Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘humor’

10 NOVEMBER, 2011

The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions: Vintage Arsenal of Masonic Pranksters

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What Elks, Moose, and Shriners have to do with a fake guillotine and a goat on wheels.

Freemasonry was born out of medieval craft guilds — working men distinguished by their freedom, not bonded into serfdom, indenture, or slavery. Their ceremonies and regalia were legendary, and their initiations mimicked harsh entries into religious order, initiations which might involve ritual humiliation, pain, or fear. Masons were primarily aristocratic, and if not wealthy, then at least refined. The fraternal lodges of the Elks, the Shriners, the Woodsmen, and the Moose, to name a few, offered a more casual form of brotherhood. Developed with masonic screeds in mind, they populated small towns and suburbs and its provided its members with a reason to get together once or twice a week. What they did each week was up to the members, sometimes they provided food and drink, more often they would debate bylaws and initiation fees (the lodges were originally developed to provide insurance for injured workers). Things could get a little sleepy.

Enter the DeMoulin brothers and their wonderfully strange DeMoulin Brothers catalogs, collected by New Yorker cartoonist Julia Suits in her new book, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions. In 1892, a Woodsman lodge member asked his friend Ed DeMoulin to make him something that would really shake up dull lodge meetings. DeMoulin owned a local factory that manufactured uniforms, flags, patches, hats, seating, upholstery, and regalia of all kinds, and he was also at heart a trickster. When the Woodmen asked him to come up with a set piece that would really impress and scare the newly initiated, he delivered something darkly delightful: The Molten Lead Test, a flaming pot of seemingly boiling metal that turned out to be nothing more than mecurine powder dissolved in water (an element still not without its hazards). The pledge was convinced he was being burnt with hot lead, and the lodge would laugh uproariously at his misfortune.

The Wireless Trick Telephone

As a gag, the trick telephone was potentially quite dangerous. A 32-calibre blank cartridge was designed to go off in the face of anyone who tried to use the phone.

The Fuzzy Wonder

It was a lodge tradition to have a goat present at initiations, and the introduction of a mechanical goat meant that a live goat would be spared the experience. The wheeled goat was also ridden by lodge members in local parades.

The Ferris Wheel Goat

This version of the mechanical goat was supposed to stimulate a thrilling goat ride. The candidate is strapped in and wheeled upside down, all while remaining astride the goat.

The Electric Branding Iron

The magneto was an electric hand cranked battery that created a spark that could actually be quite painful. Similar batteries were actually used a New York state prison as a form of torture.

The catalogs were only published for thirty years, from the 1890s to the 1930s, but in that time the DeMoulins developed hundreds of patents for some of the most popular and bizarre lodge gags. With membership of nearly 35 million at its peak, almost every fraternal lodge in America, from the Elks to the Shriners to the Moose, ordered from the DeMoulin catalog. Members kept their activities a secret, especially when it came to the two rowdiest forms of lodge fun: initiations and side-work, which were pranks carried out for no reason in particular.

The Throne of Honor

After the candidate was blindfolded, led up and stairs and seated, he was expected to confess his 'moral transgressions.' When finished, the chair and the stairs would collapse and the candidate would slide down to the floor.

The Guillotine

Perhaps the most frightening of the lodge gags, the guillotine blade was designed to stop a few inches from the neck. The catalog suggested spattering it with blood and human hair for a greater effect.

The Saw Mill

Similar to the guillotine, the blade of the saw mill also stops just inches from its intended victim. 'This machine looks real and very dangerous but it is also absolutely harmless.'

The motives were the same as any college fraternity hazing: to scare, humiliate, and confuse the pledge. A lodge could order any number of devices to humiliate, including spanking machines, trick telephones, wobbly floors, and something called Throne of Honor, in which a pledge is led up a set of stairs transformed into an embarrassing slide. Lodges also enjoyed scaring the initiated half to death with trick coffins, fake guillotines, and dangerous-looking saw mills, as well as inflicting some real pain by zapping him with all manner of electric devices: the electric cane, the electric tunnel, the electric bench, or the electric shovel. Some of the offerings were just plain weird, including several variations on a wheeled goat, a lodge favorite that would be ridden in parades.

Electric Carpets

'There are no normal carpets in the DeMoulin fraternal world. As soon as the candidate's feet touch it he wishes he were standing on the hottest sands of the desert.'

Human Centipede

This four person costume was also wired with a jump spark battery which was controlled by the rider at the front, making the other three members of the centipede very unhappy.

Hulu Hula Bull Dance

This costume is for several candidates to perform at once and consists of bells for the wrists, waits, and feet, along with an inexplicable grass skirt. 'There are ten bells representing ten notes including F sharp and B Flat, making it possible to play simple airs.'

As good-natured as most of the pranks were, sometimes they went too far, injuring the initiated. The New York Times reported a prank gone wrong at a 1898 Woodmen meeting:

Plaintiff was blindfolded and subjected to several slight electric shocks. He was thrown off balance and fell hands down upon the magneto battery itself, receiving a shock which rendered him unconscious.”

