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How to Be Entertaining: 10 Simple Instructions from 1904

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Being the life of the party was hard in the early 20th century, especially if you weren’t into reciting poetry or being Jay Gatsby. Thankfully, there were plenty of guidebooks available to help the uninteresting; of those, the least prominent was likely a little book called Cupology: How to Be Entertaining, authored by an Ohio woman known only as Clara. Here are 10 of Clara’s tips, directly from 1904.

1. Be a Fortuneteller

According to Clara, through careful analysis of personalities and mystical tells, a person “can become his own prophet.” The arrangement of dregs in a coffee or teacup can be interpreted in entertaining ways, as the “sensing of atmospheres” can be performed “for the pleasure of guests, both young and old.” And if reading leaves doesn’t suit you, “palm reading [or] solar biology forecasts” are equally diverting for guests and company. Here’s a condensed list of images you’ll probably see in your guests’ leaves, and their interpretations:

Accordion—Primitive talent
Apples—Health, Knowledge
Atlas—Sight, Seeing
Bats—Moral blindness
Bees—Thrift
Bed—Illness or need of rest
Birds—News, Singing, Joys
Bridge—Some event in life
Books—Learning
Cake—Luxury
Cats—Jealousies
Children—Good omen
Circles—Fine realizations
Cow—Good nutriment
Crescent—Love token
Children at play—Universal good
Crosses—Some trials
Chickens—Gains
Crows—Intrigues
Ditch—Dangers ahead
Dogs—Friends
Door—Some opening
Elephant—Some imposition
Eyes—To observe
Feet—Traveler
Feet (bare)—Poverty
Flowers—Joy, Pleasure
Floods—Sickness, Sorrow
Fountain—Public benefit
Fruit—Health
Hearts—Artistic love of Unity, Friends, Home
Hand—Friendship
Houses—Home building
Jewel-Box—Wealth
Lock and Keys—To be put in trust
Lion—Moral courage
Lighted Lamp—Great success
Lock—A secret
Moon—Honors
Monkeys—Evolution—Darwin
News-Boys—Public excitement
Palms—Restful victory
Bats—Thieving
Ring—Contract
Road—An outlook
Rabbit—Timidity, Cowardice
Rainbow—Sublime promise
Saw or Scissors—Vexations
Star—Hope, Promise
Squares—Realizations
Ships—Commerce
Sinking Ships—Perils and loss
Sofa—Social or Courtship
Spiders or Scorpions—Illness, Venom
Tiger—Onslaught
Trees—Lofty thoughts
Wheat—Plenty
Whirlwind—Distraction
Wavy lines—Vexations
Weeds—Petty trials
Window—In a new light.
Scattered objects—Lack of harmony and no propitious time for action

2. It Takes Two to Party

It’s hard to be a lady, what with being constantly nervous and inept. And it’s perhaps just as difficult to be a man with seemingly no ability whatsoever to remember who anyone is or how everyone knows one another. So it’s best to have one of each, a man and a woman, to host each party. What could go wrong?

"The most successful social functions are those managed by a host and hostess," says a society scribe, "not by either alone. Leave a man to make up a party and he is sure to forget that Mrs. B. was engaged to C. before she married D., and that Mrs. C. is aware of the fact, and that the D.s and E.s have long been at daggers drawn, and he will have no eyes to detect the designs of Mrs. H. On the other hand, a woman gets nervous and fatigued with the constant effort to keep the ball rolling, and fails just where a man would succeed. What is wanted is a division of labor, and if this were done oftener there would be less disappointment on the part of entertainers and entertained."

3. Play a Game! (Ladies Only)

Ever heard of the “progressive peanut party”? Well, hold onto your hatpins, chickens, because this is exciting:

Four guests are seated about each table, and on the table is placed a crock full of peanuts. Each guest is provided with a hatpin, and when the word is given all begin jabbing for peanuts. The quartet that empties its crock first wins the game, and then the sets of players change. It is needless to say that the peanut party is strictly a "hen" function. A man couldn't jab a crockful of peanuts with a hatpin in a week, but the young women of Lamar [Missouri] played thirty games in a single afternoon.

