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culture

Toronto Invents: The Whoopee Cushion

A west-end rubber factory devised a classic practical joke.

We look at concepts and products that, for better and worse, were developed in Toronto.

Photo by Stephen Depolo via Creative Commons.

Photo by Stephen Depolo, from Flickr.

You’re sitting down to enjoy a fine meal, or slumping comfortably into your favourite chair. Suddenly, a loud farting sound emerges from your posterior—and it isn’t due to excess bean consumption. Everyone around you laughs when you look down and see a deflated whoopee cushion. Depending on your disposition toward the bathroom-humour classic, you either laugh along or silently plot revenge.

While inflated air bladders had provided comedic opportunities for jesters and jokesters for centuries, the modern whoopee cushion appears to have been born just east of the Humber River, in York Township.

And yet, had it not been for a quick response by local volunteer firefighters, Jem Rubber might not have been in a position to invent anything. A blaze at the manufacturer’s plant at 3723 Dundas Street West in July 1928 nearly destroyed the facility. The situation wasn’t helped when the Toronto fire crew that received the alarm was stopped by officials, who refused to allow the firefighters to cross the western city limit at Jane Street, even though the blaze was only two blocks further.

Sometime after the fire, Jem developed an inflatable rubber bag that farted when deflated. While similar devices were available in gag catalogues, none delivered as vulgar a blast as this one. The company presented the item to New Jersey–based novelty giant S.S. Adams Company in 1930. To his eternal regret, Adams declined the product. “The whole idea seemed too indelicate,” Adams later noted. “I passed it up, and the first year I threw away about $50,000.” (Adams later marketed his own version, the “Razzberry Cushion.”)

Source: Johnson Smith & Company Catalogue #148, 1938.

Source: Johnson Smith & Company Catalogue #148, 1938.

Jem attracted the interest of the Johnson Smith & Company, which added the item to its giant novelty catalogue. The earliest versions were green and depicted what the New York Times described as “a drawing of a gun-toting boy wearing a devious smile and a kilt.” Originally bearing names like “Poo-Poo Cushion” and “Boop-Boop-a-Doop,” the item’s lasting name debuted around 1932. It has been suggested that “whoopee cushion” was inspired by Eddie Cantor’s hit song, “Makin’ Whoopee.” That year, Johnson Smith offered two versions: an economy plain rubber model for 25 cents, and a deluxe edition made from rubber-impregnated fabric for $1.25.

It’s unknown when Jem stopped manufacturing whoopee cushions. The company was bought by Dayton Rubber in 1944 and shifted its priorities to producing fan belts and other automotive products. The factory operated until production shifted to a new plant along Highway 400 in North York in 1964. The original plant was replaced by an apartment complex, after some opposition from nearby homeowners. During a fiery meeting of the Borough of York Council in February 1968, members of the Warren Park Ratepayers Association clashed with Mayor Jack Mould and councillors who supported rezoning the site from industrial to residential. The residents were concerned about subsidizing the infrastructure costs required to serve 420 new living units. As future York mayor Phil White noted, “there is no reason why single-family residential areas should have to subsidize school needs for apartment blocks.”

The development won by an 8 to 2 vote and stands today at the southwest corner of Dundas Street and Gooch Avenue. Statistics on how many residents there own whoopee cushions are unavailable.

Additional material from Blame It on the Dog by Jim Dawson (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2006), the July 15, 1928 edition of the Globe, the February 27, 1968 edition of the Globe and Mail, the March 29, 2008 edition of the National Post, the March 30, 2012 edition of the New York Times, and the March 31, 2008 edition of the Toronto Star.

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