10 Crazy Fads That Swept America
An 1887 newspaper illustration depicts an evening séance. Corbis
The realm of the fad is essentially unknowable. History is littered with random enthusiasms that sweep the culture, flare for a few months or years, then recede into the Ocean of Weird and Terrible Ideas.
Particularly curious, and sometimes gruesome, are those youth culture fads that tempt the young and the bored. For instance, we point to the recent and altogether mystifying trend of eyeball licking.
The Information Age certainly isn't helping things. Now that everyone is armed with a phone camera and Internet access, the temptation to do something weird -- and broadcast it worldwide -- is apparently irresistible. Here are 10 bizarre fads, from historic to recent, that suggest the perennial dangers of boredom.
Idleness Fuels Victorian Era Fads
The idle rich of the Victorian Era were the first to truly embrace the notion of pop culture faddishness. For instance, in the late 19th century, spiritualism was hugely fashionable among the upper classes in Britain and the United States. Séances and mediums were all the rage as thrill-seeking society types trifled with the dark side. The Victorians were into a lot of weirdo fads and pseudoscience, actually, including electropathy -- essentially treating disease with massive jolts of electricity.
Pole sitters in the Netherlands try to break the world record. Etienne Werner/Corbis
An early 20th-century fad, flagpole sitting actually has its roots in ancient asceticism practices, in which holy men and yogic practitioners would mediate atop columns for years at a time. It was all showbiz in the revival, however -- an endurance test associated with stunt performers and publicity-seekers. The concept is pretty straightforward: Pole-sitters would sit on a raised platform for extended periods of time -- days, weeks, months -- and wait for fame and fortune to arrive. It seldom did.
A 1924 newspaper photo shows the final hours of a dance marathon in Washington, D.C. Corbis
A highly organized fad with admirably good intentions, the dance marathon craze began in the 1920s. Dance marathons nowadays are usually intended as fundraisers for charitable causes, but initially they were competitive events that offered cash prizes and a shot at (relative) fame. During the Depression, dance marathons were often staged by municipalities as a kind of bread-and-circuses diversion from the otherwise hard reality of American life.
Harvard freshman Lothrop Withington, Jr., swallows a live goldfish. Corbis
The original fraternity stunt, the practice of swallowing live goldfish apparently started as a college fad in the 1930s. Popular legend holds that it all began with the estimable Lothrop Withington, Jr. -- Harvard freshman -- who swallowed a goldfish on a dare. Harvard men being a competitive sort by breeding, the fad quickly spread throughout campus, then Boston, then America. Eventually, several university bylaws and local statues were passed banning the stunt.
Members of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity at George Washington University crowd in, around, and on top of a tiny Renault auto. Corbis
As we shall see later in the list, advances in technology often drive oddball cultural fads. With the proliferation of public phone booths in the 1940s and 1950s, phone booth stuffing became the next logical step for a generation of mischievous young people. Again, college students led the way and, depending on the campus, various rules applied. Some claimed all participants had to have their entire bodies within the booth, while others allowed "overstuffing." Still others claimed the stunt didn't count unless someone inside actually placed a call. The fad would later morph into "car stuffing" or "auto jamming," as seen above.
A streaker at the University of Missouri gets menaced by a dog in 1973. Corbis
Running around naked is surely a God-given right, as any 3-year-old can tell you. As a species, we've been practicing this one for a long time. But the idea of running naked through a public space, for the express purpose of scandalizing the squares, peaked in the 1970s. Once again, we can thank the undergraduate community. The U.S. streaking craze began in southern colleges -- the University of Georgia has long claimed ownership -- but quickly went nationwide. The fad's defining moment came at the 1974 Academy Awards, when a streaker ran across stage behind presenter David Niven.
Cameras swiveled to avoid the full-frontal assault as Niven fired off his immortal bon-mot: “Isn't it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”
A rural mailbox awaits its grisly fate. iStockphoto
A mostly rural and occasionally suburban phenomenon, the enduring fad known as mailbox baseball has been depicted scores of times in film and TV. The gist: Delinquent teenagers tool around in cars and bash passing mailboxes, usually by way of a baseball-bat wielding slugger on the passenger side. It's dumb, it's dangerous and it's a federal crime under U.S. Postal Regulations. Good, clean American fun.
The dangerous fad of car surfing is associated with, but not limited to, teenagers. Reuben Wu/Getty Images
Also known as ghost riding, the wildly perilous fad of car surfing has seen a resurgence in popularity of late. The terms means just what you think it means: A person climbs on the hood, roof or trunk of a moving vehicle and assumes the universal surfing stance. The fad first made waves in the 1980s, and a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 99 fatalities from car surfing over the previous 10 years. The recent resurgence is likely due to our exciting new age of instant video documentation by way of smart phones, digital cameras and YouTube.
The so-called "Cinnamon Challenge" has become a recent fad.Corbis
A recent run of weird teen fads in the media seems to suggest that -- thanks again to online communication -- fads have taken a turn toward the pointlessly masochistic. For instance, the "cinnamon challenge" involves attempting to eat a spoonful of ground cinnamon, in 60 seconds, with no water. Turns out that's impossible, and the attempt usually results in gagging, coughing and vomiting. Part of the fun, evidently, is uploading video footage of the ordeal to the Internet. A search for "cinnamon challenge" on YouTube yields more than 690,000 results. A similar stunt -- the "salt and ice challenge" -- brings back ore than 200,000 videos.
The planking craze has gone global: A young man planking at a building in China's Liaoning province. Corbis
Also known as "The Lying Down Game," the activity known as planking has spread like wildfire by way of social media, and it seems like a welcome return to the spirit of the goofy and harmless fad. The idea is to simply lie face-down, with both hands touching the side of the body, in a weird or funny place -- then take a picture and share it by way of your favorite online network. Several planking variants have evolved, including Vadering, Owling and Batmanning. Like so many Internet memes, the humor comes with volume and repetition. Look at a few dozen of these pictures in one sitting -- people lying face down, all over the planet, for no reason at all -- and the essential absurdity of existence itself is revealed.