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“Fads,” says one critic, “are characterized by an exhilarating absence of redeeming social value . . . . Some make us laugh or smile, and others make us gag (like goldfish).”  Here are four examples.

Goldfish Swallowing

Lothrop Withington, Jr., a freshman at Harvard University in 1939, ate a live fish on a dare.  When word of the stunt got out, someone paid him $10 to do it again.  He agreed. . . .

But this time he did it in the packed dining hall of the Freshman Union.  Word spread to other schools, and three weeks later Frank Hope, Jr., a student at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, topped the record by swallowing three goldfish.  The race was on:  other students bested Hope’s record – one student ate two dozen fish in one sitting.  By the end of the semester dozens of universities had entered the competition, pushing the record up to more than 300 live fish eaten in one sitting.

NOTE:  The national craze was finally killed by a report from the U.S. Public Health Service.  They warned that many goldfish contain tapeworms that can lodge in the intestines.

3-D Movies

Hollywood was in big trouble in the early 1950s . . . or at least people thought it was.  Now that TVs were in American homes, why would people want to got to theaters and watch movies they had to pay for?  To make the movie going experience as different from TV as possible, Hollywood introduced a number of technical “innovations” such as Cinerama, Glamarama, and Smell-O-Vision.

But the innovation given the greatest chance of success was “Natural Vision,” what we know as 3-D film.  The first 3-D movie was a low-budget gem called Bwana Devil, about a railroad construction crew in Africa that gets attacked by lions.  It was panned by critics, but opened to sellout audiences in Los Angeles in November, 1952.  The movie made $95,000 the opening weekend, a box office record, and went on to gross more than $5 million, a huge amount in the ‘50s.  “By early 1953,” Richard Johnson writes in his book American Fads, “most movie companies had at least one 3-D project in the works.”  Warner Brothers released The House of Wax, starring Vincent Price; it was the first big-budget 3-D film and was so successful that Warner announced that nearly all of its films would be released in 3-D.  Before long, however, audiences tired of the novelty, and by 1954, 3-D films started losing money.  Ironically, the only way to salvage them was to rerelease them as “regular” films.  Some – including Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder – were never released in their original 3-D version; the studios just shelved them and released regular versions in their place.

Hacky Sack

Invented in the mid-1970s by 27-year-old R. John Stallberger, a former football player who had sewn one together and kicked it around to strengthen tendons he had torn in his knee playing football.  Friends liked the little leather beanbag so much that Stallberger began manufacturing them for sale to sporting goods stores.  He sold so many that Wham-O (makers of the Frisbee and Hula Hoop) bought him out for $1.5 million in 1983.

Wham-O promoted Hacky Sack the same way they-d marketed the Frisbee decades earlier – they created a “World Footbag Association” and used their promotional muscle to turn Hacky Sack into a “legitimate” sport, complete with sanctioned tournaments and televised championship events.

Monster Trucks

In 1974, Bob Chandler opened a four-wheel-drive parts and accessories store in Hazelwood, Missouri.  Business was slow . . . so he put huge tires on his Ford pickup truck and parked it in front of the store, hoping it would attract attention.  It did, so he put even larger tires on it, then even larger tires, then even larger tires.  Soon he had 10-foot-high tires on his truck, making it ride so high that it hit low-hanging power lines and stoplights.  One day in 1981, Chandler and his business partner “put two old cars out in a cornfield to see if we could just drive right over the top of them.  It not only did that, I drove over them like they weren’t even there!”  Nine months later, a promoter hired them to wreck some cars at a tractor pull meet in Jefferson City, Missouri.  “I could not believe the reaction of the crowd,” Chandler recalls.  “They went crazy.  Kids, grandmothers, everybody loved it.”  Today an estimated 10 million Americans go to monster truck rallies every year.