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

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.

  • Dance Marathons

    Dance Marathons
    Photo: Public Domain / via Mashable

    For some reason during the 1920s, America became obsessed with human endurance. Kissing marathons, eating marathons, and regular old marathon-marathons were popping up everywhere, but most prevalently in the cultural imagination was the dance marathon.

    Mostly called "walkathons" at the time due to persistent Christian stigmas about dancing, couples would compete for cash prizes by seeing which pair could keep on shuffling the longest. If either person stopped moving or touched a knee to the ground, they'd be eliminated - last couple standing wins the prize. Audiences would gather to watch with a mix of vaudevillian whimsy and grim schadenfreude as couples struggled to keep moving through exhaustion, hunger, bunions, shin splints, and even elimination events like sprints or blindfold races.

    The craze hit its peak during the Depression when audiences were looking for cheap entertainment and an excess of people desperate for some quick cash provided a steady supply of contestants for the events. Their popularity began to dwindle as the novelty wore off, "professional" marathoners started popping up, and "virgin towns" started becoming scarce. Then a little thing called "World War II" came along and all of a sudden people had something a little more important to spend their time and energy on.

  • Swallowing Goldfish

    Ah, Harvard. The oldest and most acclaimed institute of higher learning on the continent. Home of eight different presidents and more than 125 Nobel Prize winners. And also one time a student there swallowed a live goldfish on a bet, spawning a slew of imitators and starting a national firestorm of goldfish-related controversy. 

    In 1939, for some reason lost to history and alcohol, Harvard freshman Lothrop Withington, Jr., proud owner of the Harvardy-est name ever, accepted a $10 bet that he wouldn't swallow a live goldfish. The future captain of industry swallowed the wriggling creature, and then... nothing. That was all he did - swallow one goldfish.

    Somehow, word of Lothrop's legendary deed spread virally across the nation's college campus (even without the aid of Facebook!) and soon everybody was swallowing goldfish in order to... impress girls? Gross people out? Get their daily supply of omega-3 fatty acids? It's hard to say why, really.

    Over the next few weeks, goldfish swallowing became such a thing that schools started banning it and threatening to expel anyone caught engaging in the illicit act. The US Public Health Service even put out a warning to all would-be swallowers about the dangers of tapeworms and diseases that could be lurking inside of the still-living fish. Then, three months after it started, the craze just totally ended. People will occasionally still do it today - the world record of 300 goldfish in a single sitting was set in 1974 - but goldfish swallowing as a "thing" was over just as quickly and mysteriously as it began. Probably because everybody got bored... or realized just how dumb it was in the first place.

  • Flagpole Sitting

    Another form of weird human endurance testing that got popularized along with dancing, kissing, and eating contests was an even more esoteric form of human "achievement" - flagpole sitting.

    One day in 1924, a stuntman/sailor/historical goofball named Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly - based on either a dare, a movie studio publicity stunt, or the fact that he was just plain bonkers - sat atop a flagpole in the middle of Los Angeles for over 13 hours. This totally random-seeming feat of creative weirdness started a rash of copycats across the country and soon America's flagpoles were lousy with attention-seekers that had that magic combination of a preternatural center of balance and far too much time on their hands. Soon people were breaking pole-sitting records east and west, prompting Kelly in 1929 to reclaim his title by staying aloft for over 49 days.

    While Kelly has since passed on (due, shockingly, to causes in no way related to either lightning or a fall from a great height), his bizarre brainchild has continued to live on. Though it's no longer a widely-practiced fad, bored balancers still take cracks at the record frequently enough. The current mark? An absurd 439 days, 11 hours, and 6 minutes set by H. David Werder beginning in 1982 to protest the price of gas (which had reached an unthinkable $1.20 a gallon).

  • Stickball and Stoopball

    To play a regulation game of baseball you need at the bare minimum 18 people, nine gloves, a bat, and a ball - and that's sharing gloves and hoping no one ever hits that ball somewhere you can't find it. Oh yeah - and you need a full-size baseball field. If you don't have those things then your choice is to not play baseball at all or to find a way to adapt - and adapt American youths did by inventing new games such as stickball and stoopball.

    Baseball is a pre-industrial sport popularized in the farmlands of America, when there were people with the resources and skills required to make their own equipment and the time on their hands required to play a full nine. As the American population became more concentrated in city centers, they brought their love of baseball with them, but adapted it to fit the constraints of their new environment. Baseball equipment is expensive, so buying regulation hardballs that require the use of regulation gloves was done away with in favor of easier-to-barehand rubber balls, tennis balls, or homemade balls constructed from found materials. Broom handles substituted for bats and cars, stoops, and other street features defined their playing field and bases.

    Baseball Hall-of-Famers Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax, amongst others, played stickball in their youth, and Mays even gave a presentation honoring the game during the 2008 MLB All-Star Game. Streetplay culture continues today in New York, Philadelphia, Tokyo, the Dominican Republic, and any other place where kids are short on money and space but long on creativity and free time.

  • Johnny On a Pony/Buck Buck

    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

    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.