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Catalog No. 439: Burlesque Paraphernalia and Side Degree Specialties and Costumes Paperback – July 20, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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About the Author

Gary Groth is the co-founder of The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics Books. He lives in Seattle.

Charles Schneider obtained his first novelty catalog―A Johnson-Smith pamphlet ordered from a comic book―at the age of ten and never looked back. He is the editor of the influential CAD: A Handbook for Heels, appeared as the morbid comedian in the film Ghost World, and created the murderer’s paintings for Art School Confidential. He lives in Culver City, CA.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Fantagraphics (July 20, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1606993674
  • ISBN-13: 978-1606993675
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 0.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,253,049 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By tvtv3 TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 3, 2010
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Once upon a time in America (particularly at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century) three brothers united in the small city of Greenville, Illinois and formed a business. These men were the DeMoulin brothers and they named their business the DeMoulin Brothers Company (imagine that). The business they started was unlike any other business that existed. At this point in history there was no Internet, no television, and no radio. Museums and libraries existed mainly in large metropolitan areas. The middle class was on the rise and, by and large, the American man found that at the end of each day and week he had some leisure time. Seeking out the companionship of other males as well as cheap, and sometimes free, life insurance for their families, these men flocked to lodges. Even the smallest villages in the country usually had at least two to four different lodges that a man could join. Some men joined one, others joined as many as they could. The Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, the Modern Woodmen of America, and the Improved Order of Red Men were just a few of the dozens of national fraternal organizations that existed. To make meetings more fun and increase further increase membership, elaborate rituals were developed. The DeMoulin brothers recognized this and were able to capitalize on it by creating a business around the manufacturing of lodge initiation devices and side degree, or burlesque, paraphernalia. From the creation of the DeMoulin Brothers in the late 1890s until 1930, these devices were the bread and butter of the company.

CATALOG #439 was the final catalog the DeMoulin Brothers Company published that featured these fraternity initiation devices. CATALOG #439 has now been republished by Fantagraphics Books.
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From this point in the 21st century, it's all but impossible to make sense of certain "humorous episodes" from the 19th and 20th centuries. When Geo. W. Peck has "Peck's Bad Boy" nearly murder his father in a mock lodge ritual, the story reads like Oedipus on wood alcohol. Artist C.M. Russell left us a cartoony drawing of himself having "rode the goat" for an Elks' initiation; it's one his few portraits showing a smile. Laurel & Hardy draw laughs getting smacked with a paddle in "Sons of the Desert," but it's such a BIG paddle. And for all us "Vic & Sade" fans, what's with all those bizarre lodge initiations?

Wonder no more. Or wonder even more. "Burlesque Paraphernalia" reproduces Catalog No. 439 from De Moulin Bros. & Co., filled gadgets guaranteed for knee-slapping good fun, like the Bucking Goat, trick chairs that do everything from mere collapsing to zapping with an electrical charge, phoney guillotines, fake branding irons, and several variations of the fabled "electric carpet" to simulate perilous desert crossings for certain fraternal degrees. There is also a selection of masks and costumes with an ethnic variety that includes something to offend everyone.

This is a fascinating, and eyebrow raising, glimpse of the humor and attitudes of a time gone by, when Victorian deportment and morality hadn't quite gone away, but when people took opportunities to thumb their noses at it, to deflate pomposity with simulated mayhem and murder. It also sheds light on the roughouse antics of early comic strips ("Katzenjammer Kids," for instance) and comedy short subjects from the Biograph and Keystone Studios.

Mark Twain hated roughouse jokes, and even Geo. W. Peck turned to shaking a finger at them in his later years. We're probably better off not reviving this dangerous brand of humor; its time has gone by. But it doesn't hurt to look.
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It's hard to imagine that these dangerous hazing pranks were the accepted means of inducting new members into mainstream secret societies years ago. But here they are, featured in a reprinted catalog from a company that supplied such equipment. The main idea was to test the new recruit's trust in the organization and its members by blindfolding him and putting him through rituals that would seem frightening to him, but were in fact, safe (or FAIRLY safe). Mild electric shock, simulated drowning, falling through trapdoors, claustrophobic situations and physical punishments of varying intensity were favorite themes. Since the props were meant for secret societies only, the props themselves have mostly been destroyed and are rarely seen by non-members. Magician David Copperfield, who owns an extensive and impressive historical collection of secret society equipment (probably the largest such collection in the world), has written the introduction to this really fascinating book.
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Hard to believe there was once a time when men's fraternal organizations reveled in this sort of "gag" ... just the electrical "shock" devices would get you sued in an instant, today.
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