The origins of “Kilroy was here” are murky. Soon after the end of WWII, the American Transit Association ran a contest to track down just how the meme had started. Dozens of candidates stepped forward, to claim that they had originated the viral phrase and doodle. Over the years, there has been plenty of research and historic sleuthing on Kilroy. The most credible theory traces the meme to James J. Kilroy, an inspector at the Fore River Shipyard in Braintree, Massachusetts. He oversaw the work of riveters, who were paid by how many rivets they had installed. After they noted down the number of rivets, inspectors usually put a chalk mark on the work done. However, some unscrupulous riveters erased the mark, in order to get paid twice for the same work. So Kilroy began to write “Kilroy was here” in harder-to-erase crayons.
Inspector Kilroy’s crayon mark would normally have been painted over, but in the mad rush of WWII, such niceties were often ignored. Thousands of American servicemen thus came across “Kilroy was here” on ships built at Fore River Shipyard. They had no clue who Kilroy was, and from that minor mystery, a viral meme was born. Especially hard-to-reach ship locations were the likeliest to go unpainted, and the presence of the phrase in those inaccessible spots enhanced Kilroy’s reputation for getting into impossible-to-reach places. Once they disembarked, many GIs continued the gag about the mysterious Kilroy, ran with it, and tagged every available surface to let the world know that Kilroy had been there. At some point, somebody added an easy-to-imitate drawing of a big-nosed cartoon character to the gag. That combination of phrase and doodle took Kilroy from a widespread meme to major viral history.
The 1920s and 1930s had their fair share of strange viral pastimes. One such was marathon dancing. Those were endurance events, in which couples competed with each other, with prizes for whichever duo had the legs to dance until they outlasted the rest. This odd pastime started in 1923, when a woman named Alma Cummings outlasted six partners as she danced for 27 consecutive hours at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. That inspired others, and dance marathon contests quickly spread across America, as competitors tried to break Cummings’ record.
The competitions became spectator events, publicized in the press and hyped up by promoters and sponsors. However, the happy-go-lucky Roaring Twenties ended with the stock market crash of 1929. 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 bleaker 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 dance marathon competitors during the Great Depression were no longer in it for the fun of it. They did not even bother to dance. What had begun as a viral trend had grown, well… depressing. The competitors’ goal now was the prize money, or at least to spend as much time as possible indoors and fed by the event’s sponsors. The key was to expend 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 continue to move. 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, as they adhered to rules about the need to hold each other, without their knees touching the floor.
Contestants got fifteen minutes’ rest each hour in some competitions, 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 declined in the 1930s, as they grew increasingly controversial. Many questioned the morality of exploiting destitute dancers to entertain paying spectators. There were also concerns about the exhibition of female bodies and potential sexual exploitation. By the end of WWII, dance marathons had largely vanished.
Bad as dance marathons got, they never got as bad as the viral medieval trend of dancing to death. People often get a tune or jingle stuck in their heads, just can’t get it out, and hum and mumble it on and off for hours or maybe days on end. But what about the next level: how about a dance move that somebody can’t stop? Almost everyone loves a good boogie, but what happens if the boogie is so good that people just can’t quit, and dance themselves to death? That is what the good people of Strasbourg, Alsace, in what is now France, discovered in July 1518.
That summer, Strasbourg was struck with a dancing mania, as hundreds of people began to dance nonstop, for days on end. By the time the dance fever finally broke, many had literally danced themselves to death from heart attacks, strokes, or sheer exhaustion. It all started innocently enough on a typical July morning, when a Frau Troffea began to dance in the street. Onlookers clapped, laughed, and cheered her high spirits and joie de vivre as she danced. And danced. And danced some more. Frau Troffea danced without a break for six days. Within a week, dozens joined her marathon dance, mostly women.
Concerned Strasbourg authorities consulted local physicians. They opined that the viral dance fever was caused by “hot blood”. Convinced that the dancers would recover only if they got it out of their system by dancing continuously, the authorities hired musicians to play for them. A wooden stage was erected, and to make additional dance space, guildhalls were opened up, and the marketplace was cleared out to make more room. Those measures backfired, and simply encouraged even more people to join the craze.
