What's the rage?
by Mel Robertson
THE DICTIONARY gives several meanings to the noun "rage". One is "violent anger", another is "vehement desire for something" and yet another is "poetic or martial ardour". Today we tend to think of the word as connected with "road rage" which is the reaction of a car driver to another driver's carelessness. "Air rage" applies to someone who gets drunk on an aircraft, smokes in the toilet, makes passes at female attendants and battles people trying to subdue him. "Road rage" is usually settled on the road (or in the courts). "Air rage" usually results in an unscheduled landing, a call for the police and the arrest of the "rager".
However, this article will deal with the "vehement desire" meaning of the word in the expression "What's the rage?" which has been supplanted today by the expression "What's cool?"
As an older person I have lived through a considerable number of "vehement desire" rages. Most of them were very intense for a short time and most were silly things designed to give "bragging rights" to a few people. The expression "bragging rights" is merely a seldom-used expression to describe the universal desire to be one step ahead of the "other guy". (Is that a "politically correct" phrase to use in present times?)
My first contact with a "rage" was in the 1920s when every little boy wanted to wear a "sailor suit" which was a miniature version of the uniforms worn by sailors in the Royal Navy. These consisted of a "middy" top, blue trousers and a flat cap bearing the name of an RN battleship.
My parents did not like the idea of a "sailor suit" but, after a lot of persuasion on my part, agreed to buy a cap. We got one at Wiles & Quinlans in Brantford but found, to my dismay, that all caps with such great names as "Lion", "Tiger", "Invincible", etc. were sold and only "HMS Benbow" caps were available. Unfortunately, at the time this name did not give "bragging rights" and was ridiculed by boys bearing the more belligerent names. Unfortunately, I did not know that the battle-
ship HMS Benbow was one of the RN's famous battleships which had fought heroically at the battle of Jutland and, while not as well known as other warships, had survived with great distinction until 1929 and was really more praiseworthy than some of the battleships with tougher names.
The next "rage" I can recall involved bicycles which, in the late 1920s, were the standard gift to boys who had passed the "Entrance Exams" into high school. Most were of a standard pattern but, after that, "bragging rights" took over in the accessories that could be added.
First of these was a bell to warn pedestrians of your approach. They were rather small and gave a pleasant little "ding ding". However, it was soon found that there was a larger bell on the market with a much louder "ding dong ding dong" which their proud owners used frequently to "put down" owners of the smaller bells.
This bell was soon supplanted by the "bicycle siren" which was an elaborate device that fitted on the front wheel and was activated by a chain or cord on the handle bars. These sirens emitted a loud, piercing sound that could be increased by the speed of the bicycle. Sirens of this type gave great "bragging rights" but were very unpopular with adults who would rush out yelling "shaddap" if a siren was activated in front of their house. They did have some use for I understand that bicycle sirens were used on more than one occasion to tell irate listeners that a fire was in progress.
Other bicycle "bragging" devices included the acetylene light which looked good when it was not lighted but stank so horribly when lit that most kids did not brag about owning one. Other popular bicycle additions included front-end and rear-end carriers, fringed handle grips and pedals that included bits of glass that flashed as the proud owner rode along. Finally, bicycles with double cross-bars, big bells, sirens, acetylene lights, rear-end reflectors, rear-end carriers and fancy handle grips became the Harley-
Davidsons of the time.
Another "rage" among boys in earlier times was the possession of a "cap pistol" which fired little paper "caps". Possession of these little guns was inspired by the activities of such "movie" Western heroes as Tom Mix and Ken Maynard who, at the regular Saturday afternoon "oater" or Wild West films at the Temple, the Brant or the Rex theatres in Brantford, disposed of "bad guys" who were intent on stealing cattle, robbing stage coaches or insulting "bar girls".
The earliest of these guns in my memory was a little long-barrelled thing called an "Eagle". It fired a "cap" about a quarter of the size of a penny with a piddly little "pop". The only "bragging rights" such a thing gave was its possession as money for even such a thing as an "Eagle" was scarce in those days.
The "Eagle" was superseded by a much bigger toy pistol called "Big Bill" which fired a larger "cap" which could only be purchased in hardware or drug stores. This gave a kid great "bragging rights" which only lasted until "pop" or "cork" guns became available. These became famous for the fact that, not only could they make a bigger noise, but they also could project a cork or a marble a few feet. This was the ultimate weapon for kids until Superman and then electronics produced toy weapons with complicated devices attached that could reduce opponents to com-postable garbage or cause artificial insemination if pointed at the right person. These devices appear on many TV shows and even at Fall Fair sideshows. Let us hope that such destructive progress does not continue for, if it does and war breaks out, there will be no one left to sweep up the usable "compost" for use on the esthetically perfect gardens.