4. Check Out Each Other’s Nails

If staring into your own spent teacup and stabbing legumes didn’t overexert you, there’s probably still time to discover your personality through the condition and shape of your fingernails. Get all the ladies in a circle (men need not apply) and take turns examining the hands of the woman to your left. Everything you need to know about her can be summed up thusly:

Broad nails denote a gentle natured person, inclined to be modest and unassuming.

Narrow nails denote a studious but not very gentle nature, with a desire for scientific knowledge.

White nails denote a fondness for society of opposite sex, not overstrong in health and subject to fevers.

Round nails denote a desire for knowledge in general, apt to take great pride in own accomplishments, rather hasty, yet fairly good natured and forgiving.

Long nails denote caution, lacking confidence in human nature, decided in opinion and strictly virtuous.

5. Amaze Her with Simple Math (Men Only!)

Men have long been at a loss for polite methods of determining a woman’s age. Here’s an easy trick, quite entertaining, that would have made for an excellent Facebook post five years ago. Simply approach the woman whose approximate age escapes you and follow this script:

"There is a very simple problem in arithmetic which very few people are able to see
through, yet it is as easy as possible. I wonder if you can do it?"

This sets the person on his dignity, and he or she wants to do it at once. Then you go on:

"Think of a number corresponding to the numerical order of the month in which you were born. Oh, no, you need not tell me." (To make the explanation clear, we will assume that the figure is two—standing for February—and that the age is 30.)

"Now, multiply that figure by 2," you continue, "and add 5. Done that? Well, multiply that by 50 and add your own age. From the total subtract 365, and to the total add 115. Now, what figure have you got?"

"230," replies the person addressed, "Isn't that correct?"

"Exactly," you exclaim. "You are one of the very few persons who have managed it." And you turn away to hide your smile of satisfaction at having discovered that your victim was born in February and that she is thirty years of age. You have arrived at this result by separating the figures 230 into 2 (February) and 30. And you can do this with everybody's age. Try it on your sweetheart.

Just don't ask, ever.

6. Know How to Get a Man (Probably Ladies Only in 1904)

What’s the sense in having a party if you’re just going to sit around bowls of peanuts telling people how old you are? Better have a plan, ladies, and know the rules. To get a man, a woman should:

7. Know an Off-Color Lawyer Joke

Everyone has one. If you don’t have one, don’t use this one, either.

8. Know Other Jokes, Too

Clara’s suggestions leave a little to be desired, but these are the types of jokes an entertaining man or lady tells at a party.

"Goodness," exclaimed the nervous visitor. "What vulgar little hoodlums those noisy boys are out there in the street!"

"I can't see them," said the hostess, "I'm rather near-sighted, you know."

"But surely you can hear how they're shouting and carrying on."

"Yes, but I can't tell whether they're my children or the neighbors’."

9. Finally, a Co-Ed Game

Twentieth century party games are more fun when they don’t involve examining cuticles. (Maybe not much more fun.) Here’s a set of cards for the host or hostess. Give each guest a list of famous assumed names, then a writing implement and a predetermined amount of time in which to guess the real names of the people listed. Offer a prize to the winner, which is the person who correctly guesses the highest number within the allotted time.

10. Maybe Know Just a Little Poetry

Every entertaining person knows one great toast. According to Clara, these were always the most popular at her parties, and she was a lady who knew what it meant to please a crowd.

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Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD
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History
Inside the Never-Before-Seen Scrapbook of the Rubber Skin Lady, a 1930s-era Sideshow Star
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Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady and other performers, including Frieda Pushnik, Major Small, and John Williams the Alligator-Skin Boy.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

As a young girl growing up in Milwaukee, Dr. Dori Ann Bischmann loved exploring her parents' attic. One day in the early 1970s, she discovered a mysterious trunk that piqued her curiosity.

Inside, there was some children's china, an antique baby doll, a beaded hat and bag from the 1920s, and an old scrapbook. The book had a picture of two puppies on the cover.

But the images between the covers weren't as cuddly as advertised.

Dori had found the scrapbook of her great aunt, Agnes Schwarzenbacher, also known as Agnes Higginbotham and Agnes Schmidt—but more famously as Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady. On the inside cover of the book a title marked in pen read, "Scrapbook of Show Life."

