Friday, February 15, 2013

The Skinny: Pass Me That Hot Dog

Did you ever own a slap bracelet? I had five or six, back in elementary school. Even then, I had a suspicion that the days were numbered for those things. I mean, they kind of hurt, especially when you got ambushed by somebody. You're in the cafeteria, laughing with your friends, and just as you reach for your chocolate milk carton--SLAP! Somebody gets you. And yet, they were kind of fascinating. I used to unroll, and slap, and unroll, and slap--kind of masochistic when you think about it. So, when the fad died, I wasn't particularly surprised or upset. I just packed away my bracelets and got on with my life.

And now, you can buy slap bracelets at Target. When I saw them on the Valentine's display, I took a moment to reminisce, and then to wonder why in the world that fad came back (even on a small scale), and then I started thinking about fads in general. I especially wondered if there were any fads from decades past that managed to worm their way into our culture permanently. Something that should have gone out of style, but didn't. So, I decided to start with the 1930s.

One of the biggest crazes of the 1930s was a little game involving numbered cards and balls. It wasn't until a very excited winner yelled out "Bingo!" in her astonishment that it had a real name. Churches especially liked it, because it didn't really feel like gambling, but the buy-in fee was a great way to raise money. People during the Great Depression needed the social atmosphere, and the fun distraction, and the chance of winning a prize was an irresistible lure, so they flocked to their local church Bingo nights on a weekly basis. But, one particular church man wasn't quite satisfied with the profits. With only twenty-four cards, the chances of winning were much higher, and the more prizes they paid out, the less money the church got to keep. So, he called to complain to the man who invented the game. This man responded by contracting a mathematician to figure out a way to fix it, and the result was 6,000 card variations--plenty to keep the odds in favor of the host and not the players.
Bingo night in Tampa,

Monopoly was invented in the 1930s, and its appeal was strong--in a Depression, who doesn't want the chance to pretend to be a real estate tycoon? In the first week of its release, 20,000 Monopoly games were sold in the US, and the numbers continued to climb. People went crazy for it, and game nights became all the rage. The pieces have changed over the years, but it is still one of the most popular board games sold.

I guess you could say that games in general became a 1930s fad. In addition to board games and Bingo, card games were the fashionable way to spend an evening at home or with friends. Bridge was especially popular, but other games started to crop up like crazy. During the Great Depression alone, 50 million decks of cards were purchased by Americans. We may have moved on to computerized card games (you know you've played Solitaire at least once) and poker tournaments, but cards are still a popular item.

Pinball was born in this decade also. Pioneered by men like David Gottlieb and Harry Williams, it soon became an unspoken requirement for every decent bar or hangout to have at least one pinball machine. Games like Baffle Ball, Ballyhoo, Whirlwind, and Contact (the first electric pinball game) provided hours of amusement for teenagers and barflies, just like they do today.

Another game of the 30s? Miniature golf. And this truly was a craze. People went nuts for putt putt. In this decade, 40,000 miniature golf courses were built across the country. In 1930, the beginning of the Great Depression, Americans spent $225 million on mini golf, with 4 million people a day trying to perfect that bank shot off of a windmill (you know you've been there).

Punch board games were popular as well, as a kind of early version of a scratch off game. You picked a hole on the board, punched that hole, and hoped it was the winning hole. Pinups were popular decorations for these cards, and they're pretty collectible today. By 1930, the US was producing 15,000 punch boards per day.
Find it here

Possibly my favorite fad of the 1930s was the knock knock joke. It's kind of hard to believe that there was ever a time without these. In fact, the Vincent Lopez Orchestra had a hit called "The Knock Knock Song," where the band would play, and then do a call-and-response joke, and then play some more.
Another knock knock song (from ebay)

Endurance fads also erupted in the 30s: dancing, walking, talking, kissing--anything could be (and probably was) turned into a marathon contest. As roller skating was also a highly popular activity, there was even a string of "4,000 Mile Roller Derby" races (even though the actual distance was just a little over 3,000 miles). [On an unrelated note, it was in the late 1930s that the roller derby acquired its classic "high contact" components, so I guess you could say that bloody sports were also the rage.]
Ivy King, Derby Champion (picture found here)

 Speaking of endurance, the 1930s also gave us the ultimate body-torturing fad: the eating contest. Hot dogs, pies, ice cream, watermelon, seafood--you name it, they ate it (in high quantities, and very fast). Here is a pie eating contest at a prison, for anyone interested in handcuffed men eating pie:
Photo source

I'll bet that somebody in 1940 thought "Man, I'll be glad when this pinball thing goes out of style." Or maybe it was "Boy, am I tired of Monopoly." But they were wrong. So, call up your friends with a knock knock joke ready. Pull out the Bingo balls and the roller skates. Plan a beach trip and play putt putt at every single course. But first, pass me a hot dog (or thirty).

*Information from America in the 1930s

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