The Bizarre History Of Goldfish Swallowing

We live in a golden age when, seemingly on a weekly basis, a new youth fad sweeps the nation. Be it the Tide Pod challenge or the cinnamon challenge or planking or the Dougie or blasting their dang John Mellencamp records or whatever the kids are getting themselves into, it can seem like the young ones are a bunch of glassy-eyed cultists with a taste for self harm, or at the very least, a penchant for living that dumb-dumb life, now streaming on TikTok.

It may be comforting, therefore, to know that despite what older, wiser folks might claim, human beings in the bloom of youth from every era have been eager to hop on the most asinine fad and see who would pay attention to them, regardless of the potential for their comrades to smash that like button. For receipts, we turn to the group that Tom Brokaw once termed "the Greatest Generation" and their seemingly insatiable appetite for swallowing live goldfish.

The man who started the goldfish swallowing craze

As Smithsonian magazine tells it, the whole thing started in 1939 with a Harvard freshman named Lothrop Withington Jr. There's a dark subtext to that sentence which we'd be irresponsible not to shine a light on: In the footnotes of history, there was at least one family that thought the name "Lothrop" was worth keeping around for at least two generations.

Anyway, Lothrop Withington Jr., probably in one of those college moments where you haven't really figured out what kind of person you want to be yet, had bragged — yes, bragged — to his fellow students that he'd once eaten a live goldfish. His friends, who sound less like actual friends by the moment, dared him to prove it. They put $10 on the idea that he couldn't.

And Lothrop Withington Jr.? He wasn't about to let his name go down in history as synonymous with wimping out when someone says "eat this fish." So on March 3, 1939, before a crowd of bewildered lookie-loos, he dropped a three-inch goldfish into his mouth, felt it wriggle, chewed it, and got to the business of metabolizing it until it turned into more Lothrop Withington Jr.

Goldfish swallowing swept the nation

Now, it was 1939, a famously slow news year, and Withington's act of culinary gutsiness wound up being reported on by not just local newspapers but by Life magazine. What followed was a national craze. All the kids wanted to be more like Lothrop Withington Jr. Soon, goldfish swallowing competitions became a regular event on campuses across the country. A member of the class of '42 at MIT broke records later that march by swallowing 42 of the small carp in one go, as reported by the school newspaper. How this never made it into the final draft lyrics of Asher Roth's "I Love College" is a mystery.

The craze eventually died down, but it never disappeared entirely. If you're feeling that FOMO burning in your gut like a fish that's not sitting right, just know that YouTube continues to house dozens of videos of young people trying to bring back that Goldfish Swallowing Fever of 1939. PETA disapproves, the killjoys.