Eating alum and shrinking heads

Ever seen the old Tex Avery cartoons where a character mistakenly eats alum? Apparently the symptoms of alum ingestion include rapid shrinking of one’s head and the raising of one’s voice in pitch.

Where did this convention come from? Was alum once a household product? What was it used for? What really happens when you eat alum, assuming you are not a cartoon cat?

Alum is an astringent.

Astringents make you pucker. I think the shrinking head is just a caricactured extension of “the pucker”.

I never got it when I was a kid either. Nor did I ever get the “castor oil” jokes.

Staff Report on the subject.

Extreme nitpick: Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones liked alum gags, too.

Even as a kid, I got this gag. We used alum on mouth ulcers back then, and some would always get on the tongue and cheeks. Wow, that stuff made you feel like your face was being sucked in. So when I was about eight or nine and saw that Tweety cartoon for the first time, I thought it was hilarious!

Laurel and Hardy did a bit about alum in one of their short reels. The beat cop came into their store every day and helped himself to a marshmallow from an open container. One day Hardy sprinkled alum over the marshmallows, and when the cop ate one he couldn’t talk because he couldn’t get his mouth to unpucker.

Alum’s used for pickling, isn’t it?

Yep. According to my stepmom (who taught me to make pickles) the alum keeps the pickles crisp.

So it’s still sort of a household ingredient, it’s just that few households make their own pickles anymore.

My favorite example of this gag is in the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Long-Haired” hare, where Bugs Bunny gets even with an opera singer who got annoyed by Bugs’ musical instrument playing as the opera singer was practicing for the night’s big performance. The opera singer (Giovanni Jones) detroyed Bugs’ banjo and harp and then tied Bugs to a tree limb by his ears.

Later on, Bugs is backstage with Mr. Jones and he fills a water sprayer with alum. When Mr. Jones goes back out on stage he sings:


His head shrinks and the pitch of his voice goes up while the volume goes down. That whole cartoon has always left me laughing, especially this scene and the scene where he falls into the tuba and wiggles his legs calling for help.

Is it also used to stop dogs from eating their feces? Because I can’t imagine why else all the current Google ads in this thread would be on that subject…

As a kid, the threat from Mom was not, “I’ll wash your mouth out with soap,” but “I’ll put alum in your mouth.”

And, or course, my frame of reference was the aforementioned, “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro…”

Sure made all of us think twice about what we said.