The Popeye Paradox

Explore the myths and facts behind the E.C. Segar’s Sailor Man’s spinach obsession.

Published - July 07, 2024 01:00 pm IST

 Popeye appeared in his first comic strip in 1929.

Popeye appeared in his first comic strip in 1929. | Photo Credit: PIXABAY

American cartoonist  E.C. Segar had been crafting the syndicated “Thimble Theatre” comic strip for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal for a decade before Popeye made his debut. The strip had a modest start but gradually won over readers throughout the 1920s as more newspapers began to feature it. In search of a new twist for his creation, Segar drew upon his personal experiences, a common practice among artists. Although Segar never confirmed the real-life inspiration for Popeye, many believe the character was modelled after Frank “Rocky” Fiegel.

Fiegel, twenty-six years older than Segar, had retired from the Navy by the time their paths crossed. He worked at Wisbusch’s Tavern in Chester, Illinois, where he maintained order and kept the place clean. Much like the eventual character of Popeye, Fiegel was known for his toughness and kind heart. The Chicago Tribune described him as having “a heart of gold for children.” The children of Chester, Segar likely among them, experienced this firsthand. Fiegel protected them from bullies, generously handed out spare change, and regaled them with stories from his younger days.

Thus, Popeye is said to have been born from these colourful memories. Over the years, the sailor’s popularity skyrocketed. Popeye moved from the pages of comic strips to comic books, animated TV shows, video games, and a wide array of merchandise. In 1980, Popeye leapt to the silver screen, brought to life by director Robert Altman and portrayed by the talented Robin Williams, cementing the character’s legacy in popular culture.

I want what I see, I absorb what I see, I become what I see

Here’s some food for thought: Do you believe that all of our five senses—taste, smell, vision, hearing, and touch—are equal in terms of power? Some argue that the strength of these senses varies from person to person. For instance, the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius once suggested, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember.” This highlights the significant impact of vision. Most advertisements leverage this, relying on the power of visual impressions.

Sight plays a crucial role in our lives, often leading us to judge books by their covers despite advice to the contrary. In a world where a product’s packaging and aesthetics are as important as its quality, we see countless mascots and ambassadors for everything. This visual appeal is key to making a lasting impression and influencing our choices.

It’s all about having an impact and creating a memorable impression. While adults might be better at dodging advertising gimmicks, the same cannot be said for children. More impressionable and often stubborn, children are prime targets for companies that exploit their naivety with the lure of toys and other enticing offers. However, if there were a mascot advocating for a healthy diet, one name stands out: Popeye.

Why spinach?

Popeye with his trusty can of spinach

Popeye with his trusty can of spinach | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

If vegetables had mascots, none could outperform Popeye and his love for spinach. With his iconic image and strong association with healthy eating, Popeye remains a powerful figure who could inspire children to embrace nutritious choices. His adventures and unwavering strength from spinach provide a compelling narrative that could outshine any advertising ploy, making him an unparalleled advocate for healthy living.

Popeye’s love for spinach has become so deeply embedded in pop culture that imagining the sailor without his trusty can of greens is nearly impossible today. His love for leafy greens is such a defining aspect of his character that it begs the question: why spinach?

Several theories circulating on the web attempt to explain this enduring choice. Here are a few:

A tool to fight the malnutrition crisis

Representational image

Representational image | Photo Credit: Freepik

Theory 1: The cartoon character Popeye the Sailor, known for his superhuman strength after consuming a can of spinach, became a symbol during a pivotal time in American history. According to Laura Lovett’s research paper published by Duke University Press, Popeye’s choice of spinach was tied to the U.S.’s first national nutrition crisis in the 1920s, which focused on combating child malnutrition. This crisis, which spanned the first three decades of the 20th Century, resulted from various factors such as the advent of nutrition science, new height and weight standards, international food shortages due to World War, the rise of consumerism and mass media, and the progressive belief in education as a solution.

A frequently cited statistic claims that Popeye’s influence led to a 33% increase in spinach consumption in America during the Great Depression. David Trinklein, a horticulturist at the University of Missouri Extension, noted in an article that “during that era, the diet of the average American lacked essential vitamins and minerals. The nutritional well-being of children was of great concern.”

Popeye’s impact on spinach sales was profound, with children listing spinach as their third favourite food (in a survey) following the character’s on-screen consumption of the vegetable. One might assume Popeye’s influence has waned over the years, but a 2010 study published in the Australian journal Nutrition & Dietetics found that four- and five-year-olds in Bangkok, Thailand, doubled their vegetable intake during an eight-week period that included watching Popeye cartoons. While the study also involved hands-on activities like planting, tasting, and cooking with vegetables, the findings suggest that Popeye’s influence remains significant. This enduring impact is indeed a fascinating concept to consider.

To err is human: Spinach Popeye Iron Decimal Error Story (SPIDES)

Spinach on a white background

Spinach on a white background | Photo Credit: Freepik

Theory 2: Popeye endorsed spinach as a strength-booster because of its high iron content. But in 1981, scientist T.J. Hamblin dropped a bombshell: spinach’s iron levels had been exaggerated tenfold due to a simple decimal point slip-up. This became known as the “Spinach Popeye Iron Decimal Error Story” or “SPIDES,” a cautionary tale of human error that still circulates online.

Fast forward to 2010, when Dr. Mike Sutton dug into SPIDES. After his detective work, Sutton found that while the story was captivating, it wasn’t entirely accurate. Hamblin’s tenfold discrepancy was real, but there was no clear source for the decimal mistake. It seemed the different iron measurements in wet vs. dry spinach caused the confusion, and both were actually correct in their own contexts.

So, we’re left with two persistent beliefs: the mistaken idea that Segar and Popeye got it all wrong, and the enduring belief that spinach is a decent source of iron for us humans. Dr. Sutton pointed out that while spinach does contain iron, much of it isn’t easily absorbed by our bodies. 

A lesson learned

The origins of Popeye’s superhuman strength might lie in the blend of myth and reality, crafting a cultural icon that continues to endure. However, his association with spinach, despite misconceptions about its iron content, shaped public perception and dietary habits, reminding us how influential cultural icons like Popeye can be on what we eat and believe about our food.

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