Within a month, the number of nonstop dancers had ballooned into the hundreds. At the height of the dance fever, fifteen residents keeled over and died each day from exhaustion and heart attacks. The Strasbourg dance plague was not an isolated incident. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were enough similar outbreaks for contemporaries to coin a term for the phenomena: Saint Vitus’ Dance, or Saint John’s Dance. There is no modern consensus on the cause. As such, it is simply categorized as an unusual social phenomenon – a mass public hysteria, or a mass psychogenic illness of unknown provenance.
24. 1939 Saw the Birth of a Gross Fad – Which was Unfortunate for Goldfish
One of America’s strangest viral trends of the twentieth century began with a brag that led to a dare and a bet in the spring of 1939. Harvard Freshman Lothrop Withington Jr., who saw somebody swallow a goldfish when he was a child, bragged to his friends that he had done it himself. His friends called bull, he swore he had, and things escalated and got heated. Eventually one of Lothrop’s friends decided to call his bluff and bet him ten dollars that he couldn’t do it again. Backed into a corner by his big mouth, Lothrop, like most young men in similar situations, was not about to back down. He accepted the wager, and the rest was stupid viral history.
Lothrop had never actually swallowed a goldfish before, but he wasn’t about to expose himself to his peers’ ridicule. With a “death before dishonor” attitude, he manfully prepared himself. In the days leading up to the bet’s settlement, Lothrop started off small, and swallowed tadpoles. He then gradually worked his way up to baby goldfish, to midsized ones, and finally to full-grown goldfish. The spring of 1939 was probably a slow news stretch in Boston. It must have been, because the local media extensively covered what was, after all, just a silly bet between college kids. On the appointed day, March 3rd, 1939, a crowd of eager college kids, peppered with townies and some reporters, gathered to see if Lothrop would put his mouth where the money was. As seen below, he did.
Lothrop Withington Jr. plucked an unlucky three-inch-long live goldfish from a glass beaker. He crammed the wriggling creature into his mouth, gave a couple of chews, and swallowed. As he put it later: “the scales caught a bit on my throat as it went down“. Something about the event resonated, and the story quickly spread from local news to the national media. Soon, even the era’s biggest magazine, Life, had a feature about the Harvard goldfish swallowing. Before anybody knew it, goldfish swallowing was a viral craze that swept American colleges. Lothrop’s pioneering feat was soon eclipsed: a student at the University of Pennsylvania swallowed 25 goldfish. His days in the spotlight were brief, however. That record was soon shattered, and the title of “Intercollegiate Goldfish Swallowing Champion” was snatched by somebody from MIT, who gulped down 42.
The MIT kid’s accomplishment was soon eclipsed in turn by Joseph Deliberato of Clark University, who swallowed 89 goldfish in a single sitting in April, 1939. The fad was intense, but short-lived. Pressure from The Animal Rescue League – the PETA of its day – began to change public perceptions, and state legislators introduced bills that sought “to preserve the fish from cruel and wanton consumption“. The pastime’s popularity waned, and soon, goldfish swallowing was no longer cool on college campuses, and the trend faded into oblivion. That is, until recently, when it was revived as “The Goldfish Challenge”, whereby YouTube was littered with plenty of gross videos of people swallowing goldfish.
22. Snatching Hats from People’s Heads Was Once a Thing
In the nineteenth century, straw hats became fashionable among American men. Light and permeable, they were typically worn in summer, often at sports outings. Most popular was the straw boater, originally worn at boating events. At first, the era’s fashion police gave straw hats the side eye and frowned upon their use. They gradually won acceptance, though, and by the late nineteenth century, straw hats were standard summertime male headgear. However, the acceptance came with a caveat. An unwritten rule decreed that straw hats were strictly summertime wear.
September 1st emerged as an arbitrary end date for straw hat season. It was later extended to September 15th, which came to be known as “Felt Hat Day“. A tradition emerged, whereby those wearing straw hats past the cutoff date were liable to have them snatched off their heads and destroyed by friends and acquaintances. It was all good fun at first. Then it morphed into widespread crime, when strangers took liberties and began to snatch straw hats off the heads of people with whom they were unacquainted. The results were violence, and eventually, widespread rioting.
