In high school, in the 1950s, we had a class called “Problems of Democracy.” Seniors were indoctrinated into a conservative view of government, economics, and social problems. One day we noticed that there seemed to be two versions of our textbook.
In one, the chapter on juvenile delinquency included a photo of the recreation yard of a reform school, with dozens of male delinquents standing around or playing basketball. In the other, that photo had been replaced with an obviously posed shot of two clean-cut young people chatting in the office of their school’s guidance counselor about their plans for college.
If you looked closely at the reform-school photo, you saw why it had been replaced: in the back row of the crowd of juvenile offenders, several of the lads were giving the finger to the photographer.
In the 1970s I worked for an educational publisher. First in its magazine division, on a magazine that mailed 1 million copies every week to classrooms throughout the U.S., later for its textbook division. Part of my job, in turned out, was being on the lookout for possible instances of finger-lifting reform-school inmates.
On one occasion, I held up printing an issue of the magazine until I got someone on the executive level to approve a cover photo in which a teenage girl, among 15 others, was clearly wearing nothing under her t-shirt. I felt weird needing to call attention to this matter of look-closely-and-you’ll-see-the-nipples—but I knew how closely kids faced with classroom boredom can scrutinize photos.
Other editors made embarrassing or expensive mistakes. One textbook on the subject of humor reprinted a Mad Magazine parody of a “Believe It or Not” column, which had a contributor identified as coming from “Poontang, Ohio.” The editor—and a number of artists and proofreaders—didn’t get Mad’s joke.
After printing and distribution of a popular junior-high magazine, someone noticed what had been added to a full-page Johnson Smith ad. That was the company that for decades sold gag items in comic books and its own catalogs. This ad had several tiny illustrations of items for sale including, if you looked carefully, a t-shirt that someone—probably a jokester in our company’s art department—had embellished with tiny male genitals. The perpetrator was never identified.
A grammar textbook was edited by a very nice woman who was also naïve about what dirty-minded kids might find amusing. I was at a national sales meeting when a consultant—someone who taught education at a university—leafed through the book and showed me something: a mnemonic for the correct spelling of asparagus—”Gus swallowed the asparagus”—had been illustrated by someone having fun with the editor. He or she, I feel sure, did it in a spirit of “She’ll see how awful this is, have a good laugh, and have me do it over.”
What you saw was Gus, in profile, with his mouth open wide to receive an oncoming stalk of asparagus. The stalk was huge, unnaturally thick, looking amazingly like a human phallus.
The book, open to the asparagus page, made the rounds of everyone at the sales meeting. (Publishing-company managers and consultants aren’t much different from bored junior-high kids.)
Before the book was distributed, a new page was printed—without the Gus illustration. The old page was cut out and the new page pasted in. If I remember correctly, the process is called “tipping in,” and of course it’s expensive.
After this, if we came across a questionable phrase, photo, or drawing in anything getting ready for print, we called it “asparagus,” as in “Stop the presses—we’ve got some asparagus.”