Books on the Hide&Seek Shelves: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialities

15 March 2011 | 5 comments

The Hide&Seek bookshelves have been growing slowly over the almost-a-year since we moved into our lovely new office. There’s the obvious stuff: rulesets, game design books, playground anthologies, board games, word games, games and play and more games. And there’s the less obvious stuff: spies, anthologies of Tamil pulp fiction, MFK Fisher’s The Art of Eating, Schoenberg’s Fundamentals of Music Composition.

So what better to do than to go through the shelves, have a closer look at a different book every week, and try to explain why on earth we have it? And where better to start than with the astonishing Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialities and Costumes?

It’s a facsimile of a deeply questionable 1930 sales catalogue for devices, often electrified, that can be used in initiation ceremonies for “fraternal organisations”. Hence, above, a cannon that shoots baseballs harmlessly at cowering victims, complete with enormous bang and clouds of smoke. “The action is intensified”, the text below reads, “by the use of electric chair”.

Electricity is a constant theme, in fact:

The book has introductory essays to put the catalogue in context (one by “Freemason Charles Schneider”, one by “Magician David Copperfield”); the highlight of these is the line, in Schneider’s essay, “The side degree business really started with a series of mechanical goats”. The main attraction, though, is the pictures of actual real products that people actually, really, and entirely bemusingly, bought. Exploding flowers for $26…

Mercury masquerading as molten lead, for $4.75…

Plus electrified cigars, exploding cigars, any number of spanking devices, and a set of stairs that turn into a slide.

It’s a really, really peculiar catalogue, complete with “Rejuvenating Machine” (it electrocutes you comically) and the “Dog Show Stunt” (it gives you a kennel to wear while barking, and then electrocutes you comically). There’s even a serious section at the end, with umbrellas, swords, and US flags.

Why do we have it? We’re certainly not about to start designing mild electrocution games. Well, partly because there was a book sale just down the road and it was only £5. But it feels relevant and interesting because:

  • Some of the devices are actually for games – the bar to hang from for pillow fights, above; a “naval battle” that takes place using wheeled kayaks – and coming across a new context in which people played strange things is always interesting.
  • And some of the other devices could be used for games – the cannon is pretty much just a giant nerf gun, after all. It’s really peculiar to see a mix of stuff that makes me go hey, you could do something lovely with that presented completely interchangeably with stuff that makes me go argh, wait, it does what?
  • All of them involve people having fun, in a way that evidently sustained a whole industry. Pretty odd fun, sure, but fun all the same, and to some extent playful fun. It all rests on the idea that watching people struggle to accomplish something – particularly something that you yourself have struggled with in the past – is entertaining; and that’s not an idea that’s unique to fraternal initiation ceremonies.
  • It shows that having a suitable social context enables people – even serious young men in 1930s waistcoats – to engage in all sorts of very strange behaviour.

5 comments on this post.

  • On 15 Mar 2011, Jodi said:

    That catalogue is great. So many uses for an electric carpet!

    There is an online version available here:
    The 1930 DeMoulin Bros. & Co -Fraternal Supply Catalog No. 439

  • On 15 Mar 2011, Holly said:

    Oh wow, to the online version! Thanks for the link. I wonder what older versions of the catalogue were like – less electricity around in the 1890s version, one would think.

  • On 15 Mar 2011, jiggery_pokery said:

    It all rests on the idea that watching people struggle to accomplish something – particularly something that you yourself have struggled with in the past – is entertaining.

    Nicely worded, because many of those specific devices to which you refer seem to cross the line into pretty direct joy at other people’s pain, physically and literally. That’s not my sort of fun, you carefully don’t suggest that it’s your sort of fun, and – so far – it doesn’t seem to have been HIde and Seek’s sort of fun. While there’s no accounting for taste, I’m glad that Hide and Seek has so far shown no signs of going down that road and I would lose my love for the movement rapidly if it ever did.

    It is one of the more depressing developments of the last thirteen or so years that electric novelties have come back into vogue and even the mainstream, but everything old is new again to the point where I dearly hope that people have become bored with the shock and that it can go away for another generation or two.

  • On 15 Mar 2011, Holly said:

    Oh, gosh, I’d completely forgotten that you can actually buy “have an electric shock for fun” games nowadays – we were all pretty bemused by the electricity preoccupation in the catalogue, but you’re quite right of course, there’s plenty of it around still.

    It’s so strange reading the catalogue, and seeing things like a jaggedy path that it’s difficult to walk across, because it rocks around at lots of different angles – which sounds like nice precarious fun, and I’d certainly have a go – with “best combined with Electric Carpet” written underneath.

  • On 15 Mar 2011, Jodi said:

    I was hoping they would have some of these things on display at the Masonic Museum in Bath when I visited, but no, they must have been kept carefully hidden.

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