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The Hottest Challenge on 1930s College Campuses – Swallowing Goldfish

Stefan Andrews
Getty Images

A spoonful of cinnamon. The Tide Pod Challenge. These are some of the bizarre and dangerous fads that have been followed by young people recently. But even in the 1930s, college fads kept to the same level of craziness — the most popular challenge of all involved swallowing a live goldfish.

The goldfish swallowing challenge, which never really faded away, began in 1939 when a Harvard freshman agreed to do gulp down a live goldfish for 10 bucks. Soon enough, the great goldfish challenge spread to other universities. Like a wildfire.

Goldfish in an aquarium.

Goldfish in an aquarium.

MIT’s newspaper The Tech describes the freakish scene as “piscine deglutition” in an article dated to March 31, 1939.

The article opens as follows: “Albert E. Hayes, Jr., ‘42, gulper of fish — 42 — last night claimed the new world’s record for piscine deglutition in the name of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hayes broke the record of 36 established yesterday afternoon by a Northeastern student when he swallowed his 37th at 6:58 P.M. in the 5:15 Club room.” The student didn’t stop until he had consumed 42 wriggling fishes.

“The first few fish went down rather easily — with the aid of dashes of salt. After about the first ten, Hayes had more trouble, and restored to copious drinks of his chocolate soda chaser.”

Harvard Freshmen

Harvard Freshmen

As the title of the article clarifies, Hayes was hailed as the “new champion of intercollegiate goldfish swallowers.” And like any student competitor who signed up for this outlandish practice, Hayes too would have received a huge ovation from the watching crowd for each “piscatorial tidbit” he consumed. Poor fish.

Back to the Harvard freshman who supposedly started it all — his name was Lothrop Withington, Jr. He allegedly had boasted among friends that he had eaten a live fish before. To defend his claim, Withington accepted the challenge to swallow a goldfish in front of his friends. On March 3, 1939, Withington placed a 3-inch goldfish in his mouth. He gave it a few chomps before finally letting the entire fish slide down his throat. Besides the hoard of smirking classmates, the scene was also attended by at least one journalist, notes Smithsonianmag.

Goldfish

Goldfish

Had it not been for the journalist witnessing the scene, the goldfish challenge might have never been. But the story appeared in the press and caught on as an idea among college students everywhere across the nation. Suddenly everyone was up for swallowing a live goldfish. Not just one goldfish — another record-breaker supposedly totted up 89 of the aquatic pets in one sitting. Both boys and girls would chip in the competitions.

Withington told The New York Times years later that he did the challenge as a publicity stunt because he wanted to run for class president. Not the most clever thing to expect from a class president, however. The swallow a goldfish challenge eventually became the best newspaper documented college craze in history. Though not everyone liked the idea that college students — the future of the nation — were gulping the poor pet in such quantities. Critics would repeatedly denounce the practice. According to The Harvard Crimson, the following lines were authored at the time by one Eva Williams Raymond:

“To end this paranoiac prank,
O Harvard, how I wish
You’d put the students in a tank
And graduate the fish!”

By the springtime of 1939, as condemnations of the craze became more severe — there was even the creation of a Society for the Prevention of Goldfish Eating — the popularity of the fad plummeted. Students also needed to take the time and study hard for exams.

Goldfish

Goldfish

One alternative theory has it that the goldfish swallowing may have its origins back in the 1920s, among bartenders from Chicago. The college students could have copied the idea from there, though if they copied it means they were indeed fooled.

Unlike the students, the bartenders — especially one Matt Schulien — who did the goldfish trick never really consumed the fish alive. The stunt was done with the help of a piece of carrot which has pretty much the same color as a goldfish. Doing the trick: the bartender would reach for the goldfish in the bowl at his counter while hiding the slice of carrot in his palm. He would ultimately swallow just the carrot, pretending he is having the little, innocent fish instead.

Read another story from us: The Cross-Dressing French Aristocrat Who Became an Elite Royal Spy

Every now and then the goldfish challenge returns. Depending where you live, doing this yourself and publicizing it might just bring you the trouble, like paying a fine or earning a ban on keeping any pet. Not to mention the health risks of swallowing a goldfish — a potential pathogen carrier — such as contracting tapeworms.