Let’s start this one with an acknowledgement that a characteristic of a lot of fads is that they rarely make sense. Fidget spinners, for instance, were just things that spun. They were huge for about a month and then they weren’t. The Pet Rock was another one. It was legitimately a stone, and you kept it in the house.
That aside, there are fads and there are fads. You can see how a fidget spinner might be something useful for a fidgety person. And a pet rock has some quirky kitsch value. But there are some other fads that really stretch your imagination to explain why they ever existed.
10. Walking With a Limp
We’ve all seen someone who seems to be faking or forcing the way they walk before. Usually it’s someone who has a weirdly dramatic swagger they’ve decided to add to their gait. For reference, look at any clip of LaVar Ball walking into a room. One thing most people don’t do, unless they’re panning for sympathy, is fake a limp. But that wasn’t always the case.
In Victorian England, limps were all the rage. Known as the Alexandra Limp, fashionable ladies of the time adopted this wobbly stride in honor of Alexandra of Denmark who had married the Prince of Wales. She was already a fashion trendsetter and the ladies of Great Britain who wanted to seem current and cool would copy her looks.
When Alexandra developed rheumatic fever, the illness left her with a noticeable limp. So, naturally, those desperate to emulate her also walked with a limp. Shopkeepers even began selling uneven shoes, one with a much higher heel, to accommodate the fad.
Like any proper fad, most people hated it. One newspaper described it as idiotic and ludicrous. That it was inspired by an actual physical infirmity was the source of most people’s dislike but it only lasted a short while.
9. Flagpole Sitting
The band Harvey Danger was a one-hit wonder with their song Flagpole Sitta but maybe they would have done better if they’d released the song back in the 1920s when flagpole sitting was actually a thing.
There are no euphemisms at play here, flagpole sitting was the act of sitting on a flagpole. You’d climb to the top of a pole, the higher and more dramatically placed the better, and sit there. The longer you could endure, the more attention you’d get. Hollywood studios hired a professional stuntman named Alvin Kelly to do it in 1924 to get attention for a movie that arguably had nothing to do with flagpoles.
Kelly stayed on the pole for 13 hours and got in the news, which got him more offers to sit on flagpoles, which inspired other people all around the country to try it.
By 1927, Kelly had graduated to mind blowing flagpole sitting endurance heights and stayed atop one pole for over 23 days. They sent up a pail on a rope for food and water, and he had a tube he used to go to the bathroom.
8. Swallowing Live Goldfish
There are a lot of fads around eating that are still popular today. Spicy food challenges are still huge, as are competitive eating competitions. But one that thankfully got left behind in the 1930s was the act of swallowing live goldfish.
According to legend, the fad began in 1939 at Harvard. A freshman bragged to some friends he’d once eaten a live fish, as freshmen do. Being a hallowed institution of higher education, his friends immediately bet him $10 he couldn’t repeat this miraculous and scholarly act.
This all would have died there, along with the poor fish, if not for a reporter also being there for God knows what reasons. So the student ate the fish, made his $10, and the reporter wrote a story about it which went national.
Like the Cinnamon Challenge that spread on the internet, the goldfish challenge spread as well. By the end of April the record for swallowing live fish was at 101. Eventually, amidst warnings of parasites, threats of lawsuits and animal cruelty allegations, the fad eventually died like so many fish before it.
7. Phone Booth Stuffing
Finding a phone booth in the wild these days is kind of like seeing a dolphin when you go boating. It’s very fun and exciting because it’s a novelty that makes you feel connected to a secret world which, in the phone booth’s case, is the past.
Once upon a time there were phone booths all over the world, just waiting on street corners for those who needed to call a cab or change into a superhero. They even had doors. In the 1950s, they were also used for clown car-esque endurance tests. Just how many people can fit into a single phone booth?
For most of us the answer to that question is one. They were built to hold a single person. But there’s a story of how 25 South African students jammed themselves into a single phone booth in 1959 that set off the fad. They sent the pic of themselves to Guinness and achieved a world record.
For those who doubt, the photos still exist that prove you can fit an impressive number of full grown adults in a phone booth if no one cares about comfort or breathing deeply. Colleges all around the world tried to match the feat, usually crapping out in the high teens.
The US record seems to be 22 students and by the end of 1959, few people were trying anymore so the South Africans went undefeated.
6. Fake Moles and Beauty Marks
Beauty, it’s been said, is in the eye of the beholder. Throughout history, standards of beauty have changed greatly from place to place. But regardless of what a society values, you can rest assured there will be people trying to fake it in one way or another.
Once upon a time beauty marks were all the rage and a beauty mark, of course, is a mole. Back in Ancient Greece, a beauty mark on your cheek meant you were destined for prosperity, so people definitely wanted them. Later on, fake beauty marks made of things like velvet or even mouse fur became fashionable.
