Article Thumbnail

The Original Celebrity Fitness Grifter Was Popeye the Sailor Man

Or should that be, Popeye the Swindler Man?

Popeye was never meant to be a star. In fact, in January 1929, when cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar sat down to draw his Thimble Theater comic strip, the thick-forearmed, corn-cob-pipe-smoking sailor was just supposed to be a one-off character who assisted protagonists Harold Hamgravy and Castor Oyl by crewing their ship. But Popeye was so well received by fans of the comic that he quickly returned as a regular character, and ultimately became the unquestioned star of Thimble Theater. (He did somehow survive being shot 16 times during that first appearance — seemingly impervious to pain and possessing an Avenger-esque toughness — an excellent strategy for elevating a character’s popularity with a fanbase.)

Yet, despite Popeye’s now indelible link with a certain leafy green vegetable, his character persisted for more than two years before the connection between his fabled strength and spinach was finally established in June 1931 during the storyline of “The Great Rough-House War,” through General Bunzo’s lament to Popeye:

It’s unlikely that Segar intended this line to act as anything other than throwaway comedy. After all, there is something intrinsically funny about attributing Hulk-like power to the most common and detested of vegetables. For example, in June 1929, E.L. Meyer devoted his editorial column in The Capital Times to the telling of a tale that epitomized the visceral hatred American children felt toward spinach at the time. In a story intended as comedy, Meyer described his alarm at returning home to discover that his infant son was gleefully chomping his way through a bowl of spinach. 

He then ascribed the following fictitious dialogue to the doctor who responded to his request to have his son evaluated: “As you are aware, it is the normal reaction of children to hate spinach. They hate it because it is good for them. They hate it automatically, continuously and uproariously. The normal child loves to eat things that are not good for it, like candy, marbles, matches, moth-balls, bituminous coal and piano legs. But the normal, average child rejects with a normal, average hullabaloo edible things like spinach, carrots and rutabagas.”

But the very next month after Popeye’s cheeky endorsement of spinach as a strength-giving herb, The Bee of Danville, Virginia — in a clear harbinger of things to come — classified Popeye’s advocacy of spinach as more legitimate than any movie star’s similar endorsement for toothpaste or any other product, because “Popeye’s good word is for the good old fashioned garden variety of spinach.” 

The Virginia-based writer immediately leveraged that reference into a reminder that Virginia was second only to Texas among spinach producers south of the Mason-Dixon line, in a clear indication of where things would soon be headed. Along those lines, newspaper advertisements for spinach were already capitalizing on the fictitious sailor’s shout out before the end of that month:

Grocery store advertisement for spinach from July 1931

That said, it wouldn’t be for another seven months, in February 1932, that Popeye was physically depicted chomping his way through his own bowl of spinach:

The real-world economic results were nearly instantaneous. By summer, newspapers all over the country were reporting on the conspicuous consumption of spinach by a demographic that had once rejected it with the utmost vehemence. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported how underprivileged youth had devoured every last shred of the three gallons of spinach they had been served when they had barely picked at it just one year prior.

“Popeye eats spinach, and he whipped 10 men just like that!” one six-year-old recipient of the spinach was reported as saying. The boy’s sister echoed this sentiment, adding, “We would eat spinach every day if we could have it. It would make us big and strong.”

Within the panels of Thimble Theater, Popeye was doing nothing at all to curtail the spread of this belief. In July 1932, he was sketched as illegally trespassing and grazing upon a hapless woman’s spinach patch, disposing of row after row of spinach as if they were lines of green, leafy cocaine. Popeye narrates his pilfery, specifically stating for the first time that the value of spinach to him comes directly from its vitamin A content.

It was at this moment when Popeye the Swindler officially delved into the delusive territory of the snake oil salesman. One cup of spinach contains seven calories, along with 56 percent of the daily requirement of vitamin A, 14 percent of the daily requirement of vitamin C, 3 percent of the daily requirement of essential calcium and 4.5 percent of the daily requirement of iron. 

Vitamin A is most widely known for its role in preserving vision and maintaining eye health, and to that end, Popeye would have been better off indulging in a sweet potato. Of the nutrients present in far less potent quantities, vitamin C is known for its role in strengthening the human immune system, calcium is reputed as a major contributor to bone health and iron’s most practical use is to carry energy to the muscles and brain. 

To put this in strength-enhancement terms, the only component of spinach that might directly benefit a person’s athletic performance is the iron — not the vitamin A — and at a paltry 4.5 percent of the recommended daily dosage, there isn’t much of anything present that respectably contributes to muscle-building or strength displays — let alone any chemicals that set off an instant dopamine rush equivalent to some sort of narcotic. Moreover, if iron was the nutrient Popeye was hellbent on peddling, oatmeal, lentils, boxes of Raisin Bran or cans full of white beans would have been far more practical sources for it, even if their subsequent generation of instantaneous strength would have been no less ridiculous.

As silly as all of this was, it’s difficult to fault spinach retailers from exploiting the free endorsement. In January 1933, a grocer in Shreveport, Louisiana put in clear terms how Popeye was helping him to both peddle more green — and earn more green. “Two years ago, I had difficulty disposing of 20 pounds of spinach a week,” the grocer informed The Shreveport Times. “Now I sell about 20 pounds daily. I wondered about the boom and asked customers. It seems that since Popeye came into their lives, kids who used to face spinach at the table like Roman martyrs are now loudly enthusiastic about it.”

In 1934, a nursery school in Knoxville, Tennessee was even reported to have thrown a well-received “Popeye Shower’” for local children with spinach replacing cake as the star attraction. In a similar display of the national delusion regarding spinach’s capabilities, Ohio’s Fremont Messenger reported of children personally visiting local grocery stores with cash in hand to purchase spinach for themselves. For the entire decade of the 1930s, which overlapped with the Great Depression, spinach sales were up 33 percent over the prior decade, and achieved a 10-year demand period that has never been replicated. 

Even adults who should have known better than to buy into the false claims of Popeye couldn’t seem to help themselves. Multiple college football teams began to feature spinach as a centerpiece of pre-game meals, while Benny DeBenedictis, the co-captain of the 1934 New York University football team, informed The Brooklyn Daily Eagle that eating spinach enabled him to acquire the necessary strength to earn his share of the team’s captaincy.

As for the people of Crystal City, Texas, they certainly knew what side their spinach was buttered on — and also who was doing the buttering. “The Spinach Capital of the World” erected a statue of Popeye, the first true king of influencer marketing, in 1937, as a tribute to how beneficial his contributions were to their industry, not unlike the statue of Steve Prefontaine that resides within Nike’s headquarters to honor him for his contributions to the launch of the brand.

Popeye statue in Crystal City, Texas

For decades now, Popeye has been directly involved in the business of peddling spinach through Allen Canning Company in Alma, Arkansas — the other “Spinach Capital of the World” — and the second city to erect a statue to honor Popeye for his service to the industry, regardless as to the truthfulness of his claims. 

I’m beginning to suspect, though, that even Popeye knows that the walls of nutrition education are starting to close in around him, and that no amount of spinach is going to give him the strength to push them away. Deep down, he must recognize that a muscle-performance kingdom erected upon a respectable serving of an eye-healthy vitamin and a smidgen of energy-transfer minerals couldn’t withstand the contemporary scrutiny of enlightened minds (especially given that poor eyesight is another signature trait of his). That’s probably why he diversified and got into the chicken business, too.