Students at Renselaer Polytechnic Institute managed to acquire almost all the pennies in the town of Troy, New York — around 250,000 pennies in total. They did this by first going around store-to-store claiming they needed pennies for a "penny-ante poker game." Then they went to the banks and purchased their entire supply of pennies. Since each bank was unaware that the same thing was occurring at all the other banks, they happily sold the students all the pennies they had.
As a result, the town of Troy suddenly discovered that it was in the grip of a "penny famine." Shopkeepers found themselves unable to make change. And more significantly, they found it difficult to charge the state sales tax.
This had been the point of the stunt. It had been organized by a group of students calling themselves the "Tax Centinels" in order to "focus public attention on the taxes which they claim account for 25 per cent of the cost of all necessities of life."
Having cornered all the pennies, the students went into the town the next day and began making purchases, using pennies to pay for one-quarter of whatever the cost of the item was. It was a bit like the time-honored stunt of paying fines with pennies
Philadelphia Inquirer - Apr 6, 1938
The movement quickly spread to other colleges, so that other college towns were soon beset by penny famines. New members of the Tax Centinels were required to take the following pledge:
To help fight the growth of taxes which now consume 25 cents out of every dollar spent by the average person, I hereby endorse the policies of this non-partisan, non-political organization knwon as the Tax CENTinels.
It shall be the purpose of this organization to focus public attention on the evils of the practice of keeping concealed taxes and to awaken in the public consciousness a realization that 70 per cent of all taxes now collected by more than 175,000 separate taxing bodies in the United States are obtained through secret levies tacked on to the price of necessities we all must buy daily—food, clothing, shelter, luxuries, and semi-luxuries.
Since the average man does not realize the inroads made upon his purse by these vicious hidden taxes and that he himself pays the major costs of the government instead of the Rockefellers, Morgans and du Ponts, I hereby pledge myself to pay 25% of the price of all purchases in pennies in order to dramatize the situation to the end that it may be remedied.
Wisconsin State Journal - Apr 11, 1938
As far as I can tell, the Tax Centinel movement lasted a month or two before fizzling out. But it seems to have been symptomatic of a widespread popular discontent at the time over the sales tax. See, for instance, our earlier post about the guy who in 1939 took a case all the way to the supreme court over his indigation at having been, in his mind, unfairly charged one-half cent of sales tax.
More info: "Tax Centinels," Star and Lamp (Pi Kappa Phi newsletter) - May 3, 1938. Page 4.
The urge to prank is eternal.
T. Roy Gentry began selling cans that he advertised as containing possum run over by a cattle truck 2 miles south of Ozark, Missouri. The cans actually contained potted meat from a local grocery store.
Newsweek - Mar 19, 1990
Kansas City Times - Feb 20, 1990
Last night I was watching TV with my 98-year-old great aunt, when an ad for Alka-Seltzer came on. She immediately perked up and said that, back in the 40s, they used to mix Alka-Seltzer and water in a glass, and then put a condom over it. They called this a Mae West cocktail. It was a popular party trick, she said, to ask someone if they wanted a Mae West cocktail and serve them this.
I immediately thought that I needed to add this to my list of things named after Mae West
that I posted four years ago.
I googled the term 'Mae West cocktail' and found a variety of different recipes for alcoholic cocktails named after her, but no mention of the Alka-Seltzer and condom trick. Though I did manage to find a picture of the trick being performed.
image source: ourbusandus.blogspot.com
Since my great aunt's version of the cocktail has no alcohol in it, I suppose that technically it's a virgin Mae West cocktail.
I don't think this would go over well nowadays. From the Iowa City Press-Citizen
- May 12, 1975:
As a pediatrician [Dr. Charles Johnson of the Iowa Medical School faculty] gives a lecture on child development. It’s scheduled for 1 p.m. The students are sleepy, not only because the subject doesn’t send them but because they’ve just finished lunch.
To liven them up Johnson does this:
“I start the lecture by playing a stereo recording from Sesame Street, which awakens about a third of the audience. I briefly outline the two-hour lecture and then, on cue, in comes the first patient... a newborn in a wheeled isolette pushed by a nurse.
“For the pediatrician,” I announce, “this is where it all begins.”
The baby then starts to scream. As it gets louder and louder Johnson becomes more and more annoyed.
At first he rocks the isolette gently, then with more vigor. Finally, in a fit of anger he flings open the glass top, seizes the infant, and throws it out into the audience.
“When the hysteria dies down I state: ‘Infants are helpless parasites. They can be and are battered.’
“Most of my other pearls are soon forgotten, but rarely does the student forget the ‘helpless parasite’ flying into the audience. All that’s needed is a straight-faced nurse, a good tape recording of an infant yelling — and a life-size doll.
Adding a foaming agent to Niagara Falls was evidently the fantasy of some chemical engineer at Monsanto.
Newsweek - Mar 17, 1952
Was it a prank, or was it art?
Des Moines Tribune - Aug 1, 1963
The ingenuity of teenagers knows no bounds.
The Salem News - Sep 17, 1953
PRANKSTERS PEPPER CEILING — Teenagers have forgotten the goldfish-swallowing fad which swept the U.S. a few years back, but they've started another one which is giving restaurant owners a headache. The new fad requires some drinking straws, chocolate syrup and a bit of wind power. Tom Taylor, left, and John Wasson of Ludington, Mich., show how easily a restaurant ceiling can be "redecorated" by dipping the straw's tissue casing into syrup and shooting it like a blowgun up into the air.