It started out with one. One live goldfish, swallowed up by a Harvard freshman on a dare. Three weeks later it rose to three, and four days after that it jumped to 24. By the end of April 1939, the record for the number of goldfish swallowed stood at 101. Students at colleges across the country—the University of Michigan, Boston College, New Mexico State, among others—had popularized a quest to see how many goldfish a single person could eat in one sitting.
As an intern in the Division of Culture and the Arts, I did not begin my research with this topic in mind. My job was to find headlines describing major news events that occurred in 1939. These would be used to border the walls for the 1939 exhibition on the third floor of the museum. But what began as a simple search for headlines ended with a collection of news titles about gulping (and in some cases, chewing) goldfish. I knew I would probably find some quirky headlines from such a momentous year, but I never expected to find this.
Of course, college crazes are nothing new. In the 1950s, students stuffed themselves in phone booths to see how many bodies they could cram inside; in the 1970s, students streaked naked across campus. But 1939 featured a trend unlike any other. Students bet goldfish as if they were poker chips, constantly raising the stakes by downing more fish than the previous record-holder. Some goldfish gulpers paired their scaly little victims with chasers or condiments. While one student doused his fish with salt and pepper before ingesting them, another accomplished his feat with the help of three bottles of milk. The originator of the craze, Lothrop Withington, Jr., actually chewed his fish before swallowing and chased it with mashed potatoes, according to a letter written 24 years later by his friend and published in the New York Times.