Weird History
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15 Popular American Fads from the 1920s, '30s, and '40s

Updated June 14, 2019 39.9k views15 items

In the space between the two World Wars, America - and in particular its young people - got into some pretty weird stuff. Let's face it; teenagers, what with their partially formed frontal lobes and massive chemical imbalances, have always found bizarre and unique ways to set themselves apart from their parents' generation. The decades from 1920 to 1950, however, were full of historically unique moments that elicited some equally unique teenage crazes.

The post-war boom of the 1920s was accompanied by the cultural sea change of Prohibition. The poverty and low employment of the Depression meant Americans had too much free time but no money to do anything with it. Then, just as the country was stabilizing economically, it found itself plunged into global conflict yet again. This forced a whole new round of sacrifices and hardships onto the American people while simultaneously inspiring in them some very odd leisure time activities.

While the teen fads of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s often seem totally goofy or absurdly random, they shared common roots in tough times and hardship. When things are going badly, we find ways to cope. When things finally get better, we find ways to celebrate. The methods used by our fun-seeking forefathers may not always make sense to people decades in the future, but hey, it probably didn't make sense to lots of people then, too.

You should also remember: that fun, trendy stuff you're into today will probably seem pretty weird to the people of tomorrow (Pokemon Go and hipster 'staches, I'm looking at you). Throughout the eras, human beings have been tenacious in both their quest for novel entertainment and their ridicule of their forefathers, so in that spirit, here are some of the trends, rages, and very weird places that our persistent hatred of boredom has taken us.

  • Johnny On a Pony/Buck Buck

    Photo: Public Domain / via NY Daily News

    Historically speaking, children have played some pretty messed-up games in order to keep themselves distracted from the crushing specters of hunger, poverty, and encroaching war. One entry on that list that enjoyed a spike in popularity during the 1940s is a violent, dangerous little past time that's known by many different names, including Johnny on a Pony and Buck Buck.

    Though there are many variants to how the game is played, the basic core of it involves one player (called the "post") bracing their body against a wall as other team members bend over and brace themselves against their mates, forming the "horse." Then, in the spirit of "fun," the members of the other team jump onto the horse's backs and attempt to topple them. Often this would result in hilarious laughter from the tangled pile of fallen bodies; other times it might result in severe injuries to the back, neck, head, and other bodies parts because kids back then knew how to party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this game has its origins in the Dark Ages.

    More fun than playing the game, however, is just reading from the list of other names and variants for Buck Buck, which includes: "High Cockalorum," "Polly-on-a-Mopstick," "Strong Horses, Weak Donkeys," "Hunch, Cuddy, Hunch," "Husky Fusky Finger or Thumb," "Warny Echo," and "Stagger Loney" ("stagger" presumably because after you've herniated a disk in your spine that's all you can do).

    A rash of Johnny on a Pony games popped up across the US during World War II, followed shortly thereafter by a rash of JoaP injuries. This prompted many schools to ban the game, effectively ending the fad

  • Drive-In Movie Theaters

    Photo: Richard M. Hollingshead / via Wikimedia

    Screenings of silent films in parks and other public places became popular in the 1920s as a kind of whimsical community event; however, logistical problems initially kept outdoor movies from becoming a viable commercial enterprise. Then some time in the early 1930s, Richard Hollingshead started projecting movies onto a makeshift screen and inviting customers to watch from their cars as a stunt to boost sales at his auto parts business. These events became so popular that in 1933, Hollingshead opened the nation's first official drive-in movie theater.

    Hollingshead began opening franchises across the country and saw some success through the thirties and forties; however, once World War II ended, so did rationing restrictions, and American car culture started to take over that his business exploded. Drive-in popularity peaked in the '50s and '60s before home video technology started to erode the medium's support, which was then further damaged by the gas crisis and America's adoption of Daylight Savings Time. Thanks, Carter.

  • Hood Ornaments

    Pop quiz, hotshot: where on your car is your moto-meter?

    If your answer was "the past," you are correct. I would also have accepted "the temperature gage on the dash" or "stop asking rhetorical questions." Moto-meters were initially built on top of cars' radiators as a thermometer visible to the driver that allowed them to keep an eye on the temperature of their fickle Packards or Stutzes.

    Once the temperature gages were moved inside the vehicle all that was left in the moto-meter gap was the unsightly radiator cap, which people began to gussy up by using customized versions that started to become progressively more ornate. By the late twenties and into the thirties, hood ornaments became an art form, with archers, Spanish explorers, and winged goddesses becoming some of the standard-issue ornaments and individual, hand-crafted versions reaching into the realms of the ridiculous.

    A move toward simpler, more streamlined designs (combined with the frustrations brought on by a new breed of criminal: the ornament thief) put a damper on the medium, though any trip to Burning Man will show you that the spirit is still alive today.

  • Kilroy Was Here

    Before anyone knew where Waldo was, everyone knew where Kilroy had been.

    Graffiti reading "Kilroy Was Here" was a kind of joke that started in the US military and spread to anywhere they went, which is to say: it was everywhere.

    Kilroy was usually depicted as the top half of a cartoon face that's peeking over a fence, his fingers and oversized schnozz hanging over the fenceline. Troops drew him on the Arc de Triomphe, astronauts drew him on the moon, and thousands of kids in school drew him on the lines of their notebook paper.

    So who the heck was Kilroy, and how did he come to be so ubiquitous?

    It's believed that the eponymous Kilroy was Navy Shipyard inspector James J. Kilroy who, in either a unique interpretation of bureaucratic procedure or a defiant stand against a cold universe, began writing "Kilroy Was Here" on the side of all of the equipment that he examined. Soon other soldiers were drawing Kilroys, then civilians, and then next thing you know Styx was writing a space opera about him.