

He sold 2 million of those, too -- in six months.

“I’ve had 20 big winners in my lifetime -- ones I’ve sold 1 million or more of. I only created two,” he told the San Diego Business Journal in 1989. The two inventions were the ant farm and a fishing lure that smelled like meat.

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For the things he didn’t invent, he said, “I contacted the manufacturers and got exclusive rights in writing. Then I’d market it as if it were my own product.”

When Cossman turned his own marketing success into daylong $595 how-to seminars, he aptly titled segments: “How to Profit From Trade Shows,” “How to Get Free Publicity” and “How to Find a Product or Service.”

In 1964, when he switched from selling oddities to selling advice, Cossman put his experience into a book, “How I Made $1,000,000 in Mail Order.” In 1965 he wrote “Get $50,000 Worth of Services Free Each Year From the U.S. Government,” and a decade later updated that book to $100,000 in freebies.

Cossman liked to offer speeches at public libraries, crediting them as the source of his self-education about patent rights and marketing. Later in life, he earned an MBA from Pepperdine, which decided his career experience amounted to a self-tutored bachelor’s degree.

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Born poor in Pittsburgh, Cossman worked five years as a door-to-door salesman during the Depression, then served in the Army during World War II. He became an entrepreneur after the war by shipping soap to soap-deprived Europe, and became a lifelong practitioner of overseas marketing.

In 1946, Cossman formed Los Angeles-based Cossman & Levine Inc., a mail-order novelty supplier, with his brother-in-law, Milton Levine.

Ten years later, they introduced the ant farm, which Cossman and his family said he invented. Levine also claimed credit for inventing the case filled with 25 ever-busy ants, but the creative rivalry never daunted their teamwork in marketing the durable educational toy.

They paid ant-rustlers a penny apiece to find Pogonomyrmex Californicus, red harvester ants from the Mojave Desert. They refined the product as they went along -- replacing, for example, the original glue, which proved fatal to the ants.

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Both men touted the ant farm on television, with Cossman once paying a helicopter pilot $300 to fly 300 live ants to his hotel room after he landed an unexpected spot on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

In 1965, Levine bought out Cossman, renamed the company Uncle Milton Industries and packaged the product as Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm. The ant farm is still sold from the company’s Westlake Village headquarters, at a 100,000-a-month pace during the Christmas season. More than 2 million farms have been sold since its introduction nearly half a century ago.

Cossman turned to other pursuits, becoming one of the first to pay for half-hour blocks of television time to advertise the seminars he would stage for a fee across the U.S. and Canada. He called his show “Cossman’s Secrets” and used the interview format as a sales tool.

Besides his daughter, Cossman is survived by his wife of 62 years, Pearl Levine Cossman; a son, Howard; and four grandchildren.

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