March 26, 1937  I Yam What I Yam

Cartoonist E.C. Segar (rhymes with cigar) passed away back in 1938, but his characters live on.  Over the weekend of January 16-18, 2004, the Empire State Building was lit up spinach green, a tribute to the 75th anniversary of Segar’s favorite character. 

Eighty-nine years ago, Popeye the Sailor appeared for the first time in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theater”, a newspaper comic strip revolving around the lives of Olive Oyl and her extended family, including her brother Castor and then-boyfriend Harold Hamgravy.

download (29)The strip was around for ten years or so, when Olive & co. decided to recruit a sailor to get them to the casino on Dice Island.  Approaching a rough looking character on the docks, “Popeye’s” first line was “Ja think I was a cowboy? He was supposed to be an extra, but he became so popular he soon developed into the center of the strip.

Like Olive, who was patterned after the real-life Dora Paskel, the one eyed, fighting, pipe smoking sailor was based on a real man:  Chester, Illinois boxer Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegal.  The boxer didn’t mind being associated with a cartoon character.  When Fiegal died in 1947, his gravestone was inscribed with the words “inspiration for Popeye.”

popeye__eugene_and_bernice_by_fourpanelheroBefore spinach, Popeye gained his superhuman strength patting the head of a magical “whiffle hen” named “Bernice”.

Back in 1870, a misplaced decimal point in a scientific journal led readers to believe that spinach had ten times the iron than it actually does.  Some ideas die hard.  Sixty years later, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those people still believed it to be true.

Bluto beat our sailor up in 1932 and tossed him into a spinach field, with predictable results.  Following that episode, spinach sales increased by 33%.  At one point, children voted spinach their third favorite food, behind turkey and ice cream.

To the everlasting joy of depression-era spinach producers, Popeye found extra muscle in the leafy vegetable, ever since.  On March 26, 1937, Crystal City, Texas spinach producers unveiled a statue of Popeye, the first time in history that a statue had been erected in honor of a cartoon character.

What-is-SpinachPopeye’s pet “Eugene the Jeep” first appeared in a 1936 strip called “Wha’s a Jeep?”.  Eugene was sort of magical dog who could go anywhere.  Five years later, military contractors worked to develop the iconic off-road vehicle of WWII.  Like Popeye’s pet Eugene, the General Purpose GP (“Jeep”) could go anywhere.  Eventually, the name stuck.

Jeep isn’t the only word we get from the Popeye cartoon franchise.  The inveterate moocher J. Wellington Wimpy, who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today, gave us the word “wimp” and the burger chain that goes with it.  The comic strip introduced a character called “Dufus”.  To this day, a Dufus (Doofus) in the American vernacular is a “silly fool, a dimwit, or a stupid person”,

Just about every cartoon character who ever was, appears in the 1988 “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, except for Popeye.  Disney didn’t forget him, the problem was that they couldn’t get legal permission to use the character, from Paramount Pictures.

Cartoonist E.C. Segar (rhymes with cigar) passed away back in 1938, but his characters live on.  Over the weekend of January 16-18, 2004, the Empire State Building was lit up spinach green, a tribute to the 75th anniversary of Segar’s favorite character.   Weight Watchers put out a series of spinach recipes. There was even a ceremonial “official adoption” of the orphan sea waif Swee’ Pea, during National Adoption Month (November).

EmpireStateBldg.Green_
“Later that year (2004), the Empire State Building was lit in spinach green to celebrate Popeye’s 75th, and Weight Watchers put out a series of spinach recipes. There was even a ceremonial “official adoption” of the orphan sea waif Swee’ Pea during National Adoption Month (November)”. H/T The Coronado Times

On December 8, 2009, Google featured the character to honor the birth of his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar. Google’s famous Doodle appeared along with the mouseover text, “E.C. Segar’s Birthday.”

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.
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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I began writing "Today in History" nearly six years ago, as sort of a self-guided history course.  I told myself I’d write 365, the leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I believe there are over 600. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

8 thoughts on “March 26, 1937  I Yam What I Yam”

      1. Thought you’d appreciate that :)) Good old-fashioned thrift, and artistic old school appreciation. I had to rent cars when I worked in Hawaii shoeing horses over 14 years (I was there sweating, working, for two weeks out of every six!) I always chose a big, old Impala for the size of the trunk — it fit all of my heavy gear. When those older cars started getting phased out by Alamo Rental Car on Oahu, and became harder and harder to come by, I had to rent newer cars with back-up cameras and whistles and bells that not only distracted my driving, but most likely would have gotten me killed! (One time at Maunawili Farms, the back up camera beeped and !!!! over a pile of horse shit behind the car — Fitting! Another time in a brand new Impala, the sensors thought a car coming at me would run into me and started flashing and beeping a light above the steering wheel — I nearly had a heart attack wondering what on earth was going on!) So even when the old Jeep finally dies, I’ll replace it with another old one :)) Best to you, Rick. Love your informative posts :))

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know a wonderful former Hawaiian Airlines pilot on Oahu who retired early because of all the electronics in the newer planes — he flew since age 14. I met him flying gliders and biplanes on North Shore when I would go up for a flying adventure there. He said the pilots really don’t fly anymore — and he had to learn an entirely new computer system (they switched from Boeing to Airbus) and, well, it wasn’t worth it. A bit frightening, really!

        Liked by 1 person

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