10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed
10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed

10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed

Khalid Elhassan - March 13, 2018

10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed
Last 4 couples standing at a 1930 Chicago dance marathon. Imgur

Dance Marathons

Between flagpole sitting and goldfish swallowing, the 1920s and 1930s had their fair share of odd pastimes. Another weird fad of the era, even more extreme in its own way, was marathon dancing. Those were endurance events, in which dancing couples competed with each other, with prizes going to whichever dancing duo had the legs to outlast the rest.

This odd pastime started in 1923, when a woman named Alma Cummings danced for 27 consecutive hours at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, outlasting six partners. That inspired others, and dance marathon contests quickly spread across the US, as competitors tried to break Cummings’ record. The competitions became spectator events, publicized in the press and hyped up by promoters and sponsors.

The happy go lucky Roaring Twenties ended with the stock market crash of 1929, and in the ensuing Great Depression, dance marathons took on a sadder and grimmer tone. What had once been competitions driven by a desire to break records, now took on a more depressing cast with dancers desperate to win prize money. Even if they lost, they would at least spend a few days out of the elements, with free meals and a roof over their heads.

Most competitors during the Great Depression were no longer in it for the fun of it, so they did not even bother with dancing. Their goal was the prize money, or at least spending as much time as possible indoors and fed by the event’s sponsors, so they focused on expending as little energy as possible while sticking to the letter of the rules. Generally, the rules held that the dancers could not fall asleep and remain stationary, but must keep moving. Some competitions however allowed one partner to sleep, so long as the other was awake and kept the duo moving.

Thus, dance partners slowly shuffled around the dance floor, while adhering to the rules about maintaining a hold upon each other, without their knees touching the floor. In some competitions, contestants got 15 minutes’ rest each hour, during which they rushed to sleep on cots. Other competitions had no hourly breaks, and allowed dancers to leave the floor only for bathroom breaks, medical purposes, or to change clothes. Once back on the dance floor, they took turns supporting each other’s weight to keep their partner upright, as he or she got some extra rest and shuteye while being propped and shuffled around.

The popularity of dance marathons gradually ebbed in the 1930s, as they grew increasingly controversial and came under increased criticism. Aside from the morality of exploiting destitute dancers to entertain paying spectators, there were concerns about the exhibition of female bodies and potential sexual exploitation. By the end of WWII, dance marathons had largely vanished.

10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed
‘The Dancing Mania. Pilgrimage of the Epileptics to the Church at Molenbeek’, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1564. Wikimedia

Death Dancing

The dance marathons of the 1920s and 1930s might have been extreme and a bit crazy, but they were actually pretty mild compared to the dance marathons of the Middle Ages. While the Roaring Twenties and Great Depressing era dance marathons were what we might call “dance ’til you drop” affairs, their Medieval predecessors were literal “dance ’til you die” events.

We all get a tune stuck in our heads sometimes, that we just can’t get rid of, humming it for hours or days on end. But what if it’s not just a tune that you can’t stop humming, but a dance that you just can’t quit? Just about everybody loves a good shimmy, but what happens if the shimmy is so good that you just can’t stop, and end up boogeying yourself to death? And worse: what if it’s not just you, but dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people, gathered together in a literal dance to the death?

That happened often enough in the Middle Ages, particularly between the 14th and 17th centuries, that a term was coined for the phenomenon: Saint Vitus or Saint Johns Dance. The best known example occurred in Strasbourg, in what is now Alsace, France, in July of 1518. That was when the town was swept by a dance craze, and hundreds of people started dancing nonstop, for days on end. By the time the dance fever finally broke, many participants had literally danced themselves to death from heart attacks, strokes, or sheer exhaustion.

The madness started innocently enough, when a housewife started dancing in the street. Her neighbors clapped, laughed, and cheered her high spirits and joie de vivre as she danced. And danced. And danced some more. The woman kept dancing, without rest or respite, for 6 days. Within days, she was joined by dozens in her marathon dance, mostly women.

That alarmed the authorities, who consulted physicians. Their prognosis was that the dance craze was caused by “hot blood”, which the dancers had to get out of their system. And the best way to get it out of their system was to just let them keep on dancing. That sounded plausible, so the authorities hired musicians, erected a wooden stage, and created extra dancing space by opening up guildhalls and clearing out a marketplace to make more room. Those measures backfired, and simply ended up encouraging even more people to join the dance mania. Within a month, the marathon dancers’ numbers had ballooned into the hundreds, and at the height of the dance fever, 15 residents were dying each day from exhaustion and heart attacks.

