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Cramming People Into a Thing: A Photo History

Phone Booth Cramming was a late-1950s fad with a simple premise: cram a phone booth full of dudes (and/or ladies) and take a picture before the people on the bottom suffocate. As you can imagine, this pastime was most popular among college students, and led to international rivalries. Yes, kids, this is the kind of thing we thought was fun back before we had video games...and when we still had phone booths. But this practice of people-packing goes to places weirder than phone booths, as you'll see in the historic (and bizarre) images below.

Phone Booth Cramming

Let's start with phone booths, the first and best-known stuffed space. It all started in 1959 when a group of students in Durban, South Africa crammed 25 students into a booth and submitted the result to the Guinness Book of World Records.* Although the South Africans were first, Americans soon took the world stage as masters of people-packing (and photography): the best-known Stuffed Phone Booth was photographed at St. Mary's College in 1959, when 22 students packed themselves into one phone booth while LIFE magazine photographer Joe Munroe snapped pictures. It took all day to get the right shot, and still the students failed to beat the South African record -- though they beat a group of Canadians who had gotten 19 into a booth (with legs sticking out) earlier in the year. (Reportedly, that South African record still stands, though Guinness World Records doesn't list it on their website.) Interestingly, the "rules" for Phone Booth Stuffing had regional differences. LIFE magazine reported (March 30, 1959, emphasis added):

The competitive squeeze started to sweep the U.S., with each college playing by its own rules. Some used roomy phone cubicles in fraternity houses. Others upended booths and piled into them like boats. Conscientious student stuffers used the sardine, or limbs-in, method [as shown above]. Others took the easier approach that permits legs to dangle on the outside. Competitors agree that the best phone-boothing technique is to round up undersize undergraduates, preferably freshmen, and put them under the supervision of a tough master crammer. One M.I.T. student boasted, “Here we think and calculate about the job. The mathematics of it are challenging.”

Here's a video of those St. Mary's students remembering their stunt. A representative quote: "People at the bottom were really laboring to breathe." Party on, dudes:

If you want to feel like you're part of the (hot, sweaty, crampy) action, here's a 2009 video of St. Mary's College students attempting to repeat the feat, with some of the original stuffees on-hand for color commentary.

Phone Booth Cramming - Ladies-Only Edition

At Memphis State U in 1959, 26 Sigma Kappa ladies gave it the old college try by cramming into their own telephone booth...though as you can see, their cramming rules appear rather lax. (Note: standing at the left of the photo is cheerleader Janis Hollingsworth, who cheered her sisters on throughout the event.)

Phone Booth Cramming - Ladies-Only Edition
© Corbis

Phone Booth Cramming - LIFE Edition

LIFE magazine documented the phone booth cramming fad from its inception. Here are a series of images by Robert W. Kelley, a LIFE magazine photographer who documented one "legs-out" attempt by a bunch of college boys in 1959:

Phone Booth Cramming - LIFE Edition 1
© Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures

Phone Booth Cramming - LIFE Edition 2
© Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures

Phone Booth Cramming - LIFE Edition 3
© Robert W. Kelley/Time & Life Pictures

Car Cramming

Clowns are well-known for crowding into cars; Wikipedia dryly explains: "A common example of [a clown car] routine involves an implausibly large number of clowns emerging from a very small car, to humorous effect." But in the 1950s this practice spread beyond the hallowed halls of Clown College to square schools: regular college kids went the extra mile by cramming themselves into small cars like the famously economical (and tiny) Renault. Witness:

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Outhouse Cramming

In 1959, 37 (!) students in Brookings, South Dakota, crammed themselves into a single outhouse, leaving the bum-wiping magazine on top to save space inside. According to South Dakotan rules of the day, half a person's body could remain outside the crammed edifice and still count -- hence the pile of dudes sticking out the front.

Outhouse Cramming
© Corbis

Tree Stuffing

In 1961, students at the University of Maine decided to cram inside hollow trees. Yes, really. According to the Bettmann Archive:

A "Tree Stuffing" contest to incite interest in their respective organizations, was held by the Pi Phi Sorority and Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity at the University of Maine, when they challenged one another to the contest of hollow trees on the campus. The girls, after removing their shoes, stuffed 13 into the tree, the boys 15.

Tree Stuffing© Corbis

Train Stuffing

In 1962, space on Tokyo trains was at a premium, so "pushmen" were employed to cram commuters into trains, to maximize efficiency. The best part? Reportedly, the pushmen were college students. The original caption for this image noted: "Winter coats complicate the cramming process." (According to some online accounts I've read, this still happens. Any pushmen or Japanese commuters care to comment?)

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Photo Booth Stuffing

According to Guinness World Records, in 2009, 27 people crammed into a purikura sticker photo booth designed for 10. Sadly, no photo is available, though you can read a bit about the booths from Wikipedia. Based on this attempt and the St. Mary's attempt (also in 2009), I'd say this fad is coming back!

Go Stuff Yourself

If you can find a phone booth, let us know how many coeds you can get in there -- and if you find one containing an actual working telephone, try following British rules, which require that one stuffee make or receive a phone call during the attempt. Be safe, kids.

Have you been part of a cramming or stuffing feat? Let us know in the comments.

* = It appears the the Durban feat was not granted official World Record status (at least judging from a reading of the 1989 book and some web digging). Regardless, the Durban "record" of 25 people in one booth is broadly considered to be valid, as evidenced by various groups subsequently trying to break it.

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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