37 Fads That Swept The Nation.

Ant Farms
Who knew infestation could be this much fun? Inspired by the events at an outdoor barbecue, "Uncle Milton" Levine modified a clear plastic tissue box into a prototype for the ant farm. And what a prototype it was! Between 1956 and 1966, he sold some 12 million of them (ants originally not included), thanks in part to creative product placement. Levine gave away fancy, mahogany ant farms to Dick Clark and other TV personalities who kept the trinkets on their on-screen desks and, thus, in the public eye.

Bermuda Shorts
Once the uniform of British soldiers stationed in (not surprisingly) Bermuda, the shorts were first appropriated by American tourists. Then fashion magazines got involved, and Bermuda shorts became the summer office wear of the 1950s - tastefully paired with jacket and tie, of course.

Photo from Bermuda-Island.net

Breakdancing for the Pope - Yes, that's Pope John Paul II in the background!

Break Dancing
Forget the coin toss. In the late 1970s, Bronx gang leaders would stage "West Side Story" - style dance-offs to determine which group got to choose the rumble location. Gangsters' moves were meant to show (via sensitive dance interpretation, of course) what the dancer planned to do to his enemies during the upcoming fight. Somewhere along the way though, they got hip to James Brown, particularly the fancy footwork he displayed performing his song "Get on the Good Foot."

Pop 'n' Lock Payoff: Early break-dance impresario Richard "Crazy Legs" Colon turned his talent into Hollywood gold as one of the stand-ins for Jennifer Beals in 1983's "Flashdance."

Breaking' Bodies: Like many high-impact sports, break dancing can lead to long-term health issues, including those medically regarded as (no joke) Breaker's Thumb, Break Dancer's Pulmonary Embolism, and Break Dancer's Fracture of the Fifth Metatarsal.

Sure, Nancy Reagan told Americans to "Just Say No." But the U.S. government estimates that between 1980 and 1985, the number of Americans taking extra-long trips to the bathroom more than doubled - from 10 million to 22 million. Apparently, cocaine use began its upsurge in the mid-1970s, after the smokeable form, freebase, hit the market. Ironically, freebase wasn't technically cocaine. Rather, it was an alkaloid made by reverse-engineering pure cocaine powder - a nifty little transformation American chemists decided to try in 1974 after mistranslating the Spanish word basé. The chemists thought they were dealing with a base substance, not realizing that basé referred to a cheap paste byproduct of cocaine commonly smoked in Peru.

Death of the Fad: Around the same time acid-washed jeans went out of style. Coincidence? Not Likely.

Conical Bra
Movie producer Howard Hughes touched off a decade-long fashion fad in 1943 when he designed a state-of-the-art cantilevered bra for actress Jane Russell - thus allowing women to stride confidently into the 1950s lifted, separated and pointed toward the future.

Doctor Spock with granddaughter Susannah in 1967.

Doctor Spock
Sometimes, simple sells. Just ask pediatrician Benjamin Spock [wiki]. In 1946, Spock released his book, Baby and Child Care, in which he claimed that parents actually know more than they think they do about how to raise their children. His revolutionary child-rearing advice? Just relax. Americans lapped up the laissez faire methodology. Within 10 years, Spock's book had become the second-best selling tome in the United States (after the Bible). In fact, his philosophy became so connected to the Baby Boomer generation that some pundits still blame the free-love hippie lifestyle of the era on Dr. Spock's permissive parenting tactics.

The world's first drive-in movie in Camden, New Jersey. Photo from dvrbs.com

Looking for a way to promote his auto-parts business, Richard Hollingshead of Camden, N.J., built the first drive-in theater in his driveway. All he needed was a sheet strung between two trees and a movie projector mounted to the hood of his car. Hollingshead patented the idea an opened a more practical version to the public in 1933, but his invention didn't become a sensation until after World War II, when Americans had more spending money.

The inside of an 8 track cartridge.

Eight-Track Tapes

The Big Idea: Improve vehicle-based listening pleasure by creating a reliable, inexpensive taped-music system.

The Innovator: William Powell Lear [wiki], the man who brought you the Lear jet. ("You" in this case refers to the sizable - and good-looking! - billionaire sector of our readership.)

The Thrill of Victory: Eight-track tape [wiki] players first became available as optional add-ons to 1966 Ford model cars. More than 65,000 new Ford owners opted in that year alone, and the medium quickly spread from in-car to in-home use.

The Agony of Defeat: Eight-track sales sped along until 1974, when they ran smack into a brick wall called cassette tapes - an even more reliable and less expensive taped-music system. The last new-release eight tracks were sold in the mid-1980s.

