Punk’d in the Great Depression


in Archive


When historians compile lists of the stuff that helped make America America, they don’t even rank the DeMoulin’s Patent Lung Tester alongside even relatively minor inventions like the cotton gin, the telegraph, and the automobile, much less epic game-changers such as instant coffee and air conditioning. Surely this is an oversight.

  • Catalog No. 439: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes. Introduction by Charles Schneider; appreciation by David Copperfield. 240 pages. Fantagraphics Books. $22.99.

The DeMoulin Lung Tester was a plain, serious-looking box with a nickel-plated mouthpiece and a calibrated dial on its face. Its ostensible purpose was to measure a man’s lung capacity, the bulky antecedent to today’s spirometers. Its real purpose was to measure a man’s ability to maintain his composure after being made the butt of a joke. When an unsuspecting mark blew into it, a .32 caliber blank cartridge exploded and a blast of flour hit him squarely in the face.

Along with hundreds of similar devices, the Lung Tester appears in Catalog No. 439: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes. Originally published in 1930 by DeMoulin Bros. & Co., this strange volume has been newly reprinted by Fantagraphics Books. Like the more iconic Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, it illuminates its moment in American history as deftly and instructively as any novelist has ever done.

Between 1877 and 1900, writes history professor William D. Moore in one of three introductory essays included with this version of Catalog No. 439 (the others are by this edition’s editor, Charles Schneider, and the magician David Copperfield), the average American’s real income increased by 50 percent. At the same time, the price of consumer goods was plummeting. Factories were producing more items. The rapidly developing rail system offered more efficient distribution of these things.

The Sears catalog, which grew from 32 pages to 1,084 in less than a decade, offers the most vivid and comprehensive look at America’s remarkable shift from relative scarcity to stunning abundance. In the 1897 edition, each page spills over like a horn of plenty, barely able to contain all of the butter dishes, pickle casters, high crown sombreros, bicycles, rifles, sewing machines, and ladies’ capes suddenly available to the nation’s shoppers.

Although it lacks the panoramic sweep of the Sears catalog, Catalog No. 439 presents an even more arresting vision of democracy’s bounty. That’s because it’s almost entirely populated by meticulously tooled devices, gadgets, and props that employ cutting-edge technologies and craftsmanship to no more practical ends than practical jokes perpetrated during fraternal initiation rites. Inopportunely published mere months after Black Tuesday, in the first awful year of the Great Depression, it is a high-water mark of conspicuous production, a striking testament to how thoroughly America’s new industrialized economy had conquered necessity and moved on to apply its immense power — a power lesser nations could only gape at — to the aggressively inessential. Or at least that which seemed aggressively inessential at first glance.

The company that produced Catalog No. 439 got its start decades earlier, when 31-year-old Ed DeMoulin of Greenville, Illinois began making ceremonial axes for the Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal benefit organization that was formed in 1883 to provide life insurance for its members. A year later, the organization’s leader asked DeMoulin if he had any ideas that might help boost membership.

The initiation rites of long-standing secret societies such as the Freemasons and Odd Fellows were elaborate, often solemn affairs. According to John Goldsmith, who maintains a museum devoted to the DeMoulin Bros. and has written about the company’s origins for The Scottish Rite Journal of Freemasonry, DeMoulin and his siblings believed that the Modern Woodmen could attract more members by making their initiation rites more entertaining.

To this end, Ed devised a gag in which the inductee was commanded to place his hand in what appeared to be a cauldron filled with molten lead but which in fact was merely cold water with dry mercurine powder added to it. Then, he followed up with a bucking, mechanical goat designed to take initiates on a short but wild ride.

The stunts DeMoulin dreamed up weren’t just more entertaining than traditional fraternal ceremonies. They were also better suited to the new sensibilities and mores taking root in urban America, replacing hoary aristocratic ritual with an egalitarian wise-guy slapstick that played everyone for a fool at least once. Through joy buzzers, trick cigars, exploding flower bouquets, and skeletons that popped out of altars and squirted water in the eyes of their victims, they made the fraternal initiation rite modern, a burlesque rather than a ceremony. As a result, American men flocked to them. After the Modern Woodmen began using the DeMoulins’ devices, its membership grew from 40,000 to 600,000.

In the rural, agrarian, untamed United States, when there was still gold to mine, buffalo to shoot, or at least fields of sorghum to plow, the opportunities to establish one’s masculine bonafides were natural and numerous. But the urban men gravitating toward fraternal orders at the turn of the century were much like the urban men who populated Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club a hundred years later. Undermined by comfortable bedsheets and silk-lined vests, they wanted to prove they were just as rough and ready as their less civilized forebears. Mobile, rootless, unsure of what the rapidly changing world had in store for them, they also longed for community, kinship with their fellow travelers, and traditions they could call their own.

Today, left-leaning progressives insist our consumerist culture is not only trashing the planet but also leaving us less happy than earlier generations of Americans. Conservative Christians tell us we cannot find meaning or purpose in mere material abundance but must make God the center of our lives, as our Founding Fathers did. Our shopping orgies and wanton spending habits have purportedly left us broke, isolated, and starving for richer friendships, deeper community ties, a higher degree of civic engagement than Groupon can deliver.

But look at how our supposedly more enlightened forebears created the social connectedness we long for. As the DeMoulin catalog suggests, they were literally manufacturing and selling it! An industrialized economy may have left early-20th-century urbanites with fewer opportunities to display their masculine prowess and develop meaningful bonds with each other, but the industrialized economy could also produce that which it had erased — in a more efficient, potent, culturally relevant form.

The DeMoulin Bros. catalog provisioned the men of its era with danger and adventure on demand. Initiates were threatened with branding; forced to walk across seemingly spiked pathways; electrocuted by benches, razors, and teeter-totters; ambushed by devils; beaten by spanking machines. Instead of breaking wild horses on the plains of Texas, they rode “galloping, rearing, wobbling, kicking” mechanical goats that made broncos look tame in comparison. Instead of blazing trails across the unforgiving Mojave, they conquered electric carpets that delivered “all the woes of the hot desert sands…”

Through such artificial means, the fraternal organizations could fabricate tradition, churn out camaraderie, and efficiently instill the values the new cultural era demanded. Instead of promoting “gentility, self-reliance, and restraint,” as the older fraternal orders had, Moore writes, these new ones gave lessons in “physical toughness, humor, and appropriate demeanor under stress” through the comic shocks and torture deployed in their initiation rites. And thus the seemingly inessential wasn’t so inessential after all. A Model T could help you navigate the present faster than had ever been possible. The devices the DeMoulin Bros. were manufacturing in the early decades of the 20th century could help you establish the relationships and cultivate the mindset that could help you navigate a tricky, rapidly evolving future. • 14 September 2010