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3 Crazy Crazes Of The Late 1800s

An early Oldsmobile, 1897.
Library of Congress
An early Oldsmobile, 1897.

Fin-de-siecle America — in the final years of the 19th century — was fanatical about fads.

"There is something about the end of a century that sets people to thinking about their collective prospects and ultimate destiny," writes historian H.W. Brands in The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s.

And collective thinking can lead to collective compulsive behavior, which can lead to collective fashions and fads and manias. Some of the fads were confined to certain places; others traveled farther. Here is a trio:

1) Hairpin Pilfering. "There is a new craze now," a prominent Harrisburg, Pa., fellow told the local Telegraph newspaper reporter in October of 1883. "The boys are all gathering hairpins."

The fetishistic fad started off innocently enough with boys asking favored girls for hairpins as keepsakes. "But now the idea," the guy told the newspaper, "is to get them without the girl's knowing what you are about."

He suggested nabbing the pins surreptitiously, or waiting for a pin to fall. "I know fellows who have followed a girl for squares just because a hairpin was sticking out and looked as if it meant to drop soon."

Boys put the purloined pins into albums. "They get scrap books and push the pins through the leaves like needles. Then a label giving the girl's name, style of beauty, descriptions of her person and estimated age, with the date of securing the trophy, is written below." One young man had collected nearly 400.

2) Ring Turning. In New York, according to a New York newspaper story reprinted in many papers — including the Cincinnati Enquirer on Oct. 21, 1893 — young women in offices were acting mysteriously by reaching out to men they met and turning the rings on their fingers. "It's the craziest thing you ever heard of," one office worker told a reporter. "The idea is this: If a young lady meets a young man with a ring on his finger, she is to turn the ring two or three times. Then with another man the same thing, and so on until she has turned rings to the extent of about 24 times. Then the next thing to do is to look for a married person, male or female, wearing a marriage ring. This ring she is to turn twice, and the next man she shakes hands with will be her husband."

The craze was such a time suck at one particular New York establishment that management was forced to post a warning: "Any employee caught practicing the ring turning business will be immediately discharged."

A business owner said: "The time we have lost through it would amount to days."

And one woman told the newspaper that the strange practice worked like a charm. "I know of a young lady myself," she said, "who married the very man she shook hands with after turning the marriage ring. It comes true every time."

By 1905, "Automobiling" was even the name of a popular song — with sheet music.
/ Library of Congress
Library of Congress
By 1905, "Automobiling" was even the name of a popular song — with sheet music.

The ring-turning sensation lasted more than a decade. The Kansas City Globe noted on May 28, 1907, that the finger-focused fad "is spreading through stores, boarding houses and everywhere that girls are found in Kansas City."

3) Automobiling. OK. So some manias morph into mainstream behavior. (Rock 'n' roll, for instance.) But in the late 1890s, "automobiling" — riding in a car — was considered merely a passing fancy in polite society. "There is no question in my mind," observed one reporter in a story reprinted in the North Adams, Mass., Transcript on July 18, 1899, "that the Auto Girl is a worthy end-of-the-century institution, but she will never be so numerous as her sisters, the Bicycle Girl and the Golf Girl."

Automobiling, the writer adds, "costs money, and lots of it."

The Fort Scott Daily Monitor in Kansas reported on Aug. 2, 1899, that the country could not decide what to call the new fad. Certain dispatches "state that society is wondering over tea cups as to whether it shall go 'automobiling,' 'autoing,' or 'biling.' "

In America, according to the Logansport, Ind. Pharos-Tribune of Sept. 26, 1899, "particularly in Newport, New York and Chicago, the use of the automobile is rapidly becoming a favorite diversion of society. Many wealthy families expect next season to dispense with their horses and carriages entirely. The cost is less and the convenience greater. Besides, it is now considered the ultra chic thing to do."

Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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