Fashion are so slack these days that even sweatpants and hoodies can be treated as acceptable boardroom attire. Things were different in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when fashion – especially headgear fashion – was serious business. The rule that men should not wear straw hats after September 15th was taken seriously – too seriously. Those who defied that bit of convention ran afoul of the fashion police – or more accurately, the fashion mob. A man who wore a straw hat after September 15th was fair game for anybody who wanted to snatch it off his dome and stomp it to smithereens. Many went along, good-naturedly. Some, however, saw the snatching and destruction of their private property by strangers as what it actually was: a crime.
Resistance did not end what had become a viral practice, however. It merely emboldened the straw hat fashion police to gather in mobs for mutual protection – or mutual bullying – and get more violent. Pittsburgh was home to one of the earliest recorded instances of widespread violence surrounding the end of straw hat season. On September 15th, 1910, Felt Hat Day demonstrations were organized. Mobs descended upon straw-lidded pedestrians to snatch away and destroy their headgear. Some stood up for their right to wear whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, and resisted the wrecking of their straw hats. For their trouble, they came close to getting wrecked by the demonstrators.
As anti-straw hat crime and violence spread and went viral, some straw hat wearers pulled guns to protect their headgear. Elsewhere in Pittsburgh, some had their hats taken off their heads at gunpoint. Eventually, police were mobilized to disperse the rioters, and serious bloodshed and loss of life were narrowly avoided. In the aftermath, many newspapers downplayed it as “youthful exuberance”. As the scale of the September 15th rioting grew in subsequent years, however, the patience of the public and media with such exuberance grew thin.
Violent youth gangs that roam the streets and assault hapless passersby have probably been around since cities first came into existence. However, it has probably been a long time since such youthful gang violence was driven by an intense dislike of the victims’ fashion choices. America’s youth got it into their heads that, come every September 15th, they were entitled to yank straw hats off of people’s heads and destroy them. It proved quite difficult to put that genie back in the bottle. Many newspaper reports on Pittsburgh’s 1910 straw hat disturbances noted that things were bound to get worse. They were right.
The viral fad of snatching straw hats off people’s heads and destroying them led to serious disturbances. In 1922, New York City erupted into a days-long Straw Hat Riot, which put that of Pittsburgh in 1910 to shame. It began in Manhattan’s Mulberry Bend, when some urchins decided to ignore the September 15th cutoff. They got a head start on their annual crime spree, and began to snatch and destroy straw hats on September 13th. The kids’ first target was some dockworkers, but the dockworkers did not see the humor in it, got ticked off, and fought back. Things escalated, and that night, widespread mayhem and crime engulfed Manhattan.
After they got beat down by the dockworkers, the kids regrouped in ever-larger and increasingly more violent gangs. Soon, mobs of out-of-control youth roamed the city, snatched hats off heads, attacked people en masse, and beat up any who resisted. NYC’s 1922 Straw Hat Riot went on for days. The initial mayhem on the night of September 13th grew so widespread and got so bad that it halted traffic on the Manhattan Bridge. Police reinforcement were rushed in to end the violence, but the relief was only temporary. The next night, the crime spree intensified when youth gangs, some of them armed with nail-studded clubs, returned to the streets of Manhattan.
18. People Were Literally Murdered for Wearing Straw Hats
Straw hat wearers who crossed the rowdy NYC kids during the 1922 Straw Hat Riot were lucky if they only lost their hats. The unlucky ones lost their hats and got beaten to a pulp. Police were helpless, as the riot went on for days, and spread from the East Side to the rest of Manhattan. The Upper West Side became particularly dangerous for the straw-lidded, as a mob of more than 1000 hooligans snatched straw hats on Amsterdam Avenue. Many were injured during the riot, and many were arrested. However, since many culprits were underage, they did not stay in lockup for long, before they were released to their parents.
