In the spring of 1910, when Halley's comet last blazed through the skies, some people were so afraid of the poisonous cyanogen vapors said to be in its tail that they barricaded themselves in their houses, sealing the windows and doors. As they cowered, they gulped down comet pills or sniffed on comet inhalers. Braver sorts wearing comet-shaped diamond hatpins or toting comet-knobbed walking canes flocked to rooftop parties at the old Waldorf-Astoria. In advertisements, bars of soap and cans of coffee were depicted flying through space, feathery tails in their wake. Comet mania was at fever pitch, and freewheeling entrepreneurs were everywhere, peddling their wares.
Now, with the famed comet due to begin its streak across the horizon in November, the hyping of Halley's is once again in full swing. At last count, 80 companies around the country were selling tens of thousands of items related to the celestial itinerant. Enterprising pitchmen are hawking comet coins, medals, travel bags, pendants, posters, glow-in-the-dark pencils, hair glitter and, in playful memory of visitations past, yogurt-flavored comet pills. More than three dozen books on Halley's compete for attention. Consumers can choose among Halley's T shirts, emblazoned with slogans such as "I'm just like Halley's Comet, a once-in-a-lifetime experience" or, for children, "Halley's Comet 1986. I'll see it in the year 2061, too."
If entrepreneurs' starry-eyed projections are correct, by 1986 revenues for the entire industry could top $500 million. Comet, the familiar household cleanser, is sensibly considering an ad campaign based on Halley's. Retailers, ever alert for novelty, have been drawn irresistibly toward an event that occurs only once every 75 years. Declares Owen Ryan, president of General Comet Industries in New York: "It's the celestial version of the Olympics."
Companies that began as a whim or a part-time venture are scrambling to fill orders. General Comet Industries, which licenses a comet logo, has enticed nearly a dozen businesses to slap the trademark onto products such as running shoes and cocktail mixes. General Comet also sells its own paraphernalia, including elegantly engraved "comet stock" certificates at a mere $9.95 per 100 shares. "We started this as a lighthearted spoof," says Ryan, "but the response has been overwhelming." Two years ago, a pair of air-traffic controllers in Albuquerque launched Astroline Products, selling Halley's pins, caps and traveling bags part time. Now the business is growing at a staggering 15% a month. Says Co-Owner Larry Lawton: "It surpassed what we anticipated by a whole bunch."