The newspaper clippings, photos, and signed pitch cards (promotional postcards featuring individual performers) that filled nearly 90 pages gave Dori a glimpse into the life of one of the sideshow's biggest stars of the 1930s. It also unlocked a family secret.

Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Close-up of a 1932 group photo of sideshow performers, with Agnes the Rubber Skin Lady featured in the center.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori had never met her aunt, who passed away in 1962. Nor had she ever heard about how Agnes drew crowds to watch her exhibit the excessive, elastic skin that covered her legs. Agnes could stretch the rubbery flesh anywhere from 15 to 30 inches, although from the waist up she looked completely normal. There are no reports of a diagnosis, but she may have had a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.

Agnes, who was born in 1902 in Germany and came to America three years later, had shared her unusual skin on stages across the continent. In Toronto, she even performed before royalty. In one of the scrapbook's clippings, she spoke of the event as being one of the greatest thrills of her life on the road: "The audience was a very distinguished one and most famous of all was the Crown Prince of England, now the Duke of Windsor. I was most thrilled when he applauded vigorously."

With each turn of the book's pages, Dori encountered many of the extraordinary people Agnes performed with, particularly at the Ripley's Odditorium at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago. At the time, Robert Ripley's "Believe It Or Not!" cartoon was extremely popular, and the Odditorium was the first public exhibition of unique performers and curiosities Ripley had gathered during his travels around the world. More than 2 million people visited his collection at the World's Fair and witnessed live acts like Agnes.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Top: Crowd gathered at an oddity show capitalizing off Ripley’s success at the World’s Fair. Bottom: Agnes is featured in a newspaper clipping, between two photos of unknown performers.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Dori was enthralled with her discovery. "I have always been fascinated with people who are unique," she tells Mental Floss. Today, she works as a psychologist and often counsels people who have genetic disorders.

"I see a lot of amazing people overcoming many hurdles," she says. "At the same time I see people who are depressed. I wonder how all of the circus freaks felt on the inside. Were they hurting and depressed and putting on a show outwardly? Or did they find contentment in giving something of themselves to help others?"

While it's hard to know exactly how Agnes felt, there are glimpses in some of the scrapbook's clippings.

"I would like very much to be normal in every respect," Agnes says in one newspaper article. "Don't misunderstand me. I said I would like to, but simply because my skin is rubber doesn't mean that I have become morbid. Far from it. I am, perhaps, one of the most pleasant persons you ever met. And why shouldn't I be? I don't consider myself seriously handicapped. I realize that my skin when stretched isn't exactly normal, but I don't allow the presence of such skin on my body to make me self-conscious."

A page of promotional images from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
A collection of performers from the 1933 World’s Fair, and a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoon.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Indeed, Agnes's skin ailment proved to be quite profitable—several articles in the scrapbook claimed that "The salary paid her is the highest ever paid a freak." No numbers are given, and like many sideshow claims, this may have been an exaggeration. But many sideshow performers were paid well, especially for the Great Depression.

"She used a circumstance she was born into to become an independent woman with a high-paying career (for the day)," Dori says. "She traveled and experienced many things other women might not have been able to experience."

Photos of Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her family
Top: A photo featuring Agnes Schwarzenbacher with her father and siblings: Mary, John, Rose, and Carl. Below: A portrait of Agnes dated 1926.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

The Schwarzenbachers, however, weren't as self-confident as Agnes. Her family would have preferred that she covered her legs with long dresses and kept her anomaly to herself. They wanted nothing to do with her performances.

"The family was embarrassed that she was in the circus," Dori says. "I was also told that Agnes went to doctors to see if the tissue could be cut off. Apparently they couldn't in those days because it was too vascularized." (In other words, the tissue was too filled with blood vessels.)

The family's shame lasted well after Agnes's death. The scrapbook had originally been stored in Dori's grandparents' attic. When her grandmother passed away, no one in the family wanted the book except for Dori's mother, who had married Agnes's nephew.

"My mother was a person who was accepting of all people," Dori said. "She wasn't embarrassed about Agnes. She thought it was a shame that Agnes's flesh and blood did not want her scrapbook. The scrapbook is the story of Agnes's circus years, but also of her family."