Fallout shelter cir. 1957

Fallout Shelters

The Bad News: It's 1962. Your country is locked in a nuclear stalemate with the forces of communism, the CIA is recovering from a botched Cuban invasion, and President Kennedy is urging you to prepare for a possible nuclear attack.

The Good News: For as little as $100, you can buy your family a fallout shelter [wiki] stocked with enough food and supplies for two weeks of glorious, radiation-free living. Or you can keep up (and alive) with the Joneses and splurge on a $5,000 model complete with stylish interior design and claustrophobia-relieving faux windows. And don't worry; if the Cold War ever starts to thaw, you can always convert that backyard eyesore into a playroom the kids will love!

The Even Better News (If You're Swiss): In the 1960s, the ever-prepared Swiss government built an extensive network of fallout shelters with enough space and supplies to protect the nation's entire population for two years. But, really, would you expect anything less from the makers of the world's coolest Army knives?

Flagpole Sitting
The 20th-century award for Best Center of Gravity definitely belongs to Hollywood stuntman Alvin Kelly. In 1924, Kelly sat atop a flagpole for 13 hours, inspiring copycats across the country to replicate his feat (to varying degree of success). Kelly returned to the pole in 1929 just in time to set the world record (49 days) before the Great Depression put an end to such frivolity.

Read more about goldfish swallowing at BadFads

Goldfish Swallowing
Or reason No. 452 why you should never let your elders claim that kids were more mature "in their day." On March 3, 1939, Harvard freshman Lothrop Withington, Jr., touched off a firestorm of publicity - and imitators - when he swallowed a goldfish on a $10 bet. For the next three months, students sucked down goldfish in record numbers while every authority figure from the Massachusetts State Senate to the U.S. Public Health Service tried to get them to stop. The craze slowed down after many schools threatened to expel the fish eaters, but the stunt managed to remain popular enough to ensnare the next generation. The current world record, 300 fish in one sitting, was set in 1974.

Have a Nice Day
The yellow smiley face [wiki] and its now-ubiquitous catchphrase actually began life separately. Smiley was originally created in 1963 as part of an insurance company campaign to improve employee morale following its merger with another organization. For the next seven years, the face smiled silently from office posters, buttons, and desk cards until entrepreneurs Bernard and Murray Spain began publicly marketing smiley buttons - "Have a Nice Day" included - in 1970. By 1971, the feel-good pair had sold more than 50 million of 'em. No doubt, they were smiling all the way to the bank.

Hula Hoop
Although the hula hoop [wiki] is thought to have made its first appearance (in wooden form) in 14th-century England, it didn't take America by storm until 1958. That's when Wham-O, Inc., the same friendly folks who brought you the Superball and the Frisbee, released a "futuristic" plastic version and promptly sold 25 millions in only four months.

J. Fred Muggs

Lancelot Link

Bear of B.J. and the Bear

I Can't Believe There are All These Monkeys on TV!

Scientific Name: Chimpanzeeus ontelevisionus

Natural Habitats: Morning talk shows (J. Fred Muggs [wiki] of "The Today Show"), campy criminal underworlds (Lancelot Link of the 1970 series "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp" [wiki]), and the cabs of 18-wheeler trucks (Bear of the 1979 sitcom "B.J. and the Bear" [wiki]).

Lifespan: Long. Adding Muggs to "The Today Show" in 1953 saved the program from cancellation. But the fad truly took off in 1970, when the all-chimpanzee cast of "Lancelot Link" became superstars, spawning a chimp rock band (The Evolution Revolution), complete with chimp rock album. America's monkey mania ended when "B.J. and the Bear" was pulled off the air in 1981, but interest spread abroad. "Lancelot Link" was the No. 1 show in Kenya in 1987.

Diet: Varies. While Lance Link and his cast mates apparently stuck to a traditional fare of veggies, Bear favored light bear (on and off the camera). J. Fred Muggs, on the other hand, had a taste for human flesh - once taking a bite out of comedian Martha Raye.

Cydia deshaisiana moth inside of the jumping beans.

Jumping Beans
Americans love a good novelty item, and nobody appreciates that fact more than Mexico native Joaquin Hernandez. Since introducing the toy here in the 1940s, Hernandez has ruled as the "King of the Jumping Beans." A periodically recurring fad for more than 60 years, the beans are actually moth larvae trapped in seedpods [wiki]. But their mystery continue to capture the public imagination. In peak years, when the beans are really hopping, Hernandez has been known to sell as many as 20 million of them, employing as many as 50 people to collect, package, and export them.

