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Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Discovery and Use of the Whoopee Cushion

The Whoopee Cushion.

Any schoolchild will tell you the Whoopee Cushion was pioneered by the Roman Emperor Elagabulus who delighted the ancient world by placing an inflated sheep's bladder on the chair of a guest.

We can imagine the dinner conversation going something like this:

Emperor Elagabulus: (With unusual solicitude.) Have a seat, Marcus.
Marcus: With pleasure, Caesar.
Whoopee Cushion: Ffffflbrt!
Elagabulus: Ha ha ha!  You fell for it again, Marcus!  Ha ha ha!
Marcus: Yes, Caesar, I fall for it every time.  It is as funny as ever.  By the way, could you let me hold 45 drachmas til payday?

Incredibly, Elagabulus was only fourteen when he first played this prank.  Less incredibly, he was assassinated at eighteen.

For centuries, the haggis industry placed sheep organs out of reach for the average person and only the wealthiest could afford to offer their guests the amusement of the Cushion de Joie, as the French named it.

That is, until the 20th Century when August Vink and his crew of researchers at JEM Manufacturing were looking for a way to use sheets of scrap rubber.  The prototype probably originated as an inter-office prank, but Vink immediately spotted the commercial potential.  He took his device to Samuel Sorenson Adams founder and president of the S S Adams Company.

When we consider the sheer breadth of Adams' inventive powers, we cannot but stand in awe.  The invention of the joy buzzer alone would have ensured him a place among the immortals, but he also gave us the snake-nut can, the stink bomb, and the dribble glass.  Adams had made a fortune almost overnight from the sneeze-powder craze, and had built from it a formidable company.  The man was a living monument, and therefore, when he rejected Vink's discovery as "too vulgar," it must've seemed like there was no hope.

But Vink was a man with a vision and was not to be deterred.  He took his invention to Adam's rival Johnson Smith Company.  

Johnson Smith in those days was plucky and hungry, an ambitious young upstart ready to try anything.  The launch of his X-Ray Vision Glasses had won him supporters among the intelligentsia and he was cocky enough to rush in where others feared to tread.  When Vink demonstrated the novelty cushion, Smith didn't hesitate to snap it up.

People have objected from that day to this that the name Whoopee Cushion is unhelpful and misleading, as the cushion does not make a sound which at all resembles Whoopee.  Perhaps the name was a corruption of "whoopsy," an interjection of chagrin.  Perhaps Whoopee was an attempt to imitate the name of Adams' "joy buzzer," implying that the purchase of the product would result in boundless delight at social gatherings.  Perhaps it was a reference to a forgotten Vaudeville routine in which a comedian referred to flatulence as "whoopee."  Whatever the case, the origin of the name seems destined to remain shrouded in mystery.

It was the Roaring Twenties, and didn't take long for the cushion to become all the rage; it was a time of bathtub gin, flivvers, and flappers, and people knew a good time when they saw it.  Adams, belatedly seeing the money to be made, came out with his own version, "The Raspberry Cushion."  It was a cut-throat move all too typical of the novelty industry and a blatant violation of patent rights.  Smith planned to file suit, and no doubt would have won, but he fell an early victim of the Crash of '29; he'd unwisely poured a fortune into rubber chickens, which had proved a dud among the buying public.  Of course, Salvadore Dali's endorsement was later to lead to a rubber chicken renaissance, but that was years in the future, and meanwhile Smith was unable to muster funds for a legal team.

Young people today may not even know a Whoopee Cushion when they see it.  Thanks to technology and the new Fart App for IPhones, no one need ever inflate a rubber bladder again, yet we still owe a debt of gratitude to Vink and Smith, and the halls of history echo with the fart sounds of their invention.

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