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"Thinner and Thinner" from Argosy

by Ellis Parker Butler
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  • Argosy (January 3, 1925)   "Thinner and Thinner"   A story. Think self-help diet books are a new phenomenon? Think again. Not indexed in PULP. p 732-739.  [ARGOSY]

from Argosy
Thinner and Thinner
by Ellis Parker Butler

Thinner and Thinner by Ellis Parker Butler

I admit frankly that I am the Edna Oldham Pank who wrote "Thinner and Thinner" -- also known as the "Birdseed Diet Book" -- but I want to state positively that I am writing this to explain to my twenty-seven million friends why I married Peter Paul Buffal so soon after the departure from life of my first husband, John James Pank, of the firm of Pank & Pimenter, publishers.

Dear friends, it was remorse -- remorse and a desire to make amends to you all! I begin with this admission and this statement because otherwise spiteful persons may say I am writing this to advertise my new book, "Be Fatter and Happier," which was published last June by my new publishers, Buffal, Bidermann & Co., New York, price $1.50, postage extra. Eighteen years ago no one had heard of little Edna Oldham -- I say "little" but I weighed 260 pounds at that time -- but in March of that year my book, "Thinner and Thinner," was placed on sale and, although but five thousand copies were sold the first year, the merit of the book -- and the interest taken in it by the Birdseed Trust -- ran the sale up to 100,000 copies the second year, and presently my little book was having a nice average annual sale of 300,000 copies.

It was during the third year, when by following my own directions and eating nothing but birdseed I had reduced myself from 260 pounds to a graceful 110, that my publisher -- John James Pank -- on one of my visits to his office sent his stenographer out and put his arm around me.

"Edna, dear," he said, "when you first entered this office three years ago --"

"Please, Mr. Pank!" I exclaimed, but not too resentfully, you understand; "please, Mr. Pank, I came here this morning to collect the past -- due royalties on ' Thinner and Thinner,' which now amount to $47,654.30, and not to be flirted with."

Mr. Pank who, although a short man, was very stout, refused to remove his arm. He drew me, if anything, closer to him.

"As I was saying, Edna darling," he went on, "when you first entered this office, nearly three years ago, I felt a thrill. 'Ah!' I said to myself; 'is this love?' I remembered quite distinctly that after you left I turned to my stenographer and said: 'Miss Smith, take this memorandum -- Is this love?' But I told myself it could not be love. How could it be love when I had always admired slender women and you weighed at that time two hundred and sixteen pounds --"

"Two hundred and sixty," I murmured.

"Well, maybe," Mr. Pank said. "When a woman is that big a few pounds more or less don't matter much --"

"Oh, but Pinky Pank!" I exclaimed. "They do! That is just when a few pounds do matter! If you will read again Chapter VIII of 'Thinner and Thinner, a Complete Guide to Reduction, with a Key to the Birdseeds,' and particularly that portion at the top of page 44 beginning with the words 'I confess that food has always had a great attraction for me,' you will see that it is when the double chins merge into the abdomen --"

"Yes! yes!" Mr. Pank said hastily. "I remember that chapter perfectly, but that is not what I was going to talk about. The fact is, dearest, that owing to the general financial stringency, the high cost of paper and the unexpectedly large royalties due on your book --"

"I beg pardon?" I said coldly. Mr. Pank drew a deep breath and pressed me closer to him.

"Ah -- ah --" he faltered. "Where was I at? Oh, yes -- 'love.' I said to myself, 'no, John James, this is not love; it is pity. It is pity which, as the poet so truly says is -- is --"

At this point Mr. Pank leaned forward and glanced at a slip of paper on his desk.

"Which, as the poet so truly says," he repeated, "is twenty per cent on 80,000 copies at $1.50 trade list price, less $365.70 deduction for returned copies -- ah -- ah --"

"Perhaps," I murmured gently, "it is the slip of paper under that one," and the dear man pushed aside the top slip. On it I saw the words the dear methodical man had jotted there -- "216 lbs." -- "love" -- "pity akin to love" -- "now no lbs" -- "true love indeed " -- "her little hand" -- "blissful future."

