One Small Leap: The Enduring Appeal of Mexican Jumping Beans

iStock
iStock

In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."

Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.

THE BEAN MYTH

In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.

Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).

The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.

CHEAP THRILLS

It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.

“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”

Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.

BEAN PANIC

There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)

You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Cyber Monday has arrived, and with it comes some amazing deals. This sale is the one to watch if you are looking to get low prices on the latest Echo Dot, Fire Tablet, video games, Instant Pots, or 4K TVs. Even if you already took advantage of sales during Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday still has plenty to offer, especially on Amazon. We've compiled some the best deals out there on tech, computers, and kitchen appliances so you don't have to waste your time browsing.

Computers and tablets

Amazon

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Headphones and speakers

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- Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker II; $79 (save $50)

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Video Games

Sony

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TECH, GADGETS, AND TVS

Samsung/Amazon

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home and Kitchen

Ninja/Amazon

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A Hair-Raising History of the Flowbee

The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
The Flowbee revolutionized the highly suspect idea of cutting one's own hair.
I Love Fun, YouTube

Like many great ideas, there is some confusion surrounding how California-based carpenter Rick Hunts was struck by inspiration for the Flowbee. The infomercial sensation of the late 1980s is a vacuum cleaner attachment that straightens hair, munches on it with clippers, and then sucks the trimmings into the canister.

In one version, Hunts is beguiled by a television show he saw in 1979 that demonstrated a person getting their hair cut while hanging upside-down, freeing their locks for clipping. Another has Hunts using a vacuum to get sawdust from his workshop out of his hair and having an epiphany.

The latter sounds more like the kind of mythologizing that accompanies inventors—one questions the wisdom of using a vacuum to remove sawdust from their hair rather than simply showering—but it doesn’t matter much. However he came upon the notion, Hunts’s vision of an at-home substitution for a barber was the Soloflex of hairstyling. It promised convenience, affordability, and the novelty of boasting your hair had been trimmed by a Hoover upright.

Hunts’s device, which he initially dubbed the Vacucut, took six to seven years to develop. By one estimate, he went through four prototypes—the last one involving 50 modifications—before he perfected the vacuum attachment. (Hunts’s children—or, more specifically, their hair—were used for testing.) The Vacucut took hair anywhere from a half-inch to six inches in length and, thanks to the suction of the vacuum, pulled it straight in the same way a stylist holds hair between their fingers. Once extended, clippers inside the attachment trimmed the excess, which wound up in the vacuum.

It required no skill and no additional pairs of hands; the length was adjustable using the included spacers. Owing to the air flow and the fact the device made a buzzing noise similar to a bee, Hunts decided to rename it the Flowbee, with a bumblebee-esque black and yellow color scheme.

Hunts, who raised more than $100,000 from investors and even sold his cabinet shop to obtain additional funds to mass market his creation, clearly felt the Flowbee would be a slam-dunk. He approached major personal grooming companies like Conair, Norelco, and Remington to see if they’d be interested in the Flowbee. He also approached beauty salons to see if they’d consider selling them to customers. He later recalled that all of them said the idea was nuts. In the case of the salons, they were afraid the Flowbee might actually work as advertised and see a reduction in foot traffic from people content to cut their own hair. 

Dismayed, Hunts took to trying to move product out of his garage. He also went to county fairs, where he would have a volunteer come up on stage. One side of the person’s head would be trimmed with scissors, the other side with the Flowbee. The results were comparable, and Hunts began selling a modest amount of inventory at $150 each.

The reaction of the county fair crowd may have been on Hunts’s mind when he saw an infomercial one evening for a food-sealing product. The program-length paid advertisements were really just barker shows broadcast to a mass audience. The Flowbee, Hunts knew, needed to be demonstrated. So Hunts spent $30,000 to produce and buy airtime for a 30-minute spot that began airing in 1988. Soon, the entire country was watching people aim a vacuum nozzle at their heads and clip their own hair.

The Flowbee entered popular culture, getting mentions in films like 1992’s Wayne’s World, where Garth (Dana Carvey) is menaced by a Suck Kut, and on shows like Party of Five. Imitators like the RoboCut and the Hairdini appeared to bite into market share, but the Flowbee enjoyed brand recognition. A Flowbee Pet Groomer was introduced, and Flowbee barbershops were considered. By 1992, the Flowbee was being sold in major retail chains. By 1993, Hunts’s San Diego-based company, Flowbee International, had sold 200,000 units. By 2000, the number was 2 million. While that may not sound like a lot, consider that this was a vacuum cleaner attachment selling for $69.95 to $150 retail that was intended for use on one’s head.

While millions of people enjoyed the Flowbee’s kitsch appeal, some people thought it sucked. Stylists believed it lacked the artistry of a professional, while others complained it wasn’t effective on hair longer than six inches or on curly locks. It was also difficult for the Flowbee to trim the sides or around the ears. George Clooney, however, swears by it; in December 2020, he admitted that he's been using one to cut his own hair for decades.

While they no longer air infomercials, Flowbee International is still in business—and has seen increased interest in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as people avoid salons and look for alternatives to becoming Howard Hughes. Unfortunately, health concerns have prompted a cessation of activity at the Flowbee factory in Kerrville, Texas. They don’t intend to ship new product (which now sells for $99) until things settle down. The RoboCut, however, is still shipping.