One of the fascinating phenomenon of human beings is our lemming-like tendency to follow fads, get caught up in whatever the rest of the masses are doing, even if it means leaping from cliffs.
I’m old enough to remember the hula hoop craze and who among us did not have one? I believe Wham-O was the first manufacturer to introduce that cheap-o loop of plastic into the market, selling them at three dollars each in the spring in 1958. At first Wham-O was manufacturing 20,000 a day. But competition quickly emerged and by Christmas every store in America had boat loads of these things, with 28 companies cranking them out 24/7. Even at 50 cents apiece, the stores remained full of them when the holidays were over. Some unlucky sap would have to store them in warehouses till they became a re-bound fad 20 years later as young parents told their much younger children, “Whatever happened to the hula hoop? Maybe we can still find one somewhere.”
In the investment scene, the mania for tech stocks at the turn of the Millennium hurled the stock market to unprecedented heights. Books were published stating that redwoods really can grow so high they’ll reach the moon, and people believed them. The bubble burst, of course, and though many investors lost their nest eggs, unscrupulous writers made money on those books, so it was not a total bust.
It is in the light of these crazes that we look back in wonder at some of the crazy things people did in the past, and get at least a partial understanding of how it happened.
For example, people sitting atop poles…. In the 4th century, Pillar Saints like St. Simeon Stylites did it for God (demonstrating that they were abandoning the temptations of this world while sitting on pillars in the desert.) But why did all those crazy folks do it again in nineteen-thirties? A guy named Shipwreck Kelly climbed atop a pole for 13 days in the winter of 1930. It made the news, as do many crazy things people do in New York on a slow news day.
The stunt was pulled numerous times over the next decade, though occasionally police had to intervene because the crowds below were blocking traffic. Others imitated the stunt, staying atop flagpoles and telephone poles for days, weeks, even months on end. Please don’t ask me how they went to the bathroom. Maybe that’s what drew the crowds. What draws the risk takers is self-evident: 15 minutes of fame.
Speaking of endurance tests, what about those dance marathons that were a craze circa 1928–1930? There were times when I wanted to dance all night, but not many that I wanted to dance all week.
The chain letter craze, contest craze, the Confederate flag craze, the Scrabble craze, the Barbie Doll craze, the goldfish eating craze — crazes are so pervasive it almost feels un-American to not be going crazy for a season.
The Yo-Yo craze of 1951 made Luck, Wisconsin the Yo-Yo capital of the world. A guy named Duncan became the Henry Ford of the Yo-Yo industry.
Miniature golf hit the scene in 1927…. three years later, there were 40,000 courses taking in 225 million dollars in a single year… which is eighteen gazillion in today’s dollars. Elizabeth, Queen of Belgium, was addicted to the game. Even mobster Al Capone began investing in the craze.
Pet rocks made an out-of-work ad agency creative Gary Dahl into a millionaire. Their popularity was chiefly due to the ease with which they could be trained to sit and stay. And they never barked at rabbits, squirrels or deer in the yard. The craze lasted about six months.
To be sure, every age has its foolishness. In recent years, perhaps Reality TV fits the bill. Or… You tell me. To quote from my poem The Future Remains Unwrit:
We’re a complicated people,
a mixed and crazy breed.
We can always blame our parents,
for we’re all of Adam’s seed,
though in fact it changes nothing
and there’s nothing guaranteed.
The future remains unwrit.
Meantime, life goes on all around us. Let’s see what we think up next.