"But, dear darling Edna," he said, after bending down to study the memorandum more closely with his dear near-sighted eyes, "when I saw you entering the office a few moments ago, so slender, so graceful, your beautiful proportions telling me you now weigh not an ounce over one hundred and forty pounds --"

"That's a one, not a four," I reminded him.

"So it is!" he exclaimed. "Telling me you now weigh not an ounce over one hundred and ten pounds, I knew my feeling was true love indeed, and I knew I must ask for -- for --"

"Her little hand," I aided him.

"For her dear, priceless little hand," he said. The italics are his.

Could I resist such pleading? And so we were married.

That year the sale of "Thinner and Thinner" reached 450,000 copies, and all our best society shrank like tallow candles in a hot oven. All the best jewelers sold birdseed bags, some diamond studded ones selling for $25,000. These held five cents' worth of canary seed, enough for three ordinary meals. Fashion's slogan became "The bonier the bonnier," and whenever the Living Skeleton appeared on the streets crowds loudly cheered him. Unless a lady's ribs rattled like castanets as she walked she was no lady. Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but you know what I mean.

Although the sale of "Thinner and Thinner" never again reached 450,000 copies a year, the average for eighteen years was 300,000 per year. As I know from experience that every woman who buys a book of this sort immediately lends it to all her stout friends -- either from friendship or as a nasty slap -- I am justified in counting five readers for each copy. This made twenty-seven million readers -- twenty-seven million dear followers of my advice -- and that is why I say I have twenty-seven million friends to whom I wish to explain my awful remorse; twenty-seven million friends -- mostly women -- who have grown thinner and thinner; twenty-seven million bony friends to whom I wish to apologize for my errors. It is an awful thing to think one has thinned twenty-seven million human beings who might otherwise be -- if I may say so -- thick. It is as a penance and to repair this thoughtless injury that I have written and published my new book, "Be Fatter and Happier," now on sale at all bookshops, $1.50, postage extra if ordered from my publishers, Buffal, Bidermann & Co., New York.

The thirteen years of my married life with John James Pank were, after the first few months of customary battle following the honeymoon, years of unalloyed happiness for me. There may have been, now and then, slight evidences of irritation shown by dear Pinky Pank, but I knew what was best for him and soon had him eating his birdseed and doing his twenty-seven morning exercises without anger. I convinced him that there was something quite shocking in the thought of a lady's husband weighing three hundred pounds when she was the author of "Thinner and Thinner," a book which -- in the very preface -- says those who follow the directions grow thin joyfully and eagerly.

"Dear John James," I said to him, "you must be reasonable. You can imagine the effect on the attendance at my weekly lectures if one and all see I have a husband who looks like something that won the first prize in the Poland China hog class at the county fair. Food? Yes, I suppose you do like food. I like food. Every one likes food. Pigs like food. Elephants like food. But there is food and food, John James. See the dear little canaries; they like food but do they eat roast beef and potatoes and gravy and mutton chops and pie? Do they grow fat and gross and hideous? No, Pinky Pank, and all I ask is that you take your twenty-seven exercises every morning and eat nothing but birdseed, confining your diet to canary seed and rape seed only, and avoiding hemp seed, which is fattening."

"I won't!" declared John James. "I'll be --" I held up my finger warningly.

"John Pank," I said in a tone I have found effective in such cases, "the husband of Edna Oldham Pank, author of 'Thinner and Thinner,' must be thin! On that I insist. There are two things that cause thinness; one is following the directions given in my book; the other is miserable unhappiness and despair. You may take your choice. I need say no more."

