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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March 21, 2012 - 7:45pm
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