The Kilroy schematic!

Kilroy Was Here
And here. And here. During World War II, Kilroy was everywhere. Accompanied by a cartoon of a large-schnozzed man peeping over a wall, the "Kilroy Was Here" [wiki] phrase graced everything from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to hut walls on Polynesian islands. So who was Kilroy? Turns out, he was probably Navy shipyard inspector James J. Kilroy, who reportedly scrawled the phrase onto parts he'd examined. Sailors later made a game of the enigmatic phrase, vying to be the first to impersonate Kilroy in a newly liberated era. In fact, "Kilroy Was Here" became such a ubiquitous military fad that Apollo astronauts are said to have written it in the dust on the moon.

Leg makeup ad during World War II

Leg Makeup
In 1941, the U.S. government banned silk stockings. Why? After Japan cut off America's silk supply during World War II, it became apparent that parachute production outranked women's fashion needs. Fortunately, however, the gals on the home front were a crafty bunch. Women resorted to D.I.Y. hosiery, rubbing liquid foundation onto their legs to simulate the color of pantyhose, then using eyebrow pencil to draw a "seam" up the back.


When in Rome: According to Roman theology, limbo is God's eternal waiting room - a place designed for all folks who weren't good enough for heaven or vile enough for hell.

When on the Caribbean Island of Trinidad: It's the name of a funeral dance representing the difficult passage from life to afterlife.

When Bastardized by Americans: Trinidad's sacred ritual became a game 80-year-olds play on cruise ships. In the late 1950s, American tourists "borrowed" the limbo and turned it into a fixture at dinner parties, beach movies, even in rock 'n' roll songs. In fact, Chubby Checker's "Limbo Rock" was the No. 9 hit song of 1962, beating out now-classics like the Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari."

Cartoon from Industry Week, Nov 30, 1981.
Found at US Metric Association's Metric System Cartoons

Metrics in America
As the Charlie Brown of American measurement, the metric system [wiki] got its one chance to kick the football in 1975 when the U.S. federal government adopted it as the nation's preferred measurement system. Of course, the moment of triumph was short-lived. Throughout the late 1970s, metric-hating was a national pastime, egged on by confused citizens, businessmen concerned about the cost of replacing machinery and tools, and conspiracy theorists who feared metric road signs would facilitate a Russian invasion.

Finally, President Ronald Reagan put an end to the conversion program as a part of his 1982 budget cutbacks. Today, with the notable exception of 2-liter soda bottles and camera film, the United States remains the world's only industrialized country not using the metric system.

Neon Hypercolor Shirts
Hypercolor [wiki] blinded America with science in 1991. Using a revolutionary dye process, the shirts overlaid a traditional neon dye with a special dye that became colorless when hot, exposing patches of bright color beneath. But Hypercolor often stopped working after a couple of washes, which helps explain why the company that owned it was bankrupt by 1993.

How about an Ouija mousepad?

Ouija Boards
Believe it or not, when Parker Brothers acquired the rights to the Ouija board [wiki] and released its first version back in 1967, the games' early sales trounced the company's traditional bestseller, Monopoly®. The moral of the story? When given a choice, people will choose the undead over capitalism.

Pac-Man even made it as Mad Magazine's "Man of the Year" in September 1982.


Birth of the Fad: 1980

Death of the Fad: 1981, when Atari released a home version of the popular arcade game that was so bad, it's still frequently blamed for the video-game-business crash of 1983.

Unbelievably, the first perfect game of Pac-Man [wiki] wasn't played until July 1999. That honor went to a 33-year-old Florida hot-sauce manufacturer named Billy Mitchell, who played Pac-Man for six hours straight to reach the 256th screen and achieve a score of 3,333,360.

Pyramid Power
Sometimes, it pays to do your spring cleaning. After languishing in a British storage room for roughly 50 years, the ancient Egyptian treasures of King Tut were reintroduced to the world in 1977 via an American museum tour. In the grip of the ensuing Egypt-mania, more than a few people became convinced that pyramids had powers beyond those of the average mausoleum. Pseudo-scientists who hawked miniature models of Egypt's Great Pyramid [wiki] claimed the structure could keep food fresher for longer periods of time, sharpen razor blades, purify water, an even relieve pain. The grand promises inspired plenty of purchases, but the reality didn't inspire many repeat customers.