Nor did I find it necessary to say more. You can imagine with what satisfaction I saw dear John James growing thinner and thinner as he followed the directions given in my book. Much of the success of the book was due, I am sure, to the fact that I allow my disciples to eat as much as they wish. I say "Eat all you wish to eat," -- page 24. I merely add -- page 25, "But eat nothing but birdseed." I say, on page 32, "But you must take the twenty-seven exercises every morning." These are simple little exercises, such as standing on one's stomach with the left foot while the right foot taps the left shoulder blade ten times -- Exercise 14 -- and hopping over the bed ten times while holding the right foot in the left hand and the left foot in the right hand -- Exercise 23 -- And again on page 45 I say, "Eat heartily if you wish; eat tons of birdseed if you choose; fry it, boil it, stew it, make it into mush -- but, remember; Nothing but birdseed and no hempseed whatever!" The italics are mine.

No client of mine ever followed directions more faithfully than dear John James. He lost weight pound by pound exactly as a three hundred pound man should, as indicated by the chart facing page 36, and in no time at all the skin of his neck was beautifully flably. How I thrilled when he said to me one morning:

"Edna, my pet, if you'll let me have some money I think I'd better have the tailor take in my seams a little."

I was about to say "do so!" when I had a happier thought. The business in which John James was engaged -- that of publishing -- made him a conspicuous man. He mingled in many circles, belonged to many clubs, attended many banquets and conventions, met many important men and women. Like a flash the thought came to me: "No; he must not have his seams taken in; he must wear his clothes as they are; what a proof of the value of 'Thinner and Thinner' dear John James will be if he never has his clothes taken in!" -- the italics are mine; the clothes were, theoretically, John James's.

Although he complained bitterly at first I convinced John James I was right. Day by day, as he grew thinner and thinner, his appearance became a better and better proof that my system was efficient. By the time he was down to one hundred and thirty pounds not a man, woman or child saw him in the street in his "300-pound clothes" without turning and staring after him. Often, indeed, large crowds followed him; even little boys and girls would exclaim: "There he is! That's Pinky Panky, the husband of Edna Oldham Pank, author of 'Thinner and Thinner,' price one dollar and fifty cents, postage extra."

The very truckmen, driving their great motor vehicles, would raise their voices when they saw him and cry, "Hurray! hurray! hurray! We're getting thinner every day!" This was a pretty recognition of my book, for this was the sentiment printed on its wrapper. And it was an indication of the widespread interest in my work that even the most ignorant street loafers would follow John James saying, "Chirp! chirp! chirp!" thus showing they were aware I insisted on a birdseed diet.

At luncheons and banquets dear John James's garments seemed to make an especially valuable impression. At banquets where full dress was de rigeuer -- the italics are not mine -- and the speeches long and tiresome, dear John James often fell asleep and caused valuable comment by slumping down and entirely disappearing inside his collar and stiff shirt, and at both banquets and luncheons he was the cynosure of all eyes when he reached for his hip pocket and brought forth -- not a flask a package of Little Songster Bird Seed, with a portrait of a lemon yellow canary bird on the label. Even greater was the interest when John James, after having eaten the birdseed, arose and wrapped his clothes about him and did the twenty-seven exercises, beginning with the one I had entitled "I'm to be Queen of the May, Mother " -- No. 16 -- and ending with No. 27 -- "Ittle Tootsy Wootsy" -- which is based on the manner in which a dear little infant puts first one foot and then the other in its mouth. Often dear John James would get his foot inside his coatsleeve, causing merry comment.

Thus the years passed, with only now and then some slight sulking on the part of my husband -- as when, in buying a new suit I insisted that he get the 350 pound size rather than the 300 pound -- but as a rule he seemed willing to further my Career -- the capital C is my press agent's.

Occasionally he did whine a little on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday when he saw me eating meat, vegetables, bread and other food. Much of my time, you can understand, had to be spent in lecturing. In fact, I lectured every Saturday evening, delivering my famous lecture, "O Food, Where Is Thy Victory?" at five dollars per head, thus spreading the gospel of birdseed and thinness, copies of "Thinner and Thinner" on sale in the lobby. Very early in my lecture career I discovered that my most telling point was an announcement that I had lost five pounds that very week, and as a no pound woman cannot go on losing five pounds every week forever, I found it necessary to gain five pounds in the first half of each week so that I could lose it in the second half and thus tell the truth.