In the East 104th Street Precinct, the police lieutenant in charge insisted that the parents spank their kids then and there, as a condition for their release. The viral straw hat destruction fad continued. Although there was no recurrence of widespread rioting on the scale of 1922’s mayhem, the end of straw hat season continued to be attended by violence. In 1924, for example, a man was murdered for wearing a straw hat after September 15th. The violent tradition finally came to an end when straw hats went out of fashion during the Great Depression.
One of the 1920s’ oddest trends was kicked off by an eccentric and colorful character named Aloysius Anthony Kelly, popularly known as “Shipwreck” Kelly (1885 – 1952). He kicked off a weird fad that swept America: flagpole sitting. Shipwreck Kelly became famous in the 1920s and 1930s because he perched atop flagpoles for extended periods of time. His fame attracted imitators and copycats. Before long, flagpole sitting had gone viral. Unlike today’s viral fads that last a few months, or maybe a year or two, max, flagpole sitting remained a “thing” throughout two decades. Not that pole sitting was an entirely new fad. In the early centuries AD, some Christian ascetics, known as “pillar saints”, lived on pillars, atop which they preached, fasted, and prayed. One of them stayed atop a pillar for 37 years.
Shipwreck Kelly was the first to reintroduce that practice in a new form in the modern era. He took it from its ancient Christian roots, and popularized it as a secular entertainment spectacle. Kelly, born in New York City’s Hell’ Kitchen, was orphaned when his father died while Kelly was in the womb, and his mother died in childbirth. He was an adventurous and restless soul from early on. He climbed his first pole when he was seven, and pulled off a human fly stunt at age nine when he scaled the side of a high-rise building. When he was thirteen years old, Kelly ran away to become a sailor. He tried his hand at a variety of careers, from steeplejack to steelworker, as well as a boxer, high diver, stuntman and movie double.
16. How This Weird Trendsetter Earned His Nickname
Shipwreck Kelly claimed to have earned the nickname after he survived five shipwrecks, two airplane crashes, and three automobile accidents. Other sources say it was because he was such a hapless boxer that he seemed adrift in the ring, like a shipwreck. Whatever his nickname’s origin, he kicked off the viral flagpole sitting fad in 1924. As a publicity stunt for the opening of a Philadelphia department store, Shipwreck Kelly perched himself atop a flagpole for thirteen hours and thirteen minutes. That feat struck a chord in the national imagination. It was widely publicized, and within weeks, hundreds of people across the US set out to try and break Kelly’s record for time perched atop a flagpole.
Once Kelly’s record was surpassed, the competition heated up, as hundreds vied for the title of “King of the Pole“. Kelly regained his record in 1926, when he sat atop a flagpole in St. Louis, Missouri, for seven days and an hour. He surpassed that in June of the following year, by sitting atop a flagpole in Newark, New Jersey, for twelve days. Throughout, he attracted huge crowds, as thousands gathered to watch his feats, with some camping out in the vicinity. Millions more followed daily updates in the newspapers or on the radio. Things looked good for Kelly, who at some point earned as much as $500 a day just to sit on a flagpole – a princely sum in those days. All good things come to an end, however.
Shipwreck Kelly was publicity hungry and a born showman. He played up to the crowds on site and to a fascinated public across the country, and gave them what they wanted with ever longer stints atop a pole. In 1929, he set a new record when he sat atop a flagpole in Baltimore for twenty-three days. The following year, before an audience of 20,000 admirers, he shattered that record by sitting atop a 225-foot-high flagpole in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for a whopping forty-nine days and one hour. Plenty of others tried to imitate Shipwreck Kelly in the 1920s and 1930s as flagpole sitting went viral. However, none achieved his level of popularity and fame, or racked up as many hours atop a flagpole as he did.
By Kelly’s calculations, in a two-decade career, he spent 20,613 hours atop flagpoles. That included 210 hours in sub-freezing temperatures and over 1400 hours in the rain. He earned a fortune in the 1920s from endorsements. He also charged admissions to his trials of endurance, and pre-leased and then rented out apartments with sight lines for his entertainments. However, flagpole sitting’s popularity waned after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and vanished during the Great Depression. By 1934, Kelly was broke, and had to work as a gigolo in a Broadway dance hall to make ends meet. He eventually died in obscurity in 1952. His body lay unclaimed in a New York City morgue for days, before somebody realized it was the once-famous Shipwreck Kelly.
