Starting in the 1920s, marathon dancing became quite popular among young people of the day. These endurance sessions were no cakewalk either. There were reports of dance marathons lasting for months at a time, in which the participants got 15 minutes of break time per hour to "sleep."
Humans are destructive by nature. If you give them toys, chances are they're going to break them after a while. This transfers over even when you scale those toys up to giant machines that can kill people. Such was the case with organized and staged train crashes. The most notable of these occurred in 1896 in Texas, which resulted in the deaths of three people because the boilers on the trains exploded and sent debris flying into the crowd.
History is full of bizarre medical practices, and this is one for the books. In the 1950s people paid money to go sit in piles of radioactive dirt in the hopes that it would cure their various ailments. Don't believe me? Let Life Magazine persuade you.
The Victorian Era might be the craziest time period in history. The sheer number of weird phenomena that sprung from it qualifies it for that title. "Fasting Girls" were girls who claimed that they did not eat and were displayed in public as exhibits. Obviously, this is medically impossible and pretty much every one of them was eventually found to be sneaking minuscule amounts of food to survive. However, in some cases they chose to starve themselves to death rather than be exposed as frauds.
People like things that glow in the dark. This extends back to the late 19th century, when radium paint was used to make things glow in the dark, particularly wrist watches. Around the same time, uranium glass was used to make glassware. Basically, in this era your watch and drinking glass could both be irradiated and possibly poisoning you, but you didn't care because of how awesome you thought they looked.
No matter what the time period, young people can be relied upon to do extremely stupid things to their bodies in an attempt to have a cheap thrill. So it should come as no surprise that even in 1948, teens were "redding-out," which basically consisted of making themselves pass out in order to hallucinate. Many of the students who claimed to have "redded-out" insist that they felt they were being pursued by monsters during their unconscious state, but it may have just been the school's principal.
Train surfing has existed just about as long as trains have, because stupid people have a death wish. However, as trains got faster, the number of train surfers declined. Overpopulation in the early 20th century led to its revival out of necessity rather than as recreation - people rode on the outsides of trains when they either didn't have a ticket, or there was no more room aboard the locomotive. Trains were then made larger with more space, once again discouraging the practice. However, with the rise of extreme sports, train surfing has again caught on as a very dumb thing to do for crazy people.
Ant farms, or "formicariums," were first invented by French Entomologist Charles Janet around 1900 to be used as a teaching aid. However, he did not patent the idea, so in 1929 it was patented by another man, Frank Austin. He did not market them particularly well, and in 1956, another man named Milton Levine began to sell them and trademarked the name "Ant Farm." This made Levine extremely rich because he sold over 20 million of them.
Sitting upon a raised platform was initially a practice in the ancient world. It was brought into the 1920s by stuntman Alvin Kelly, who sat upon a flag pole for over 13 hours in 1924 as a publicity stunt. It soon caught on around the United States, but died down around 1929 with the onset of The Great Depression, most likely because no one could afford flagpoles at that time.
This is exactly what it sounds like. People in costumes push a bed on wheels for as long as they can, in order to gain attention. The world record is over 1,000 miles. Go ahead, try and break it. We'll wait.
We once again return to the Victorian era with the fad of tear catching. This was initially an ancient practice, but it was revived by the Victorian upper class as a means to show off how rich they were (and also to be dramatic). Tear catching bottles were very ornate, sometimes encrusted with jewels and other precious metals. When a person passed away, tears of mourners would be collected. Once the tears evaporated, the mourning period was officially declared to be over.
Arriving right after the Ant Farm, Sea Monkeys were sold in the backs of comic books as aquarium pets. They are actually tiny brine shrimp and bear absolutely no resemblance to the drawings you see up there, as specified in the tiny text at the bottom of the page. Many a kid was disappointed upon receiving their sea monkeys and learned a valuable lesson about scams at an early age.
Now a tired movie college cliche, goldfish swallowing originated in the 1920s but really caught on in the 1930s. It was usually used as either a publicity stunt or a form of hazing for fraternities and other college organizations. Eventually it was banned in several states, because no goldfish wants to spend the rest of its short life in a Depression Era frat bro's stomach.
Racewalking, or "Pedestrianism," was a very popular sport in Britain in the 1800's. Walkers attempted feats such as walking over a 1000 consecutive miles, and the sport actually led to massive amounts of gambling. Some first place prizes were $10,000 dollars or more.
A belief in the afterlife has fascinated people since the dawn of time, but from the 1800's through the early 1900s, it went a step further with spiritualism, or communicating with the dead. Rich people would often organize seances, where they would gather with a "medium" who would relay messages back and forth between the living and the deceased. These messages often came in the form of basic sounds, such as knocks. The Fox Sisters, were some of the most popular mediums because they were allegedly able to produce knocks and other sounds at will. They were later found to be cracking the joints in their feet and legs to create the sounds.
Bermuda shorts originated as clothing for British soldiers stationed in Bermuda due to the tropical climate. Eventually, businessmen in Bermuda began to wear them as well in an attempt to stay cool without looking cool, pairing suit blazers with the shorts and knee high socks. This then spread to the United States, and a horrible 1950's fashion was born.
Phrenology was a pseudoscience popular in the early 1800s. Its principle concept was that the brain was broken up into individual areas, each with a personality trait assigned to it. The human skull was believed to correspond with the shape of the brain (think of the skull as a glove). So in theory, a trained phrenologist could examine the shape and contours of your skull and allegedly decipher your tendencies, strengths and weaknesses.
Nylon stockings were introduced to the public in 1939. They were an immediate and fashionable success, selling upwards of 4 million pairs a day. Then, the US entered World War II and all nylon manufacturing was put toward the war effort for parachutes and other equipment. Women were quite upset that their new fashion option was taken away, leading some make-up manufacturers to sell "liquid stockings," or leg make-up. Women could apply the make-up to their legs to give the appearance of stockings, complete with a seam going up the back of the leg. This proved very popular and stayed in fashion until the end of the war, when nylon stockings once again became available.
It's the late 1950s, and you and your buddies are looking for something neat to do. You spy a phone booth and decide to see how many of you can fit inside it. Somehow this became a fad across the world, with rivalries between Americans and the apparent kings of phone booth-stuffing, South Africa. South Africa set a world record by stuffing 25 people into a single booth. In a world without video games or computers, I guess this makes sense. You have to do something to pass the time, right?
Before Planking, Owling, Batmanning, and Vadering, there was Hunkering. Yep, your grandfathers were just as stupid as the modern day hipster, randomly squatting down for photo opportunities in public places. A campaign was even started in the 1950s to try and get President Eisenhower to hunker down with Khrushchev to try and sort things out.