The Strasbourg dance plague was not an isolated incident, and there were various other instances of mass dance crazes during the Medieval era. The Strasbourg outbreak was simply the best recorded incident, and thus the best known one. There is no consensus amongst historians as to the cause, so it is categorized as an unusual social phenomenon – a mass psychogenic illness or mass hysteria whose cause remains a mystery to this day.

10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed
Examination of Jean Albert Dadas. Mental Floss

Pathological Tourism

Most of us like to travel and see a bit of the world every now and then, but some people take that to extremes. We’re not talking backpacker types and those driven by an adventurous spirit who roam the world for years on end, but ones who literally can’t stop wandering. Dromomania is the medical term for an uncontrollable psychological urge to travel, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it became something of a rage in France.

Tourism can be something like an addictive drug, and one of the best case studies exemplifying that was that of Jean Albert Dadas, a gas fitter from Bordeaux, France. In 1881, while serving his term of conscription in the French Army, Dadas went AWOL and started traveling. He abandoned his post, and headed to Prague in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and from there, to the Prussian and German capital, Berlin.

From Berlin, Dadas continued on into the Russian Empire, and ended up in Moscow. There, he was arrested on suspicion of radical terrorism – he had the misfortune of arriving soon after Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated. The authorities did not believe his explanations for why he was in the Russian Empire, but finding no evidence linking him to terrorism or radicalism, simply ordered him expelled.

Dadas ended up walking all the way to Constantinople, and there, he was assisted by the French Consulate, which arranged for him to travel to Vienna. He settled in the Austrian capital for some time, before hitting the road again, finally returning to France, worn out and a bit incoherent, in 1886. His case gained widespread publicity in France, and from the mid 1880s until around 1909, his example was emulated by numerous Frenchman, who gave in to an uncontrollable urge to travel.

10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed
Charlie Chaplin. What Culture

Pie Throwing Foreplay and Sex

Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977) was the silent film era’s most famous star, and one of the silver screen’s all time greats. However, in addition to being a pioneer who revolutionized acting and comedy, Chaplin was also a sexual deviant who liked ’em young. Young enough to cause scandal, derail his career, and get him de facto deported from the US.

The English comic actor was Harvey Weinstein before there was a Harvey Weinstein, and Chaplin probably pioneered the “casting couch”, whereby powerful Hollywood figures extracted sexual favors from actresses during auditions. He used caption cards during auditions to prompt aspiring actresses into increasingly suggestive poses, until they stood naked before him, or just about.

Chaplin’s kinks went beyond the typical quid pro quo sexual harassment, however, as he seems to have been into some… unusual stuff. Chaplain had a thing for pies – and not just as comedic props and gags. After getting actresses to strip off their clothes during auditions, Chaplin would grope them in exaggerated ways on the couch. Then, having worked himself up by getting them to do a strip tease, followed by a groping session, he would stand them naked against a wall, and… throw pies at them.

It was not just Charlie Chaplain. In the days when throwing pies was a standard gag popularized by the English actor, and then even more so by the Three Stooges and early cartoons, pie throwing took on erotic aspects for some people. It was popular enough that some brothels stocked up on pies, and had prostitutes who specialized in throwing them at clients or having clients throw pies at them.

Chaplain was also into orgies, and liked to organize them with his friend and fellow comedic film star, Fatty Arbuckle. The historic record does not shed much light on whether pie throwing featured heavily in those orgies. But given Chaplain’s tastes, and the fact that both Chaplain’s and Fatty Arbuckle’s movies were full of pie throwing, one can reasonably speculate that there was probably a lot of pie throwing going on. Those orgies came to a screeching halt, however, in the aftermath of a scandal that rocked the country in 1921, when Fatty Arbuckle was accused of raping a woman to death. He was tried for murder, and although acquitted, the Chaplin-Arbuckle orgy parties never resumed.

10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed
Young Mexican-American zoot suiters in Los Angeles. Slide Player

Fashion Choices That Caused Riots

Zoot suits took American youth culture by storm in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The outsized suits stood out with their eye catching look, of a long coat with wide lapels and broad shoulder pads. Baggy, tight cuffed, and high waisted pants accompanied the coat, as did pointy French style shoes, plus a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knees, then back to a side pocket. Finally, a color coordinated fedora, sometimes sporting a long feather, completed the ensemble.

The distinctive suits made their first appearances in African American communities in Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit, before crossing over and becoming popular with the rest of America as part of the emerging jazz culture. In addition to African Americans, zoot suits became a huge hit with young Latinos, Filipinos, and Italian Americans. The outfit was sported by many young whites, but there was always an “ethnic” aura about zoot suits that made it problematic for much of the white mainstream.