London’s cops – the officers of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) – are generally respected and affectionately known as “Bobbies” today. That was not always the case. For decades after the MPS was formed in 1829, many Victorians questioned the very legitimacy of police, and the need for their services. MPS officers had a correspondingly fraught relationship with the public they were sworn to serve. Indeed, throughout much of the nineteenth century, the Bobbies were held in low esteem by many. However, the routine derision and disrespect they faced as they tried to do their jobs and fight crime were not the worst of it.
Bobbies were also frequently trolled, baited, and attacked for kicks and giggles. Indeed, violent attacks on London police became viral fun. Many Londoners disliked the cop, and there was an active anti-police ideology in the Victorian Era. It was communicated through the radical press, which depicted the new policy as an unconstitutional infringement on English liberties. The Bobbies were often referred to as “blue locusts” and “blue idlers”. It reflected a perception that the cops were parasites who lived off the taxes of honest men, and were excused by their position from honest work.
Victorian lower classes seriously disliked the newly-introduced police. They resented the suppression of popular recreations and customs such as public drinking, gambling, prize fights, and street games. All were crimes on the statutory books. Routine police work in poorer neighborhoods, such as patrolling and keeping an eye out for trouble, was often viewed by those who had never experienced such as an intrusive and unprecedented surveillance regime. Accordingly, many developed an active antipathy towards police, and tried to make the life of beat cops as miserable as possible.
That often took the form of a viral crime wave of violence against the police. Cops who tried to arrest miscreants, particularly in working-class neighborhoods, were often set upon and attacked by the culprit’s neighbors, friends, and passersby, in order to rescue the detainee. British lower class resentment of Victorian police for interfering with street life was bad enough. Even worse was the resentment when the cops got involved in any crime that had to do with domestic affairs and affrays. Cops who approached private residences, regardless of the motive, risked a hostile reception.
12. Victorian Cops Were Baited Into Cartoonish Ambushes
It was problematic for Victorian cops to even knock on doors to alert residents to security lapses, such as a door or window left open at night. Such good deeds were often met not with gratitude, but with abuse and violence from Victorians who assailed the cops for their temerity in disturbing their peace. The Bobbies were especially reluctant to get involved in instances of domestic violence. They often encountered the wrath of both parties, who often temporarily forgot their own squabble and united to attack the cops. Nowadays, we take it for granted that assaulting a police officer is a serious crime. That was not always the case.
In the Victorian era, violence against cops was not always instrumental, such as attempts to free somebody known to the assailants from the police. Instead, violence was often visited upon the Bobbies for the sheer fun of it. Many Londoners liked to lead policemen on merry chases, while others simply attacked them out of the blue. More creative were some gangs of working-class youths, whose police trolling went viral. They often collaborated to set up ambushes for police, and baited the cops to chase them down alleys and footpaths strung with trip wires. The wires’ release sprang Looney Tunes-type booby traps, and caused bricks to smash into the cops, or tipped buckets of refuse to fall upon their heads.
Christmas nowadays is a family holiday that most Americans associate with a bundle of positive emotions and images. White snow; Santa and his reindeer; non-stop Christmas music at malls; presents under an evergreen tree; family and loved ones gathered around a dining table groaning beneath a sumptuous feast. The only controversial thing about Christmas today seems to be that fraction of the public who grow livid if they hear others say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. That is pretty tame, however, compared to how many Americans viewed Christmas in centuries past.
Christmas was once a time of drunken riots, in which the streets were transformed into free for all drunken brawls and scenes of widespread viral crime. Back in the days, many feared and loathed Christmas. In the 1600s, the Massachusetts Bay Colony criminalized Christmas celebrations. The Puritans were not upset so much by the religious devotions, as by the disorders and crime sprees that accompanied Christmas celebrations. While many American families commemorated the holiday with wholesome outdoor activities such as skating or watching horse races, Christmas for single men was a time to get wild.
