Although it is not clear how the fad emerged, various people have made claims. A 1963 letter to The New York Times claimed that it was started by a man named Lothrop Withington Jr., who was a freshman at Harvard University and did so to win a $10 bet as part of a bid to become class president. The stunt started a competition between multiple universities such as Penn, MIT, and Harvard in an attempt to surpass one another. Women also took part in the trend, as in April 1939 when Marie Hensen from the University of Missouri School of Journalism became the first woman widely known to do it.
Although once widely practiced, the stunt is rare today, but has made appearances in recent entertainment. In 2000, Jackass star Steve-O swallowed a live goldfish, only to vomit it moments later.
Another possibility in the origins of goldfish swallowing comes from Chicago bartenders, most notably Matt Schulien (who performed magic while tending bar at his family's restaurant). He would cut up carrots to look like goldfish tails. When performing the stunt, bartenders like Schulien would reach into a bowl of goldfish kept behind the bar while palming the carrot piece, placing that in between their pursed lips, using their tongues to lever it up and down to mimic the actions of a live fish, finally swallowing the carrot piece. The trick dates back to the 1920s, and some people believe that the fad could have been started by college students fooled by the trick.
According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, goldfish swallowing was such a craze at universities during the early 20th century that it made appearances in several news publications, including The New York Times and the Washington Post. An article in April 1939 in the Los Angeles Times called it goldfish gulping and showed a photo of someone mid-act.
The stunt became so popular that Massachusetts State Senator George Krapf filed a bill to "preserve the fish from cruel and wanton consumption."
- Meyer, Amelia (January 12, 2011). "1939: The year of goldfish gulping". americanhistory.si.edu. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Retrieved March 13, 2019.
- Clark, Laura. "The Great Goldfish Swallowing Craze of 1939 Never Really Ended". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2018-04-30.
- "College Bros in the 1930s Were the Champs of Goldfish Swallowing". Ripley's Believe It or Not!. 2018-02-13. Retrieved 2018-04-30.
- "How long can a goldfish survive if you swallow it?". New Statesman. Retrieved 2018-05-21.
- Burgheim, Richard A. (6 May 1952). "Goldfish Swallowing: College Fad Started Here, Spread Over World". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 27 May 2018.