Photo: Independent TeleWeb

Quiz Shows
CBS hit ratings gold in 1955 with the premiere of the first big-time, cash-prize TV quiz show, "The $64,000 Question." In less than a year, it had spawned a host of imitators, including "The Big Surprise," "Giant Step," "High Finance," and "Twenty-One." In fact, "Twenty-One" [wiki] became one of the most popular show of the day, drawing 50 million viewers to the December 5, 1956, showdown between meek-but-eccentric Herbert Stempel [wiki] and blue-blood WASP Charles Van Doren [wiki]. Van Doren won, but it was later revealed that the show's producers had rigged the whole thing because they felt Van Doren's clean-cut good looks would bring in better ratings. The ensuing scandal went all the way to a New York State grand jury and a U.S. Congress subcommittee hearing. Ultimately, it killed the quiz show craze - that is, until Alex Trebek hit the scene.

Don Kracke, at The Jackson online

Rickie Tickie Stickers

Rickie Tickie Stickies Are Not: fictional mongooses. That's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, a product of Rudyard Kipling's imagination.

Rickie Tickie Stickies Are: those giant flower decals favored by hippies that appear in every mental image you have of the 1960s. Despite their counterculture reputation, Rickie Tickie Stickies were invented by capitalist-loving ad exec Don Kracke. His inspiration? Kracke simply saw some (poorly drawn) flowers painted on the side of a Volkswagen bus and decided there might be a market for prettier posies. He started selling his stick-on decals in 1967 and, within a year, had unloaded 90 million of 'em. Who knew hippies had such deep pockets?

Ernö Rubik

Rubik's Cube

Average Cost of a Rubik's Cube Circa 1980: $6 to $10

Number of Cubes Sold in 1980: approximately 4.5 million

Number of Possible Color Combinations: 43.2 quintillion

Possibility That the Rubik's Cube Could Actually Drive a Person Crazy: pretty darn. good. (Oh, and priceless.) When Hungarian architecture professor Ernö Rubik [wiki] introduced his "magic cube" to America in 1980, some people feared the popular puzzler would seriously drive fans mad. And legitimately so. Way back in 1874, a game called the "Fifteens Puzzle" was blamed for inducing insanity in roughly 1,500 people. And while Rubik's Cube [wiki] addiction was apparently responsible for the break-up of at least one marriage, Man triumphed over Toy in this particular case. In fact, by 1983, the puzzler was considered so harmless, it got its own Sunday-morning cartoon, "Rubik, the Amazing Cube."

Already on top of its game after introducing the Frisbee® (then known as the Pluto Platter) in 1957, the Wham-O® Company staged another toy-industry coup in 1965 when it introduced the Superball. In only six months, the company sold close to 7 million of the high-bounce balls. Of course, they probably couldn't have achieved such impressive stats without the help of McGeorge Bundy, special assistant to President Johnson, who bought at least 60 Superballs. Why? He passed them out to White House staffers as stress-relieving devices.

Telephone-Booth Stuffing
Simultaneously striking a blow for both originality and anarchy, 25 South African students climbed into a telephone booth in 1959 and announced they'd set the world record for a non-existent event. Not to be outdone, college students across England, America, and Canada immediately set to work honing their skills in this not-so-toll free sport. Some M.I.T. students tried to outwit the competition using physics, while others took a simpler route, starving themselves into more compact "units." At the same time, British college kids bickered over whether official booth-stuffing rules required teams to be able to place a call, while their Canadian counterparts were accused of cheating for using plus-sized booths. Thankfully, they all seemed to reach a truce later that year, when everyone abandoned phone booths in favor of Volkswagens, the latest people-stuffing container of choice.

Toga Parties
Inspired by a famous scene in the 1978 frat house flick "National Lampoon's Animal House," [wiki] 10,000 University of Wisconsin students donned bed sheets and leafy headwear for their very own version of a toga party later that year. Thus the late-1970s pseudo-Greek revival was born. And while the phenomenon was widespread enough to warrant coverage in Newsweek, it wasn't America's first brush with bacchanalia. In fact, one of America's first-known toga parties took place in the White House. Even stranger, Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly organized the festivities as a way of mocking her husband's Caesar-like reputation.

Troll Dolls
Proving that everybody's a sucker for good double entendre, Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam made a mint off his so-ugly-they're-cute troll dolls [wiki] by marketing them as "Dam Things." In fact, the creatures were the second-most popular doll of the 1960s, right behind Barbie.