Of course, it wasn't unusual for people born with anomalies to be treated in such ways. The sideshow, which had its heyday from the mid-1800s to the 1940s, offered them a rare chance to escape a life of seclusion, earn a living, see the world, and—perhaps most importantly—to enjoy a sense of camaraderie.

In a 1959 article from the New York World-Telegram and Sun, longtime showman Dick Best expanded on this thought more colorfully: "For the past thirty years I have been able to give employment to scores of [sideshow performers], give them financial independence, and companionship. You realize this when you see a mule-faced girl, a guy with three legs, and a girl weighing 500 pounds playing poker with a guy who shuffles and deals with his toes. In a crowd like that nobody sits around feeling sorry for himself or anybody else. You could be accepted there if you had nine arms and ten heads."

The "mule-faced girl" that Best referred to was Grace McDaniels, who Agnes worked with and featured in her album. McDaniels was afflicted with a condition that caused tumors to grow on her lips and mouth. In addition to being called "mule-faced," she was also billed as the Ugliest Woman in the World. Agnes's photos show her with McDaniel's teenage son, Elmer, who traveled with her.

The "guy with three legs," as Best called him, also appears in the scrapbook. His name was Francesco Lentini, billed as the Three-Legged Wonder. He also had four feet, and two sets of genitalia.

Agnes's friend Frieda Pushnik, the Armless, Legless Girl Wonder, is featured more prominently. Born in Pennsylvania in 1923, Pushnik had only small stumps at her shoulders and thighs, with which she learned to sew, crochet, write, and type. At the age of 10 she joined the Rubber Skin Lady at the Chicago Odditorium during the World's Fair. In addition to having collected several of Frieda's pitch cards, Agnes also had personal photos. One of these captures another companion, a dwarf named Lillie McGregor, holding little Frieda. Without legs, Frieda is about half the size of Lillie.

Lillie appears in other photographs with her husband, Harry. They are each seen pulling a person in a wagon with their eyelids. Agnes even saved the Ripley's cartoon that illustrated the stunt.

Clippings and pictures from Agnes Schwarzenbacher's circus scrapbook
Spread of newspaper clippings, including articles about Agnes and a Believe It Or Not cartoon starring her friends Lillie and Harry McGregor, who could pull each other in a wagon with their eyelids.
Dori Ann Bischmann PhD

Lillie McGregor pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Lillie McGregor, a friend of Agnes, pulls an unidentified man in a wagon with hooks attached to her eyelids at the 1933 World’s Fair.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

While Agnes's adventures in show life surrounded her with many kinds of unique people, one photo is of a man who shared a similar ailment. Arthur Loos, the Rubber-Skinned Man, had skin that hung loose beneath his chin, much like a basset hound's. He could stretch the flesh 8 inches. If they bonded over their sagging skin, Agnes made no mention of it in the scrapbook.

The man she did bond with was not a performer in the sideshow at all. He was a foreman who operated rides at a fair, a man named Jack Higginbotham. Their marriage is mentioned in one of the book's clippings, which states they were wed in Rockford, Illinois. However, the Rubber Skin Lady's love story was a mere subhead to another sideshow romance that earned the paper's headline: "Bearded Lady and ‘Elephant Man' on Midway are Newlyweds."

Agnes Schwarzenbacher and her husband
Agnes with her husband, Jack Higginbotham.
Dori Ann Bischmann, PhD

Although her family may have stayed far away from the sideshow stage, Agnes kept them all close. Photos of her with her father, brothers, sisters, and other family members populate numerous pages of the scrapbook.

Had Dori only seen these particular family photos, with her aunt's dresses covering her legs, she would have never known Agnes was different in any way—or what an amazing story she had to tell.

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Michael Fountaine
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fun
12 Amazing Items From the World’s Largest McDonald’s Memorabilia Collection
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Michael Fountaine

Since 1969, Michael Fountaine has been obsessively collecting every piece of McDonald’s memorabilia he can get his hands on. His collection, which he says is valued “in the millions of dollars,” features 75,000 pieces in total.

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