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