Brain Pickings

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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The Holstee LifeCycle Film: Visual Poetry for Bike-Lovers and Creators

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“Life is about the people you meet and the things you create with them.”

My friends at Holstee have just released a beautiful short film that marries two of my great loves: bikes and creative restlessness. This cinematic take on their famous Holstee Manifesto, one of these 5 favorite manifestos for the creative life, is an exquisite piece of visual poetry, bound to give you goosebumps and leave you itching to get up and do — or make — something great. Enjoy:

And, lest we forget, the original Holstee Manifesto itself:

The manifesto is now available as a gorgeous 18×24″ poster printed on 100% recycled post-consumer paper, locally made with hydro-electric power and benefiting Kiva, as well as a letterpress card printed on handmade acid-free paper derived from 50% elephant poo and 50% recycled paper. Yep, elephant poo.

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Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon

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How Milton Glaser subverted Steve Jobs, or what the Mona Lisa has to do with Einstein’s theory of relativity.

What, exactly, makes an iconic image? You know, the kind that permeates pop culture to become imprinted on our collective conscience, achieving a status of instant recognition and near-universal appeal? That’s exactly what Oxford Trinity College professor Martin Kemp explores in Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon — a fascinating journey into the heart of modern iconography, veering across art, architecture, advertising, religion, science, and a wealth more. From the Mona Lisa to Che Guevara to Einstein’s E=mc² to Milton Glaser’s I♥NY, Kemp uses 11 such iconic images to examine the 11 key categories he identifies, lavishly illustrated in 165 color images. Beneath them all runs a common undercurrent of elements that hold the secret to all icons — among them, simplicity of message, robustness, and openness of interpretation.

Some types of images are specific — like Lisa and Che — while some are generic, such as the heart shape. The generic ones tend to seep gradually into general consciousness. The heart shape appeared on playing cards and became the religious symbol of the sacred heart, before becoming the ubiquitous symbol of love. It takes a designer of genius, like Milton Glaser, to refresh its power in the service of a specific cause. We all know I♥NY. But New York largely surrendered the ‘Big Apple’ to Steve Jobs.” ~ Martin Kemp

Mona Lisa, digitally restored. Photo courtesy of Pascal Cotte

Enrique Avila Gonzalez, Che Guevara. Ministry of the Interior, Havana, Cuba

Felix de Weldon, Marines Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima, Virginia, Marine Corps War Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery

BFF Architects and Izé, DNA door handles, London, Royal Society.

Kemp has an excellent piece in The Wall Street Journal offering five lessons on successful iconography based on the case studies explored in the book.

Kemp also observes that even the icons of modern science, like DNA and E=mc², have taken on a quasi-religious dimension — which, of course, we already knew, even just by looking at the many geek-rebels who inked themselves with science. But, in fact, much of this iconography is based on pop culture mythology that isn’t necessarily rooted in truth. Kemp notes:

I assumed that Einstein’s famous formula for the equivalence of mass and energy, E=mc² had appeared in his renowned set of papers published in 1905. Einstein scholars insisted it was there. But it was not. In that precise form, the equation seems to have been visited on Einstein as a simplification of his ideas, cemented in the public mind by its association with the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The well-known tends not to be true in such cases.”

Part Iron Fists, part The Myth of Pop Culture, part The Century of the Self, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon is an essential effort to understand who we came to worship what we worship and why the iconography of consumerism has such an enduring hold on us, whether or not we want to admit it. And though the book was written partly as a blueprint for branding, a subversive reading of it also offers a blueprint to the opposite — how to loosen the grip of commercial culture by better understanding the engineered mesmerism by which it transfixes us.

Images courtesy of Oxford University Press

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