Defying the laws of gravity, having your pupils turn into little hearts upon falling in love, conversing with a stuttering pig: there are some parts of the world of cartoons that we humans will just never get to experience. But if you’ve ever wondered what you and Bugs do have in common (besides that killer comedic timing) you’re in luck. Parts of Looney Tunes aren’t so looney after all.
They make it all: high-speed boomerangs, bear traps, explosive tennis balls, earthquake pills, dehydrated boulders, jet-propelled unicycles, dynamite and, of course, anvils. Despite their brand’s lax quality control, faithful customers like Wile E. Coyote have allowed Acme Co. to dominate the cartoon economy.
Historically, Acme’s always been on top. To the modern consumer, scouring the phone book for an anvil provider seems as old-timey as consulting Angie’s List, but hip flapper blacksmiths used to do just that. As telephones rose in popularity in the 1910’s and 1920’s, consumers began to consult phone directories. The alphabetized listings left companies scrambling for a coveted spot at the top of the page. Although I would have personally gone with something like “Aardvark Artificial Eyes’ or ‘Abtastic Cinching Co. Girdle,’ business owners of the day felt that ‘Acme’s’ A-C combo was pretty tough to beat.
‘Acme’ became a popular business name. A quick look at the 1921 Boston Register and Business Directory comes up with Acme Letter Service, Acme Creamery, Acme White Lead and Color Works paints and finishes (you can thank them for your great-grandfather’s birth defects), Acme Printing Services, Acme Sharpening Co., Acme Co. Dressmakers’ Supplies, Acme Die-Cutting Co., Acme Welding Co., Acme Ventilation Corporation, Acme Trucks, Acme Company Automatic Screw Machines, and Acme Roofing, among others. Sears & Roebuck even sold an honest-to-god Acme anvil.
Not only is Acme sorta for real, so is one of it’s best-selling products: those black, spherical bombs with a long fuse. The bowling-ball type bomb loved by cartoon characters everywhere also has historical roots.
Unlike cannon balls, which were solid, cannon shells were filled with explosive material and relied on a time-delayed fuse to explode over their target. Spherical, fused shells that looked a whole lot like those cartoon bombs were used as early as the 14th century and as late as the late 19th century, at which time they were replaced by a more tapered shape. A lot of early grenades worked like this (and looked like this) too.
Ties that Bind
If you’re really looking to go full villain, you might want to skip the bombs and go right to twirling your ‘stache and tying your enemies to the railroad tracks. While I can say from experience that Amtrak delays make it really hard to properly time a railroad-tie-up these days, it seems that this wasn’t always the case.
Here’s a sampling of people who were actually tied to railroad tracks between 1902 and 1934:
- Kenyon College freshman Stuart Pierson who in 1902 was killed after being tied to the railroad tracks as part of a hazing ceremony for the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. That’ll get your keggers shut down real fast, bros.
- A non-union railroad worker who in 1906 was tied to the tracks by a group of union workers who also dynamited a nearby bridge for good measure: a double-whammy of classic bad-guyity. Their intended victim was rescued just in time by a heroic constable.
- 18-year old Pittsburgh woman Leona Luppens who in 1909 changed into her newly purchased wedding dress and told her roommate that she was off to elope with her fiancee. Two hours later, she was found dead on the railroad tracks. She had been murdered (presumably by her fiancee, who disappeared) and her body was left on the tracks to get mangled.
- Missouri man George Underwood who in 1920 was robbed on his way to the train station, tied up with barbed wire, gagged, and bound to the railroad tracks. George managed to partially untie himself from the tracks as the train barreled down towards him, but couldn’t free his left hand and foot, which were cut off by the train. Ouch.
- A French policeman working in French-occupied Germany after WWI, who in 1924 was tied to the tracks by a group of German nationalists.
- The prosecutor in a big-time French embezzling case who in 1934 was lured to the train station by a phone call that said his mother was dying and he needed to visit her quickly. He bought a ticket but never caught his train. Instead, he was tied to the tracks and killed by an oncoming engine in a dastardly case of witness tampering.
It seems like Snidely Whiplash was indeed in good company, but the railroad trope itself predates all of these stories. The theme started to show up in vaudeville shows and novels in the 1860s, and eventually became a popular silent movie plot as well. Actual railroad-squashings (at least those that hit the papers) seem to have begun only after the idea had become entrenched in pop culture. The cartoon incarnations we’re familiar with are likely a case of art imitating life imitating art- pretty meta for Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Slip n’ Slide
Another peril of the animated world? Banana peels. Despite the fact that I have never in my life slipped on a banana peel, seen another person do so, or ever even just seen a banana peel lying on the ground, cartoon characters manage to wipe out on them all the time.
Once upon a time, banana slippage was a problem even for the non-animated. The fruit became popular in the states in the mid-19th century, and their peels were added to the already garbage-strewn city streets. Left to decay in the sun, they got gooey and slippery. The sheer number of discarded peels made the banana something of a pedestrian menace. The falling on a banana peel schtick became popular in vaudeville shows by the late nineteenth century. Newspapers also loved running stories, both serious and not, about the hazardous fruit.
On the funny side, one 1877 newspaper article jokingly suggested that banana peels should only be thrown on the sidewalk in front of doctors’ offices, as it would “save carrying the broken limb victim far to be mended.” Another fictional story recounted, in poetic verse, the awkward dilemma of a dude who slips on a peel and falls to one knee in front of his girlfriend, who wrongfully assumes he’s proposing. We’ve all been there!
On the other hand, lots of news stories recounted various cripplings and deaths from banana peel slips. Although many of these stories have the same sensationalist tone that I associate with promos for the 5:00 news (“Killer Microbes in your Gatorade? Find out, next!”), some appear alarmingly legit. For example, this 1914 obituary:
For one shining moment, it seemed that the banana peel threat had passed. In 1918, several newspapers covered “a new boon to humanity that should make its discoverer famous if not wealthy”- a ‘non stick banana peel.’ Some jerk out in San Francisco got everyone’s hopes up by claiming to have cross-bred a banana and a cactus pear. The new wonder food, he claimed, had an exterior skin with the same texture as a sandpaper, and was perfectly safe to drop on the sidewalk. Sadly, the fruit was indeed too good to be true.
One group this bust wouldn’t have disappointed are the early twentieth century con-artists dubbed ‘banana peelers.’ The peelers’ routine was to claim that they fell on a banana peel, often on a train car, and then sue for injury. It was good old-fashioned insurance fraud, but with a tropical fruit twist. A NJ boarding house keeper named Anna Strula, or ‘Banana Anna,’ made 17 different fraudulent banana-related claims before she went to prison for the offense.
It’s always seemed to me that inflatable evacuation slides must be airlines’ attempts at appeasing terrified and litigious passengers during a crash. “See?” flight attendants can say as passengers slide out of their burning plane, “there’s a slide! How bad can this be?”
That seemed to be the same approach taken by firefighters in the cartoons I watched as a kid. When people (or anthropomorphic animals) were stuck inside a burning building, firefighters would encourage them to jump out of a window and onto a waiting trampoline. If laughter is the best medicine, I surmised, tramping must be the best balm for third-degree burns.
In the cold light of adulthood, I assumed that firefighters running around with trampoline and trying to catch hilariously flailing fire victims was a cartoon trope. I was wrong on two counts. This life-saving method really did exist, and the ‘trampolines’ were actually 'life nets.’
Life nets seem to have worked a shocking amount of the time, but there were also a lot of horrific ways that they could go wrong. Sometimes jumpers missed the mark, like a 14-year old Dorchester girl in 1933. She was trapped in a burning building and prepared to jump out of a window into a waiting life net. However, the smoke was so thick that she couldn’t fully see her target. She landed on the pavement and ended up in critical condition.
Sometimes firefighters couldn’t get under the falling victim quickly enough, as in a 1960 tragedy in which a Harlem man carrying his four year old daughter jumped seconds too soon for firefighters to catch him. Not only was a net not waiting for them on the ground, but the father hit a clothesline on the way down
And sometimes the nets broke. In 1935, a woman named Martha Williams heroically helped five other people escape from her burning apartment building in Newark before jumping into the waiting fire net herself. However, Williams weighed 300 pounds, and the net ripped. She luckily survived the incident with only a broken leg, but other such stories (such as people jumping onto a fire net in pairs) sometimes ended in death.
So, not as much fun as cartoons had led me to believe. Still, life nets were successful enough to be used for almost a century- so where did they go? It seems like the answer may be a combination of factors. The production of better aerial ladders, dwindling man-power in firehouses that might have made gathering the dozen men necessary to hold the net more difficult, the potential for injury to firefighters, and the not insignificant risk of injury (and ensuing lawsuit) to both civilians and responders may have all played a part in the life net’s demise. At least we still have those slides.
Hook, Line and Stinker
I do not handle vicarious embarrassment well. Men ineptly hitting on uninterested women on the T, middle school yearbooks, that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy accidentally uses superglue that can only be removed with a discontinued solvent to glue a fake beard to her face in protest of Ricky’s new mustache on the very day that a talent scout is coming to dinner: all of these things leave me burying my face in my hands and chanting “this can’t be happening.”