UFO sightings
It's true that people started reporting mysterious glowing objects in the sky in the 1st century B.C. E. And, yes, strange shiny objects in the atmosphere appeared in paintings throughout the Middle Ages. But in the early 20th century, UFO [wiki] sighting became downright commonplace. Between Jules Verne's sci-fi masterpieces and Orson Welles' [wiki] infamous radio address, Americans had become so accustom to extraterrestrial sightings that, by the 1970s, alien invasion was a normal topic of conversation. Want proof? During his successful 1976 campaign, future president Jimmy Carter publicly admitted to having once spotted a huge, bright object hovering over a meeting of the Lions Club in Leary, Ga. Nobody even blinked.

Victory Gardens
Helping the war effort, one tomato at a time! That's right. During World War II, some 20 million Americans answered the government's call to plant Victory Gardens [wiki] in their yards so the nation's agriculture industry could focus on feeding the troops. And, boy, did it work. In the early 1940s, homegrown greens accounted for 40 percent of all vegetables consumed by the nation. Unfortunately, when the Victory Gardeners summarily quit in the spring of 1946, the impact was just as large - fueling food shortages that lasted the rest of the year.

Water Beds
Although there are reports of ancient Persians snoozing on water-filled goatskin bags, the water bed [wiki] as we know it was born in (where else?) San Francisco during (when else?) the late 1960s. Originally called "the pleasure pit," the prototype was a bean-bag-esque vinyl bladder that sat on the floor. Popular with hippies and would-be ladies' men, the bed broke into the mainstream when someone thought to add a frame to the contraption. Oh, and the inclusion of a puncture-proof liner helped, too. By 1987, water beds had achieved full-fledged fad status, accounting for an astounding 22 percent of U.S. mattress sales. Unfortunately, poor quality control lead to some decidedly ungroovy publicity, and enthusiasm had completely drained by the early 1990s. Today, water beds constitute less than six percent of mattresses sold.

Ken Hakuta with his Wacky WallWalkers

Wacky WallWalkers®
It's not every day you meet a guy who can say his fortune was built on slimy, plastic octopi. But Ken Hakuta [wiki] can claim exactly that. In 1982, Hakuta brought the North American rights to a Japanese toy that was essentially the sticky, amorphous, wall-based cousin of the Slinky. He proceeded to convince American kids of its virtues by giving away millions of the things in cereal boxes, so when Wacky WallWalkers finally hit stores, they were already popular. Hakuta sold some 250 million Walkers and raked in roughly $20 million before the fad hit the ground.

X-Ray Spex®

Open just about any comic book from the 1950s to the 1970s and you'll find an ad for the "blushingly funny" entertainment of X-Ray Spex [wiki]. According to the sales pitch, $1 could buy you the ability to see through walls, your own skin, and (most importantly) clothing. Unfortunately, to the dismay of pre-pubescent boys everywhere, the glasses didn't exactly deliver on their superpower promises. They did, however, provide the illusion of X-ray vision. Each "lens" consisted of a feather sandwiched between two pieces of cardboard with a quarter-inch hold punched through the center. So, if you held your hand up to a light and looked through the hole, you'd see the darker image of the feather superimposed on your body, making it look like the bones on an X-ray.

How to Tell Your Yippies From Your Yuppies

Yippies: Members of the 1960s-era Youth International Party [wiki], a far-left political group that had some pretty theatrical ways of expressing their views. Yippies are known for, among other things, causing a near-riot by dumping bags of money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as means of mocking conspicuous consumption and unapologetic materialism.

Yuppies: Young urban professionals of the 1980s. Yuppies are known for, among other things, conspicuous consumption and unapologetic materialism.

Yippies: Often said, "Don't trust anyone over 30."

Yuppies: Were often older than 30. And they probably would have proved Yippies right, had the groups' members not suspiciously overlapped.

One Thing They Can Agree On: German cars. Yippies drove Volkswagens. Yuppies drove BMWs.

Zoot suit in 1942.

Zoot Suits
Sometimes, youth rebellion requires just the right outfit. The zoot suit [wiki], popularized by African-American and Mexican-American teens during the late 1930s and early 1940s, didn't look like your average workday attire. It had broad shoulders, a tapered waist, and baggy pants that ended in neat, pegged cuffs. All that tailoring (and all that fabric) made the ensemble a kind of defiant luxury item - a sign that the wearer wasn't affected by Depression-era poverty, World War II fabric rationing, or disapproving looks from Mom.

The article above was reprinted from the Jan-Feb 2006 issue of mental_floss magazine, featured on Neatorama in partnership with mental_floss.

Be sure to check out mental_floss' fantastic website and blog:

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wacky packages!! This website tickled my memory-bone and funny-bone all at once. Now that I'm at it, how about today's wacky packages, Beck, Rush, Palin...
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