Of course, my audiences may have been a little gullible. When one lectures every week for thirteen years -- which is six hundred and seventy-six weeks -- and loses five pounds each week, the total is three thousand three hundred and eighty pounds, and this is entirely too much for a no pound lady to lose permanently. If she did not gain a few pounds now and then she would weigh three thousand two hundred and twenty pounds less than nothing, and her gowns would not hang well. And gowns are so important in carrying the appeal of the lecture to the soul of the hearer. Yes! Dear John James never seemed to grasp the true logic of this. He was like a child in some things, and many a meal I have seen him sitting at the opposite end of our table, eating his portion of shelled canary seed and water, while the tears ran down his cheeks as he watched me consume -- let us say -- one plate of tomato bisque, one dozen fried smelts, two broiled squabs, three baked potatoes, two portions of French peas, celery, lettuce, salted almonds, olives, one mince pie, crackers and cheese.

It was hard for dear John James who had but a business man's petty mind, to understand that I ate much and rich food as a martyr to a Cause, and only to fatten up so that I might reduce again, and thus be an example to all America. But I triumphed! No one could deny that all America was growing thinner and thinner. Food, which for ages had been one of the jolly good things, was now a thing of scorn, like asthma or the pip. The woman whose plentiful bosom once shook as she laughed heartily now resembled a planed board or hid herself. Those who ate square meals were socially ostracized, and Rev. Optimus Duke preached a thrilling sermon on "Thinness is Next to Godliness," and proved that fat is immoral and that eggs for breakfast indicate an evil mind. He pointed out that the angels wore feathered wings and were undoubtedly recruited only from those who ate birdseed, and that if a camel could not pass through the eye of a needle neither could a fat woman. Edna Oldham Pank was the national heroine and while the fat became thin the thin became thinner. But one thing worried me -- what reducing could my dear friends and clients do when they had reduced to no flesh at all?

It was at this point, when I was considering the writing of a new book to be called "Shall We Sandpaper Ourselves?" that the Amalgamated Association of Thinner-and-Thinners, which numbered 800,000 members, announced that the annual meeting would be held on the shores of Lake Kokebogee, Maine. While the association could not be present in its entirety, delegates would be sent by every local branch, and I hoped one thousand or more of America's thinnest would be there. As president my attendance was imperative and I thought it best to take dear John James. The sale of "Thinner and Thinner" had fallen off distressingly and the convention seemed a fitting place to announce a new edition, fifty cents post paid, in paper covers.

We made the trip to Maine by train, There were dozens of our delegates on board -- superbly slender beings able to sit eight in a seat and all wearing the association's motto, "Pro Bony Publico" -- but I was disgusted to see a large number of shamefully overfed men and women in the cars. They not only carried huge baskets of real food, of which they ate with evident pleasure, but whenever the train stopped they hurried out and returned with cold fried chicken, sandwiches and great slabs of pie,

"Conductor," I said with scorn, "who are those gross fat-padded persons?"

"Them?" he replied. "Them is delegates to the Eat Hearty Association; seems like they's having a convention up to Lake Kokebogee."

"They look," I said with cutting sarcasm, "as if they might be delegates to an Eat Hearty Association!" The italics are mine.

"Yes'm," he said, "they do look sort of comf'table," but I said no more and continued to nibble at the birdseed that was my lunch. A moment later dear John James, who had been forward in the smoking car, returned to me, unhooking the slack of his garments from the chair arms as he came down the car aisle.

"A nice business!" he exclaimed irritably.

"Indeed, yes! All these fat animals --" The italics are mine.

"I don't mean that," he said. "Do you know where this Hotel Kokebogee is? It's at the other end of Lake Kokebogee. They dump us at Lake City and we have to take a boat. There is only one boat a day."