A treasure chest of curiosity and a history lesson in dark humor, The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions is equal parts bizarre and delightfully bemusing, an essential piece of pop culture’s ritualistic paradigm and a rare glimpse of twentieth-century Americana.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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06 OCTOBER, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant: Witty Comics about Historical & Literary Figures

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Training for presidents, Victorian dude-spotting, and what the Brontë Sisters have to do with Jules Verne.

From New Yorker cartoonist Kate Beaton comes Hark! A Vagrant — a witty and wonderful collection of comics about historical and literary figures and events, based on her popular web comic of the same name. Scientists and artists, revolutionaries and superheroes, suffragists and presidents — they’re all there, as antique hipsters, and they’re all skewered with equal parts comedic and cerebral prod.

Beaton, whose background is in history and anthropology, has a remarkable penchant for conveying the momentous through the inane, aided by a truly special gift for simple, subtle, incredibly expressive caricature. From dude spotting with the Brontë Sisters to Nikola Tesla and Jane Austen dodging groupies, the six-panel vignettes will make you laugh out loud and slip you a dose of education while you aren’t paying attention.

I think comics about topics like history or literature can be amazing educational tools, even at their silliest. So if you learn or look up a thing or two after reading these comics, and you’ve enjoyed them, then I will be more than pleased! If you’re just in it for the silly stuff, then there is plenty of that to go around, too.” ~ Kate Beaton

Beaton is also a masterful writer, her dialogue and captions adding depth to what’s already an absolute delight.

Handsome and hilarious, the six-panel stories in Hark! A Vagrant will undo all the uptightness about history instilled in you by academia, leaving you instead with a hearty laugh and some great lines for dinner party conversation.

Images courtesy of Kate Beaton / Drawn and Quarterly

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Today Yesterday: 5 Vintage Visions for the Future of Technology

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Instapaper circa 1981, or what medical wonderlands have to do with making cash entirely obsolete.

One of the things that sets our species apart from others is our ability to imagine the future in remarkable detail. We do this every day on a personal level and have been doing it since time immemorial on a cultural level, and do it across the entire spectrum of ludicrous misguidedness and uncanny accuracy. Revisiting these predictions in retrospect can be a source of both fascination and humor. After last week’s vintage versions of modern social media, today we revisit five such predictions for the future of technology, envisioning — with varying degrees of correctness and comedy — everything from the workplace to the wardrobe.

THE OFFICE (1969)

In this fantastic compilation of BBC clips from 1969, James Burke — who brought us the iconic Connections series on the history of innovation — experiences the automated office of the future and what it might mean for the evolution of work culture.

The great thing about machines is that they do what they’re told. They leave you to get on with it. Never late, they’re obedient, they’re never sick, they never disturb you or argue or paint their nails or talk or smile at you or say ‘good morning’ or keep you company. They just leave you alone.”

(I guess Burke never had a brush with push notifications.)

What’s curious about the segment is that even in 1969, long before today’s digital distractions and always-on telecommunication lifestyle were, Burke expresses a frustration with the overwhelming pace of the traditional office and romanticizes the quiet, efficient focus of unitasking, which he laments as a thing of the past.

ELECTRONIC JOURNALISM (1981)

In 1981, long before the Internet as we know it had come of age, early adopters of the home computer were reading their morning newspapers online — kind of. This story by journalist Steve Newman, originally broadcast on San Francisco’s KRON network, expolores what the then-future of digital publishing and electronic journalism could hold.

On the telephone connection between these two terminals is made the newest form of electronic journalism lights up Mr. Howard’s television with just about everything The Examiner prints in its regular edition — that is, with the exception of pictures, ads and the comics.”

(Look familiar?)

CLOTHING (1930s)

In the 1930s, Pathetone Weekly asked leading fashion designers to imagine women’s clothing in the year 2000. From an electric belt that adapts the body to climatic changes to a wedding dress made of glass to an electric headlight “to help her find an honest man,” the Eve of tomorrow has an awful lot in common with Lady Gaga.

As for [the man], if he matters at all, there won’t be any shaving, colors, ties or pockets. He’ll be fitted with a telephone, a radio, and containers for coins, keys and candy for cuties.”

Just about describes your average Brooklyn hipster.

THE HOSPITAL (1950s)

In the 1950s, industrialist Henry Kaiser (of Kaiser Foundation fame) and architect Sydney Garfield partnered on a $2 million project bringing to life a vision for the hospital of the future. From babies sliding through walls to remote-controlled walls, the hospital was “a medical dream come true.”

From the admissions office on, everything is streamlined and expedited. The patient’s record reaches the doctor before he does.”

BANKING (1969)

In 1969, reporter Derek Cooper examined the computing innovations that could revolutionize banking, from credit card machines that would enable the transfer of funds directly from the customer’s account to that of the shop to computerized banks that would reap the benefits of shorter lines and more flexible opening times as customers had their basic needs answered by technology rather than tellers, with a twinge of fear about technology making these mundane jobs obsolete. (Cue in the Orson-Welles-narrated Future Shock.)

The system could eventually make cash entirely redundant, thus eliminating the elaborate security arrangements that are needed to protect it.”

Implicit to this sentiment so laughably naive in light of today’s hacking scandals is history’s proof that we can never anticipate the capacity for evil in the technological good we envision.

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