The viral fad of getting get wild on Christmas – and concerns about the out-of-control loud and frequently violent celebrations – reached a peak in the nineteenth century. In cities such as New York and Philadelphia, marked by sharp racial, ethnic, and economic divisions, Christmas was a time for dangerous mob actions. Working class young men would get liquored up, dress up as women or put on blackface, hit the streets looking for trouble, and commit sundry crimes. Many of Philadelphia’s young and drunk Christmas celebrants donned masks – a forerunner of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade.
That led contemporaries to label them “fantasticals”. They were also referred to as “callithumpians” – partly from their habit of thumping things (and people). The celebrants would gather in groups, and in a mockery of real music, bang on pots, cowbells, improvised horns, and sing off key as they made their way from tavern to tavern. There, they would demand free drinks, and beat up anybody who objected. The drunken celebrants, many of them unemployed, formed themselves into gangs, and paraded – or staggered – into rich neighborhoods, to indulge in crimes petty and grand.
9. Viral Christmas Violence Played a Key Role in the Formation of American Police Forces
Sozzled and often belligerent Christmas celebrants were full of anything but good cheer. They beat drums, sang loudly, rang doorbells, expressed social discontents, smashed windows, fired their guns, and otherwise made themselves disagreeable and strove to “make the night hideous“. Such nuisance crimes were just the tip of the iceberg. Knifings, shootings, arson, and other acts of mayhem and murder were also common. It was a reminder to the era’s 1% that class conflict and violence seethed beneath America’s surface. The authorities were largely powerless to stop the Christmas crime sprees and disorders. Understandably, respectable citizens condemned Christmas as a disgrace.
Newspapers railed against “the drunken men and boys in the street“, and the “black sheep … who made night hideous with Galathumpian doings“. In 1844, a New YorkLedger editorial deplored the streets being overrun with a “riotous spirit … our city has almost daily been the theater of disorders which practically nullify civil government “. Pressure finally led to the creation of modern police forces capable of effective crowd control. They kept the crime spree relatively controlled by keeping the celebrants out of the business districts and wealthy residential areas. Instead, they made sure that the Christmas hooligans confined their disorders to their own working-class neighborhoods. Eventually, a cultural shift took the wild partying from holy Christmas, and made the secular New Year’s the time for rowdiness instead.
Most of us like to travel, and see a bit of the world from time to time. However, 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 aimlessly walk, wander, and travel. It was classified alongside other impulse control disorders, such as pyromania and kleptomania.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dromomania became a viral rage in France. Tourism can be like an addictive drug. One of the best case studies on that was that of Jean Albert Dadas, a gas fitter from Bordeaux, France. In 1881, as he served his term of conscription in the French Army, Dadas went AWOL in order to travel. He abandoned his post and headed to Prague in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and from there, to the German capital, Berlin.
7. An Aimless Wanderer Mistakenly Arrested for Terrorism
Jean Albert Dadas’ dromamania became the subject of a nineteenth-century medical doctoral dissertation. From Berlin, he continued on into the Russian Empire and ended up in Moscow. There, he was arrested on suspicion of radical terrorism – he was unlucky to arrive soon after Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated. The authorities did not believe his explanations for why he was in the Russian Empire. However, they found no evidence linking him to terrorism or radicalism and simply ordered him expelled.
Dadas ended up walking all the way to Constantinople. 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 he hit the road again. He finally returned to France, worn out and a bit incoherent, in 1886. His case gained widespread publicity. From the mid-1880s until around 1909, his example was emulated by numerous Frenchman, who gave in to an uncontrollable urge to travel.
6. Reaction Against This Viral Fashion Trend Led to Riots
Throughout history, older generations have often given the side eye to youth fashion. Seldom, however, does it go from eye rolls to widespread violence. An exception was America’s reaction to the viral zoot suit fashion fad. Zoot suits took American youth culture by storm in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The outsized outfits stood out with their eye-catching look, of a long coat with wide lapels and broad shoulder pads. Baggy, tight-cuffed, and high-waist pants accompanied the coat, as did pointy French-style shoes. A watch chain dangled from the belt to the knees, then back to a side pocket. Finally, a color-coordinated fedora, sometimes with a long feather, completed the ensemble.