"And all these food-cramming brutes will be --"

"It's not that," groaned dear John James; "it's the weather. The weather is turning cold and windy. Most unseasonable. A Maine fellow up ahead there says it will freeze and blow. Gales and zeros and barometers and everything. He says it's awful on Lake Kokebogee. Five hours' boat ride. And I'm not prepared for it. I'm thinly dressed."

"You are no more thinly dressed than I am, John James," I reminded him.

"Thinly," he repeated gloomily. "Thinly and loosely. There's room inside my clothes for an aviation meet. And my blood is thin. And I'm thin. For years and years and years I haven't had anything to eat but dadbusted birdseed --"

"What kind of birdseed, John James Pank?" I demanded sharply, the italics being, as usual, mine.

"Contemned dadbusted birdseed!" John James cried. "Nothing but dickybird food for thirteen -- fourteen -- I don't know how many years!"

"The little birds are happy," I said. "The little birdies, living as God meant them to live, are happy. The little birdies live on birdseed alone."

"No, they don't!" declared John James. "Penguins don't. Pelicans don't. Robins don't."

"Robins!" I exclaimed with disgust. "Horrors! Robins eat worms!"

"Then I wish to thunder I was a robin!" John James cried violently. "I do! I do! I do!"

"And this," I said with hauteur, "is my reward for my years of care in seeing that you have never been served wormy birdseed!"

The train, on reaching Lake City, ran out upon a small dock where a large low motor boat awaited us. As I stepped from the car the wind, which was icy cold, cut me like a knife and dear John James flapped like a loosened awning. I grasped him firmly by the slack of his three most important garments and we struggled on to the boat.

It was a primitive affair -- a mere deck with a gas motor, a rail and chairs of the undertaker sort. The fat creatures who were on their way to their ridiculous convention flocked together at the stern and I led the way to the bow, and from there I and the other members and delegates of the Amalgamated Association of Thinner-and-Thinners studied those Eat Hearties with disdain. They did indeed resemble a crowd of fat robins or fatter penguins. While our faces turned an aristocratic blue their faces turned crude red. They drew deep breaths of the frigid air, and beat on their fat chests, and laughed and burst into songs. I stood among my beautifully slim companions and shivered. John James shivered. We all shivered.

For half an hour the boat remained at the dock and every moment the wind became keener and colder. The sky turned leaden gray. The vast lake whipped into white-capped waves. The spray hit us like bullets. Then the motor chug-chugged and we moved out into the lake, where it was really cold.

"Great! Fine!" the plump persons at the stern shouted, and our little band of true reducers crowded close together and sneezed and chattered our teeth. I was very, very uncomfortable. Dear John James tried to pass the birdseed but he trembled so violently that he scattered it all into the wind as if he was sowing it broadcast. We crowded close together but -- alas! -- what warmth is gained when bones crowd against bones? Our grim agony was rendered the worse by the loud and jovial exclamations of the grossly adipose males and females at the other end of the boat. With cries of "Yip!" and "Oh, boy!" they actually seemed to welcome the frigid wind. "This makes the old red blood circulate!" I heard one say, the italics being his, and one burst into song:

"Bring us a steak, O waiter!
      With mashed spuds heaped up high,
And gravy hot, and bread a lot,
      And slabs of hot mince pie!"

Twice, as the icy wind swooped past us, dear John James's loose garments were caught by it and I only saved him by grasping his backbone while the garments flapped and whipped like a flag. He might have been blown into the lake, but I hardly cared. I was so cold! Every moment I was growing numb and yet more numb. I moved so that I stood between Amelia Murgatroyd and Jane Barmenter, but it was like standing between two frosted knitting needles. When our knees knocked together (the noise was like the poker striking the tongs. They exuded frost and not warmth. And it was then that the boat's motor chug-chugged falteringly and stopped!

Thirteen hours! Thirteen hours before that motor chugged again!

One by one they deserted us, those members of the Amalgamated Association of Thinner-and-Thinners. From the stem of the boat came laughter and cheers and the song:

"0, what care we how the wild wind moans?
      No evil can betide us;
We have good warm fat to protect our bones
      And good rich food inside us!"