Women in England would use them to cover blemishes like scars, which is where the idea of them adding to your beauty came from, since they covered up things that were not beautiful. By the 16th century they were no longer just cover-ups but attention getters. They would contrast with an artificially pale complexion to draw the eye of others.
5. Raccoon Coats
Fur coats are no longer fashionable among most people thanks to most people appreciating you’re killing multiple animals for no reason except to make a coat. There’s still a market for them, but they carry a stigma.
Once upon a time not only was fur considered fine, there was even a full length raccoon fur coat fad. In the 1920s, it was a fashion trend among college men to deck themselves out in a full length coat.
The trend was mostly in Ivy League schools because, even back then, you were paying some cash for a fur coat. Eventually the idea of men in fur coats became undesirable and by the 70s it was mostly associated with men of unsavory characters who might be pimps.
4. Post Mortem Photography
Few fads ever achieved the creepy heights (or depths) of post mortem photography. If a loved one had died, you could hire a photographer to come and take a picture of the body. Except it wasn’t just doing that. You’d pose the body in your home or outside or wherever in a way that suggested they were still alive.
Infant mortality was high in the 1800s, and photography was rare. A couple would have many children and it was likely a few of them wouldn’t make it but, you know, you could always take a family photo after the fact and make it look like they were still there if you missed the chance when they were still alive. Some photos depict all the kids posing together, with one of them propped up against a wall because they were no longer living.
When you think about it, it makes a grim kind of sense. It would be the last time you’d ever get a chance to take a photo of that person. That could account for why, in the 1840s, photographers took three times as many death photos as wedding photos.
3. Pointy Shoes
You may have noticed in some medieval art that people, often jesters and bards and such, are wearing impossibly pointy shoes. This was not just an artistic choice from whoever made that art, it was a reflection of a fad of the times. Pointy shoes were really cool once.
Pointy shoes, called crackows because they were blamed on Poland, rose to prominence in England in the 1380s. Men and women wore them and the more aristocratic you were, the longest your toes had to be. They’d stuff them with junk like moss and hair so they wouldn’t get floppy.
In France, the country was already sick of them before the English even caught on. Charles V banned them in Paris in 1368. It wasn’t until 1463 in England when King Edward IV banned anyone who wasn’t nobility from having shoes with a point longer than two inches.
The point of the pointy shoe was to show off. A longer shoe was more expensive, so it naturally meant you had more wealth. But it also symbolized the fact you were kind of lazy. Laborers wouldn’t wear silly, long shoes, only the aristocracy could. So it symbolized how you didn’t need to do manual labor because you literally couldn’t. Not in those shoes, anyway.
Like so many things that have become popular in the years since, pointy shoes were a way of smugly telling the world you had money to burn.
2. Panty Raids
If you recall the movie Revenge of the Nerds, you may remember one scene where the nerd fraternity engages in a panty raid. They break into a sorority house to steal underwear from the women there. In modern times that’s just short of mind-boggling and, let’s be honest, it was a little unrealistic even back in the ’80s. But the writers didn’t pull that idea out of thin air. The panty raid was a real fad back in the ’50s and ’60s.
In 1952, the National Guard had to be called to the University of Missouri to deal with 2,000 male students who went on a panty raid rampage. They kicked in doors and broke windows at sororities and dorms and stormed the halls. Some of the women tried to fight them off with broom handles and buckets of water. Underwear was stolen but so was money, jewelry and more.
Try to imagine being in your dorm as 2,000 dudes break into every possible opening in the building and tear your entire room apart. What was a fad in the ’50s is essentially the kickoff to a new Blumhouse horror franchise today. Back then, the governor of Missouri literally said “boys will be boys.”
1. Dead Fish Hats for Whales
Fads may seem like one of the silliest ways a human being can waste their time but if you think that, you need to know it’s not true. The human being part, at least. We didn’t corner the market on this idea and there is some documented evidence of orca whales engaging in the most amazing fad you’ll ever hear of. They used to wear dead fish hats.
Whales are often studied by scientists, and a lot of that study is simple observation. Track them, watch what they do, see if we can learn about how they live and communicate and all that good stuff. Back in 1987, a pod of orca whales was being observed by researchers when one of the whales began wearing a salmon on her head. The salmon was dead, and she just held it there above her snout like a little fish hat.
The whale continued to wear her fish hat and, over the course of the next several weeks, other whales joined in. Whales in her pod started it first and then it spread to two other pods that the first pod had made contact with. Everyone was swimming around with a fish hat.
Like a human fad, the novelty seemed to wear off for the whales and by the end of the six week period; it was done. No more fish hats. There’s never been a solid explanation for why it happened, at least not any more revelatory than they just felt like it.