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.