Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Supply, Demand, and Pugilistic Marsupials

February 4th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Apologies for being late with this year’s obligatory Australia Day post. Though we’ve never had the pleasure of visiting the island continent ourselves, we’ve long enjoyed the company of Aussie compatriots—especially those we’ve encountered while roaming the far corners of the globe, since the Aussies always seem to know where the bar is. More importantly, we dig their self-deprecating sense of humor, which has included the adoption of the boxing kangaroo as a symbol of national pride.

Thankfully, Australians no longer have the stomach for boxing kangaroos of the literal sort, having rightfully determined that the practice is cruel. But the spectacle enjoyed a brief heyday the world over during the early 1890s, when the celebrated Jack the Kangaroo (never to be confused with Kangaroo Jack) took London by storm. An enthusiastic British newspaperman was there to bear witness:

He made his bow at the Aquarium on November 17 before a large and delighted audience, and fought six rounds with Professor Landerman, his captor, trainer, keeper, and friend. The contest was to be strictly under the Marquis of Queensberry’s rules, but we regret to say that the representative of Australia showed a disreputable and unprofessional determination to use his feet.

Soon enough, no theater could do without a boxing kangaroo as its headliner, and the Vaudeville establishments of New York’s 23rd Street battled over who had the most skilled marsupial on its payroll. And yet by 1897, the fad was over, entirely due to the ironclad law of supply and demand:

It will be remembered that a boxing kangaroo was exhibited in London at the Aquarium. It drew such crowds that every other place of entertainment had to have its boxing kangaroo: but kangaroos were not to be had in such numbers, and some resorted to the clumsy expedient of clothing a man in a kangaroo skin. Even so,the demand remained unsatisfied, and cables were sent out to Australia to agents and the Captains of ships lying there to bring over as many kangaroos as they could find. Kangaroos consequently, which before were practically unsalable, bounded up to 100 pounds apiece; now they are again unsalable, and are heard of only in connection with a rather rich soup that is made out of their tails.

More on the nitty-gritty of 1890s kangaroo pricing here. A superstar could earn around 20,000 pounds per year, but few kangaroos had the skills to attain such lofty heights.

The gimmick was thereafter only occasionally revived for comic effect—most notably by Italian boxer Primo Carnera and, rather ingeniously, Woody Allen.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • jackal

    For some reason this reminds me of: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Brisbane

    I suppose the americans were the kangaroos in this instance.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @jackal: Fascinating, thanks for the link–had never heard of this “battle” before. This line in the Wiki writeup caught my eye, in particular:

    “…the American custom of caressing girls in public was seen as offensive to the Australian morals of the day.”

    I’ve always thought of Australian society as somewhat permissive, given the nation’s wild-and-woolly roots. But I guess bikini Vegemite wrestling wouldn’t have been acceptable back in the straitlaced ’40s.

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