Another set of "rages" began in the 1920s when ownership of automobiles became common. Then "bragging rights" began to include male adults. Automobiles in those days were all painted black and Henry Ford was alleged to have said, "I like any colour as long as it is black." Consequently, people had to use other "rages" to make their auto Men and boys might say, "I have a McLaughlin-Buick (never just Buick in those days). My car is better than your Briscoe."
This rankled other owners and they began to find devices to make their car more "brag-gable".
One such "rage" involved spare-tires which, in those days, were attached to the rear of the car or were attached to the left side "running board". This "rage" involved spare-tire covers which could be bought at most places like Crystal Beach. The Crystal Beach cover featured a diving girl in a "neck to knees" bathing suit. The possession of such a tire-cover gave its owner the aura of "a very sporting fellow". Other tire covers strove to equal the Crystal Beach cover but few succeeded and many began to "sport" commercial ads of the most banal kind. I can still recall the pride with which kids said, "Have you seen our Crystal Beach tire-cover?"
The next automobile "rage" was devoted to pennants. Motorists bought pennants wherever they went and strung them on a cord across their rear window, thus proclaiming that the motorist had been to (you guessed it) Crystal Beach, Summerside Park, Southside Park, Niagara Falls, Mohawk Park and even Burford. This "rage" became a traffic nuisance as the pennants became available everywhere and motorists became more interested in reading them than driving. This became almost as stupid as the present-day practice of using a cell-phone and a "lap-top computer" while driving in traffic.
When the pennant "rage" subsided the "wing rage" took over. By "wing" I mean that people began to purchase glass "wings" that were fastened to both sides of touring car windshields. These were supposed to break the wind but were really another "bragging" thing to get the jump on other motorists and to make their dull black Studebaker touring car look more attractive than someone's dull black Grey-Dort.
Wings were of ordinary heavy glass that broke easily. They may have provided some protection to drivers of open cars but surely their vaunted publicity as a device to "break the wind" did not merit their cost. Nonetheless, boys burst with pride when they had persuaded their fathers to conform to this "rage".
The next automotive "rage" was probably the little chrome-plated things that were attached to a car's running-board and were supposed to be a place where you could wipe your feet before getting into the car. They may have marked the beginning of the use of chrome on cars which grew to the exaggerated use of chrome on 1950s and '60s cars. These flashy little foot-scrapers were not of much use in getting mud off your boots but many motorists felt that they were not "with it" if they did not have them.
Last but certainly not least among car "rages" was something that was beyond the financial dreams of most motorists. I refer to the car-alteration kit that could be purchased form Eaton's or Simpson's. This consisted of rounded fenders and a rounded front-end that converted a standard touring car into something special.
I recall in about 1925 my father bought a 1914 Ford Touring Car from local used-car merchant Charlie Butcher. This car had the new fenders and front-end covers and, although its tail-light and dash-lights were still kerosene-lighted, the modernized additions gave the car a new look. Actually, it was a good car that took us on long trips to Niagara Falls and, in the days before paved roads, was the only car that could climb some of the steep hills around Niagara. I can still recall the buzzing of the magneto when Dad cranked it and the speed he had to demonstrate when the engine "caught" to rush around and change the magneto setting at its place under the steering wheel.
Another set of "rages" set in when radios became common and kids used to brag that their radio had more tubes than yours and that they could get Los Angeles and you couldn't. Types of radios were also bragged about or criticized. For example, Westinghouse radios were criticized because their tubes stuck wore alleged to use too much electricity. Top of the line in "bragging rights" were the Stromberg-Carlson and Deforest-Crosley sets, probably because a kid's ability to pronounce these big names gave him an advantage over the kid whose radio still used ear-phones and did not have "C" batteries. Indeed, radio bragging grew to the point where some people, in trying to "keep up with the Joneses", had large fancy cabinets built to house small radios.
Anyone who has read this article to this point will note that it refers only to "rages" involving men and boys and that "bragging rights" were a male prerogative with no female influence. My omission of females in "rages" was not a sign of "male domination" or "gender preference" but rather a compliment to girls and women as all the "rages" I experienced in my rather long life were male-dominated and were things that women had the sense to ignore. I can recall that women took amusement in some of the "rages" but, apart from very small "rages" about clothing styles and hair-dos, they couldn't be bothered.
Do "rages" exist today? Of course they do but they don't go by that old-fashioned name because it is not "cool". The main difference between the "rages" of earlier times and the "cool" things of today is the intimidation that inspires them. In earlier times they could be set in motion by local gossip or Saturday afternoon "movies". Now they are inspired on a vastly larger scale by electronics, computers, etc.
The one thing they have in common is their brevity. Parents of my childhood may have been upset by some of the "rages" they experienced, but today if you see a kid struggling under the weight of a backpack half as big as they are and covered with padlocks and teddy bears or see boys wearing clothing ten times their size, don't give it a second thought for, like all "rages" these "cool" things will soon be replaced by a "rage" that is even "cooler".