The Original Ant Farm (Jun, 1936)

More information about Prof. Frank Austin’s Ant Palaces. (Link)

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ANT PALACES Create NEW Pastime

THOUGH it sounds like something out of “Alice in Wonderland,” the ant palace is a very real contrivance that sells for five dollars, and sells very rapidly at that. Strange things have been built in the name of entertainment, but seldom anything quite as novel and ingenious as these glazed-in ant apartments with both northern and southern exposure.

Ant palaces do for ants what glass bowls do for goldfish. They are an artificial home in which these most fascinating members of the insect world live, work, mate and do battle. Made up of two glass panels about twelve by eighteen inches in size and held approximately an inch apart by a wooden frame, the palaces contain a plentiful quantity of choice New Hampshire dirt in which the tiny inmates set up housekeeping. Stripped of all privacy, the ants go through their complicated daily routine in full view of the spectator. The result is so interesting that ant palaces are to be found in drawing-rooms all over the country.

Mr. F. E. Austin, who used to teach mechanics and engineering at the Thayer School of Engineering, retired with the intention of living in scholarly quietness in his New Hampshire home. The depression changed all that, so Mr. Austin began teaching manual training. A student one day showed him an overturned nest of ants, and it immediately occurred to the alert Mr. Austin that a cross-section of the teeming home life of the ant should be interesting to everybody.

The next day Mr. Austin built his first ant palace—a simple combination of his knowledge of biology and his skill with tools. Before long he was selling them to schools and museums for educational purposes, and to convalescents whose hours weighed heavily. But soon thoroughly healthy people began to buy them for the sheer entertainment they furnished. Mr. Austin took out a patent on his idea, and continued to carry on his small but steady local business.

Last fall Mr. A. J. Russell, a New York advertising man heard of Mr. Austin’s strange invention, and obeying a hunch he summoned his friend, Mr. Douglass Lawder, and with their wives the two men spent an absorbing evening watching the antics of ants. Mr. Russell and Mr. Lawder commissioned their wives to make a trip to New Hampshire to see if Mr. Austin would empower them to act as his agents. They returned home commissioned as agents for the world’s oddest creation.

Orders for palaces began to come in to the Russell-Lawder agency. Once started, the vogue quickly increased, and mail orders soon flocked in from all parts of the country. Mr. Austin, working at a frenzied pace in his small shop, found that he had a hard time keeping up with demand, so he hired two more men to help him make palaces, and several boys to gather ants.

Meanwhile, schools all over the country are ordering ant palaces, recognizing the dramatic and visual lesson they teach. More and more curious people are getting palaces just for the amusement they furnish. Up in New Hampshire, Mr. Austin is glad that spring has arrived. Says he, with typical Yankee humor: “Now I can gather my ants with a vacuum cleaner instead of an ice pick!”

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