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Blog/Iconic design: The whoopee cushion

16th June 2021

There aren’t many products that have remained absolutely faithful to their original design, both in function and appearance, for a whole century.

The trusty Whoopee cushion – used by kids and adults alike to prank their friends and family for generations – is one such design.

The concept of a whoopee cushion goes back to the Romans, Emperor Elagabalus allegedly liking nothing more than to prank some of his more pompous dinner party guests with a bag of air under their cushions that would deflate when it was sat on, causing a fart sound – and when has that not been funny, right??!

Why is it funny? Who knows, it just is.

The iconic design we see in joke shops nowadays first appeared in the 1920s, when Canadian firm JEM Rubber Co. came up with the idea of glueing two circles of rubber together (originally using pieces of scrap rubber that had been discarded from other projects) with a valve at one end that is used to both inflate the cushion, but that also allows air to escape when sat on, creating the all-important flatulence resembling rasp that both horrifies and delights in equal measure!

JEM approached toy & novelties manufacturer Samuel Adams of SS Adams Co. to ask if he’d be interested in making and selling the Whoopee Cushion, but Adams deemed it too vulgar and passed on the offer, JEM instead agreeing a deal with Johnson Smith Co. and it was an instant hit.

On seeing the success of the Whoopee cushion and realising their mistake, SS Adams then created their own version – the Razzberry Cushion.

The classic printed motif soon appeared on the Whoopee cushion, with a seemingly delighted ‘victim’ in a cocktail dress planting her behind squarely on the device, releasing a ‘poo poo’ sound, as a perplexed onlooker in a dinner jacket, Martini glass in hand expresses his annoyance.

To add to the drama (as if it were needed!) a small dog nearby is knocked off its feet in surprise.

Accompanying the scene are the words ‘When anyone sits down it emits a REAL Bronx cheer – DO NOT INFLATE TOO HEAVILY’

A ‘Bronx cheer’ – it turns out – is slang for blowing a raspberry.

How many kids through the decades have looked at this design as they’ve slipped the Whoopee cushion unseen onto their Grandma’s favourite chair, we can only guess – but it must be tens of millions, if not more.

Sadly for JEM Rubber Co. and Johnson Smith Co. no successful patents were ever filed for the Whoopee cushion, which meant anyone could replicate and begin selling their design, which has perhaps contributed to its popularity and longevity.

The New York Times wrote (in all seriousness) in 2012 that the Whoopee Cushion now “face competition from newer, more versatile technologies, like the Fart Machine — which, with a remote control and 15 sounds, is exactly what it sounds like — and iFart, an app that once spent three weeks at the top of the iTunes App Store chart”.

I have a feeling the humble old whoopee cushion has enough to see off these johnny-come-latelys and their fancy-dan technology, and kids for generations to come will continue to delight at choosing their next victim.

Maddison Creative is a design studio in Newcastle upon Tyne, specialising in digital, web design and graphics.

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