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5 Surprising Uses for Stilts

April 24, 2013
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Most people think of stilts as something for circuses and kiddie parties, but they’ve been used in a number of strange ways since ancient times. In fact, stilts have a long, proud history of weirdness that continues today.

1. A Town Of Stilt Walkers

In the 19th century, Landes, France was a brushy wasteland that turned swampy whenever it rained. Locals dealt with this harsh environment by walking on stilts—everyone, from housewives to the mailman, had a pair.

Landes shepherds used these tchangues, or “big legs,” to direct their flocks. Wearing sleeveless fur jackets and berets, they maneuvered over the landscape with ease, using their walking sticks as a crook. When they rested, they sat on a tripod of the stilts and walking stick so they could watch their sheep from on high. To pass the time, they knitted.

Not surprisingly, Landesians were adept at stilt walking, able to pick up pebbles from the ground and run at fast speeds. When Empress Josephine passed through Landes in 1808, stilt walkers kept up with her carriage even though the horses were at full trot. With the 20th century, the region was transformed by forestation and better infrastructure and the need for stilts passed away, although Landes stilt dancing is still known in France.

2. Stilt Marathons

In 1891, a Landes shepherd named Sylvain Dornon stilt walked from Paris to Moscow in 58 days. It was the first of many stilt marathons. Others include 12-year-old Emma Disley scaling Wales' highest mountain on stilts in 1977, Saimaiti Yiming in China stilt walking 49 miles in one day in 2003, and Neil Sauter crossing Michigan to raise money for cerebral palsy in 2013.

The record for the longest stilt walk goes to Joe Bowen, who walked 3008 miles from LA to Kentucky in 1980. But he wasn’t the first person to stilt walk the country. In 1914, the Harrisburg Telegraph sent FE Wilvert from Pennsylvania to San Francisco on stilts. Wearing waterproof pants, a top hat, and a banner, Wilvert sent missives from cities on his route for the newspaper to publish. “You can bet your bottom dollar to a toothpick I’ll make it,” he told the Telegraph—and he did.

3. Stilt Jousting

For 600 years, Namur, Belgium has held a stilt jousting tournament called the Golden Stilt. Teams of jousters in red-and-white costumes try to take each other down by shoving, shoulder butting, poking, kicking, and knocking out their opponent’s stilts. The person still standing at the end wins.

Namur’s stilt jousting is all in fun, but there’s evidence it started out violently. In the Middle Ages, locals took to using stilts whenever the rivers flooded. At some point, stilt fighting became so common that the city banned it in 1411. Apparently, the ban didn’t stick and stilt jousting became an event, with stories of thousands of people competing in the town square. It’s a long tradition that Namur continues today.

4. Working on Stilts

Hop pickers, fruit pickers, window washers, and drywallers all use stilts to avoid messing with a ladder. And then there are the stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka.

For decades, these fishermen have climbed on stilts sticking up in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Suspended above the coral reef on a thin perch attached to the stilt, they use rods to catch herring and mackerel. This practice started after World War II, when fishermen began hanging on discarded iron pipes from the war to avoid disturbing the fish.

Although stilt fishing is attracting tourists to the region, the fishermen only make pennies per fish. That’s low pay by any standard, and many say stilt fishing is disappearing as the men find more lucrative work in other industries, like, say, tourism.

5. An Extreme Sport

Powerbocking is a sport that has popped up around spring-loaded stilts. Invented by German engineer Alexander Boeck in the 1990s, jumping stilts have fiberglass leaf springs that are attached to a curved aluminum frame that tapers to a footplate called the hoof. They let you jump 3 to 5 feet, take 9-foot kangaroo-like strides, and run 20 miles per hour. It’s like a trampoline is attached to your feet.

Jumping stilts were used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the U.S. Air Force is rumored to have tested them for military use. It's unclear whether bocking will catch on, but if so, we could be looking at a stilt renaissance in the future. Think of it as the Pogo Stick on steroids.

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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