The elaborate outfits were luxury items, requiring significant tailoring and materials to produce. Upon America’s entry into WWII, the US War Production Board singled out zoot suits for criticism, as being wasteful of materials and production time. The youngsters sporting the outfits saw them as expressions of their freedom and individuality, or even rebelliousness. Others, however, saw them unpatriotic extravagances during wartime. When Life magazine ran an article about youngsters in zoots 1942, it concluded that the outfits “were solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age to include 18-year-olds“. Other media outfits followed suit, with sensational accounts that often exaggerated the suits’ actual cost.

Before long, a backlash had built up against the outfits. Youngsters in zoot suits were frequently berated and verbally assailed in public, and sometimes physically attacked. Police would often stop people wearing the suits, and sometimes slash them into ruin. The most dramatic manifestation of the backlash, however, took place in Los Angeles in June of 1943, in what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots.

It began a year earlier, when local newspapers whipped up racial tensions with sensationalist reporting on a “crime wave” that existed only in the newspapers’ imagination, that was supposedly caused by Mexican-American youths. Before long, there was a full blown media campaign, demanding that the authorities crack down on the “zoot suiters”. The city’s law enforcement reacted by conducting frequent roundups, in which hundreds of Mexican-American youths, guilty of nothing more than wearing oversized suits, were arrested.

During WWII, LA became a major military hub, as hundreds of thousands of servicemen were stationed there or passed through en route to other postings. Many white servicemen saw the wearing of zoot suits as flouting the war effort. Mexican-Americans came to be seen as unpatriotic, despite the fact that they were overrepresented in the military, serving at a higher rate than whites. They also had one of the highest percentages of Congressional Medal of Honor recipients.

Trouble began in June of 1943, when mobs of white servicemen roamed that city, attacking allegedly “unpatriotic” Mexican-Americans wearing zoot suits. While the rioters focused on Latino youths, young African Americans and Filipinos were also targeted. Riots against Latinos soon spread throughout California to San Diego and Oakland, then across the country to Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. It was the first time in American history that fashion choices led to widespread civil unrest.

10 Strange Pastimes which People from Previous Generations Enjoyed
Phone booth stuffing. Life Magazine

Competing To See How Many People Could Fit Inside a Telephone Booth

In 1959, the world – or at least the English speaking world – was swept by a silly pastime, as people competed to see how many folk they could stuff within the confines of a public telephone booth. The faddish pastime lasted only a few months, but while it lasted, it attracted a lot of public attention, and was widely covered by the media, both print and broadcast.

The fad is often assumed to have gotten its start in US West Coast colleges, but it actually began in Durban, South Africa. There, in early 1959, twenty five students tried to see if they could all fit inside a phone booth. With considerable effort, they managed to pull it off, and submitted their weird deed to the Guinness Book of World Records. Word of their stunt spread, and before long, phone booth stuffing had become a faddish pastime in England, Canada, and the United States.

Participation was simple. People – college students for the most part – had to cram themselves into a phone booth, one after another, until nobody else could fit in. While seemingly straightforward, there was a lot of complexity involved, and college students began skipping class to devise plans to beat the record. Schematics were drawn to try and figure out the optimal configuration for squeezing the most people into a small space. The pastime was named “telephone booth squash” in Britain, where some students went on diets to reduce their bulks. Across the Pond, in MIT, some turned to geometry and advanced calculus to figure out the most efficient configuration for stuffing bodies into the limited confines of a public phone booth.

As the competition heated up, some claims were challenged because of violations of supposed rules that should have been followed. Some argued that a telephone booth stuffing did not count unless somebody inside was able to make a phone a call. In some universities, the count was based on how many people managed to place any part of their body inside the booth. They were challenged by other campuses, who contended that it only counted if all participants had their entire bodies inside. Eventually, amidst heated recriminations, the fad faded out and died out by the end of 1959.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

ABC News – The Pet Rock Captured a Moment, and Made its Creator a Millionaire

Bad Fads – Telephone Booth Stuffing

Bad Fads – Flagpole Sitting

Boredom Therapy – 20 Beloved Historical Figures Who Did Truly Terrible Things

Guardian, The, October 20th, 2013 – The Psychology of Spiritualism: Science and Seances

History Link – Dance Marathons of the 1920s

Mental Floss – 5 Historical Manias That Gripped Societies, Then Disappeared

Mental Floss – The Rise and Fall of 5 Claimed Mediums

Mortal Journey – Flagpole Sitting (1920s)

Smithsonian Magazine, February 27th, 2015 – The Great Goldfish Swallowing Craze of 1939 Never Really Ended

Adventure Medic – Dromomania – an Uncontrollable Impulse to Travel

Wikipedia – Dancing Plague of 1518

Wikipedia – Shipwreck Kelly

Wikipedia – ­Wet and Messy Fetishism