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Cramming People Into a Thing: A Photo History

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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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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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