The distinctive zoot suits made their first appearances in African American communities in Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit. Eventually, they crossed over and became 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. As seen below, the suits became even more controversial when America joined WWII.
5. Media Whipped Up Moral Outrage Against This Item of Youth Fashion
The elaborate zoot suits were luxury items that required significant tailoring and materials to produce. When America was thrust into WWII, the US War Production Board singled out zoot suits for criticism, as wasteful of materials and production time. The youngsters who sported the outfits saw them as expressions of their freedom and individuality, or even rebelliousness. Others, however, saw the viral fad as unpatriotic extravagances in wartime. When Life magazine ran a 1942 article about youths in zoots, 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 clad in zoots, 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.
The ground was prepared for the Zoot Suit Riots a year before they erupted. Los Angeles area newspapers whipped up racial tensions with sensationalist reports about a “crime wave” caused by Mexican-American youths, whose signature getup was zoot suits. It existed only in the newspapers’ imagination. Before long, a full-blown media campaign demanded that the authorities crack down on the “zoot suiters”. In response, law enforcement conducted frequent roundups, in which hundreds of Mexican-American youths were arrested. They were guilty of nothing more than going along with a viral fad and wearing oversized suits. 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, and served at a higher rate than whites. They also had one of the highest percentages of Medal of Honor recipients. Trouble began in June of 1943, when mobs of white servicemen roamed that city, and attacked allegedly “unpatriotic” Mexican-American’s wearing zoot suits. The rioters focused on Latino youths, but 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 one of the few times – the straw hat riots being another example – when fashion choices led to widespread civil unrest in America.
Remember planking, the Ice Bucket Challenge, or similar viral fads that pop up, spread like wildfire, then fade into oblivion? Their 1950s equivalent was phone booth stuffing. People around the world – or at least the English-speaking world – competed to see how many folks they could cram into a phone booth. It is often assumed to have begun in colleges on the US West Coast, but in reality, it started in Durban, South Africa. There, in early 1959, twenty-five students tried to see if they could fit into a phone booth.
They pulled it off, and submitted their accomplishment to the Guinness Book of World Records. Word of their stunt spread, and before long, a fever of phone booth stuffing had spread to England, Canada, and the US. To participate, people – usually college students – squeezed themselves into a phone booth, one after another, until nobody else could fit in. While seemingly straightforward, there was a lot of complexity involved. In 1959, college kids began to skip class to devise plans to beat the record. As seen below, things spiraled from there.
College kids drew schematics to try and figure out the optimal configuration for cramming the highest number of human bodies into a phone booth, kind of like a 3-D Tetris. In Britain, where the fad became known as the “telephone booth squash”, some students went on diets to reduce their bulks. At MIT, some turned to geometry and advanced calculus to figure out the most efficient configuration to cram bodies into a tight space. As the competitive juices flowed and the competition heated up, accusations of cheating were hurled.
Some universities’ claims were challenged because of violations of supposed rules that should have been followed. Some argued that booth stuffing was valid only if somebody inside was able to make a phone call. In some universities, the count was based on any part of a competitor’s body placed 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 viral fad died out by the end of 1959.
Nowadays, wigs are so cheap that you can get a realistic looking one for under ten bucks. There was a time, however, when wigs were necessities for the upper crust – and quite expensive necessities at that. In the eighteenth century, for example, to make a decent wig usually took “six men working six days from sunup to sundown“. As a result, a good wig could cost as much as an average workman earned in a year. Such a small fortune propped atop rich people’s heads made wigs an attractive target for crooks. The result was a viral crime wave of wig robberies.
Aristocrats with elaborate wigs became particularly attractive targets for highwaymen. Since only the wealthy could afford big wigs, wealthy nobles were nicknamed “bigwigs”, after the lucrative target atop their heads. Not all wig thieves used force. One account tells of a wig bandit so bold and skilled, that he was able to replace his target’s expensive wig with a cheap rug when the mark was distracted. The nobleman, oblivious to the switch that had taken place, would then walk away, unaware that he had just lost a fortune. Unfortunately for the wig snatchers, their gravy train came to a halt when wigs went out of fashion.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading