Whoopee Cushions And Prank Phone Calls: The Oldest Tricks In The Book?
Display box for Whoopee Cushion. Source: (psmag.com)
No one knows when the first prank was pulled or who was responsible for it, though it could be argued that Eve pranked Adam when she convinced him to taste the forbidden fruit. However, there are some pranks still popular today which seem like they’ve been around forever.
Flatulence has been a source of humor and embarrassment most likely since the first time man broke wind so it should come as no surprise that one of the first pranks involved an early version of the Whoopee Cushion. The innovative prankster was third-century Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, also known as Elagabalus. Elagabalus was only fourteen or fifteen when he became emperor of Rome in 218 AD so it’s understandable that he would occasionally indulge in juvenile antics. He was known to slip inflated animal bladders under the chairs of his dinner guests. His crude sense of humor evidently did not go over well with the Roman people as he was assassinated on March 11, 222, at the age of eighteen.
Elagabalus may have suffered an early death, but flatulence humor lived on and in the 1930s JEM Rubber Company in Toronto capitalized on it, using inflatable rubber bags rather than animal bladders. They initially approached Soren Sorensen Adams of S.S. Adams Company to distribute their product. Adams was known as the “father of novelty pranks” due to having invented more than 650 gags. However, he felt that the Whoopee Cushion was too vulgar to be commercially successful. JEM was undeterred and went on to make a deal with Johnson Smith & Company, a rival of the S.S. Adams Company. The product was a success, even during the Great Depression, and was sold under the name “Poo-Poo Cushion” and “Boop-Boop-a-Doop” before being named “Whoopee Cushion” in 1932. Once Adams realized his mistake, he made a deal with JEM and began selling a similar product called the “Razzberry Cushion.”
JEM company was purchased by Dayton Rubber in 1944 and began producing rubber-based automotive parts. Whoopee Cushions are still available for sale today, though they are mostly manufactured in China. However, they now have competition. The remote-controlled Fart machine and a mobile app called iFart have brought flatulence humor into the 21st Century.
For obvious reasons, prank phone calls have not been around nearly as long as bodily function jokes. However, it wasn’t long after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone that some slick jokester figured out how to use it to get a laugh at someone else’s expense. According to the February 2, 1884 issue of Electrical World, the first prank caller would call undertakers and tell them that a specific person had died. The undertakers would then gather up his tools of the trade and arrive at the scene only to be greeted at the door by the person who was alleged to be dead. Needless to say, neither the undertaker nor the alleged corpse found the joke to be funny.
In a time when all calls were routed through operators, it was difficult for prank callers to remain anonymous. However, during the early 1900s, they got around this by tricking other people into making the prank calls. They would use “While You Were Out” slips to leave messages which stated someone had called and provided a callback number. Popular pranks included having the person call Mr. Train at Union Station, Mr. Fish at the New York Aquarium, and Mr. Graves at the North Burial Ground. Death seems to be an enduring trend among prank callers. In 1920, the Milwaukee city morgue experienced a prank-calling spree in which callers asked for Mr. Graves and Mr. Stiff. In 1959, Cook County Morgue in Chicago was getting an estimated four to five prank calls a minute.
While Whoopee Cushions today are considered a children’s toy, prank calls are just as likely to be made by adults. In fact, radio shows have been known to incorporate them into their programs. While these calls are rarely considered funny by the person on the receiving end, they are vastly amusing to the person making them or, in the case of radio, to everyone listening in. It seems the desire to get a laugh at someone else’s expense is a trait deeply embedded in human nature.