One by one our comrades slipped away and slid in between those plump windbreaks and took from them legs of fried chicken and thick tongue sandwiches. As the sun slid down behind the cold mountains only Amelia Murgatroyd and dear John James and I were left of all our band. We sat three on a chair, I in the middle, and shivered. Slowly but surely the cold was cutting through to my vitals. Dear John James stooped down and rescued a birdseed from a crack in the deck and placed it between my lips.

How different the scene at the other end of the boat! Here, we were like three crowbars side by side; there, plump-bosomed matrons with plump warm arms and abundantly fleshed men in whose veins pulsed currents of summer-heat blood exuded grateful warmth. Here, when I crowded close against Amelia Murgatroyd her bare bones frostbit me; there, when Jane Barmenter crowded close to an Eat Hearty she was warmed as by a self-heating pillow. Oh, how I longed to squeeze in between two of those so admirably upholstered ladies! Oh, how I recalled my dear fat mother's huge warm arm that had so often cuddled me up to a large, warm, comfortable bosom!

Crushingly the awful thought of the twenty-seven million I had induced to be thin came to me! I saw, with a shudder, the tons of comfortable warm flesh I had birdseeded off of them. With a sob of remorse I realized that I had been responsible for twenty-seven million men and women getting rid of from twenty to eighty pounds avoirdupois each, an average, say, of fifty pounds each or one billion, three hundred and fifty million pounds in all! With a cry of anguish I leaped to my feet.

At that moment a stronger blast of the gale swept down from the mountains. It caught dear John James and howled up his trouser legs and in at his sleeves and inflated his garments until he was puffed out like a balloon. I heard him utter one little chirp and then he was lifted high in the air, and higher and higher I saw him carried until he was but a speck high against the clouds, and then he disappeared forever!

When I recovered consciousness I was aware of a feeling of blissful warmth. Large, unangled, comfortable human bodies crowded close against me, semi-enveloping me, and a plump but beautiful human hand held a delicious leg of fried chicken to my lips. I closed my eyes and bit into it. O bliss! O food!

When I opened my eyes again I found a comfortably plump arm around my neck and shoulders, and I sighed with content. The arm drew me closer.

"That better, hey?" he asked, for the arm was the arm of Peter Buffal, senior member of the well-known publishing firm of Buffal, Biderman & Co., New York. "I bet it is! Nothing like a little meat on the bones. Calories be durned, hey? A little real food now and then, hey?"

I thought of Shylock, hated by the whole world for merely demanding one single pound of flesh, and of myself, guilty of actually getting rid of one billion, three hundred and fifty million pounds. I nestled a little closer to dear, dear Peter.

"What can you offer me," I asked, "for a book to be called, let us say, 'Be Fatter and Happier, by Edna Oldham Pank, With One Hundred Delicious and Fattening Menus,' the first edition to be two hundred thousand copies, price two dollars, postage extra, for sale at all bookshops?"

"I can offer you, dear one," he said, "the usual royalty, the hand of Peter Buffal, and three absolutely square meals a day."

I have never been sorry that I accepted his proposition. My book has had a wonderful sale and dear Peter is such an advertisement for my book. The italics are mine. Since he has begun following the directions set forth in my volume he has gained over a hundred pounds, and he bulges out of his garments, if I may say so, at every seam. The children in the street exclaim: "There he is! That's Biffy Buffy, the husband of Edna Oldham Pank-Buffal, author of 'Be Fatter and Happier,'" and the very truckmen, driving their great motor vehicles, raise their voices and cry, "Hurray! Hurray!

Hurray! Hurray! We're getting fatter every day!"

I now eat birdseed Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and reduce, so that I may eat fat meat the next three days and tell my lecture audiences with truth that I have gained five pounds that very week. I find this necessary, for I now weigh two hundred and sixty pounds, and if I gained an actual five pounds a week for the thirteen years I expect to lecture I would weigh three thousand, six hundred and forty pounds. And that certainly would be too much to endure with comfort. The italics are mine.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:21:19am USA Central
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