The worst offenders are stand-up comics, whose desperate need for approval overwhelms me with an uncomfortable mixture of pity and revulsion. My general rule of thumb is just to avoid any place named something like “The Ha Ha Hut,” but I have been occasionally dragged against my better judgement. For instance, I was once talked into attending to a college amateur hour so terrible that I spent the night praying I would bust a gut and die from exploded spleen. The only thing that kept me going was the hope that a cane would appear from the stage wings and pull those Sociology majors turned sad-sack Seinfeld wannabes offstage- but alas, it seemed such mercies existed only in cartoons.
Or so I thought! In the kinder age of vaudeville, hacks really did risk getting pulled off stage with the hooked end of a cane. Popular in the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vaudeville shows featured a rotation of comedians, song and dance men, drag queens and kings, musicians and magicians. In the 1870’s, HC Miner’s Bowery was a vaudeville hall in New York’s tough Bowery and Chatham Square. Terrifying gangs with awesome names like the Irish Dead Rabbits and Nativist Bowery Boys provided a rowdy clientele for dozens of local bars and dance halls, including the Bowery.
Miner’s son, Tom, claimed to have invented the yank-off-the-stage-with-a-cane move during an amatuer night at his father’s bar. On a Friday night in 1903, a novice comedian was bravely bombing on in the face of some serious audience booing. Tom grabbed the pole that stagehands used to adjust stage lights, latched a prop cane onto the end, and used it to grab the comedian’s collar and drag him offstage. The audience loved it. Soon, patrons at Bowery’s and other vaudeville halls were yelling to give the worst acts ‘the hook,’ and the trend took off.’ We can only pray for a resurgence.
With that, I’ll give myself the hook. That’s All, Folks!
“300-POUND WOMAN HURT AFTER SAVING 5: Crashes Through Life Net.”
New York Times; Mar 18, 1935, pg. 19
Boston Register and Business Directory, 1921. Issue 85. http://books.google.com/books?id=oH4oAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=business+directory&hl=en&sa=X&ei=G_c3Ub2oELGL0QHm-YDgAg&ved=0CDgQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
“Cut to Pieces.” The Marlboro Democrat, November 24, 1905.
“FATHER IS KILLED IN LEAP AT FIRE: Carries Daughter, 4, in His Arm.” New York Times; May 6, 1960; pg. 17
“GIRL MISSES NET IN LEAP AT FIRE: Second Also Injured at Dorchester Blaze.” Daily Boston
Globe; Feb 25, 1933; pg. 2.
“GIRL SLAIN, TIED TO TRACKS: Leona Luppens, in Bridal Dress, Is Found Tied to Railroad.”
New York Times; Mar 7, 1909; pg. 1
“Held as Wife Slayer.” Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), July 12, 1920, Page 3
Kendzior, Russel J. Falls Aren’t Funny: America’s Multi-Billion Dollar Slip and Fall Crisis. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010.
“MAN TIED TO TRACK RESCUED: Dynamiters Who Bound Him Also Damaged a Bridge.” New York Times; Oct 13, 1906.
McManus, Donald. No Kidding!: Clown As Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theatre.Danvers, MA: Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp, 2003.
Moke, Bernadette. “Tour of the Bowery.” Untapped Cities. http://untappedcities.com/newyork/2011/09/30/tour-of-the-bowery/
“Non-Stick Banana Peel.” Perrysburg journal. (Perrysburg, Ohio) October 17, 1918.
Routledge, Frank. Vaudeville Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, Volume 1, 2007
Schlags, Mike. “Fire Department Safety Nets...Did they Go Away and Why?” My Firefighter Nation. http://my.firefighternation.com/forum/topics/fire-department-safety-nets-did-they-go-away-and-why?id=889755%3ATopic%3A5984841&page=3#comments. Aug 2011.
“STAVISKY WITNESS IS SLAIN IN FRANCE.” New York Times; Feb 22, 1934; pg. 1
“TIED IN TRAIN'S PATH BY GERMANS, BUT LIVES.” New York Times; Jun 14, 1924; pg. 15
“TRAIN MAIMS VICTIM ROBBERS TIED TO TRACK: Missourian Party Frees Himself.”
New York Times; Jun 18, 1920; pg. 7
“TWO BOYS TIED TO TRACK.: Freshman Killed Was Going Through Ordinary Initiation.”
New York Times; Nov 4, 1905; pg. 1
“When a Banana Peel is not a Joke.” The Ogden standard. (Ogden City, Utah) 1913-1920, April 30, 1919, LAST EDITION, Page 4,
Obituary. The Day book. (Chicago, Ill.) December 21, 1914.