On January 17, 1929, exactly 85 years ago, our favourite sailor man, Popeye, made his debut in Thimble Theatre, a comic strip created by E.C. Segar.
Along with the cartoon’s distinctive speech and bulging forearms came the source of his machismo and near-supernatural strength — spinach, of course.
“I’m strong to finich ’cause I eats me spinach,” Popeye routinely sang in the later animated cartoon.
But the reasoning behind the sailor man’s love of the leafy-green (and its subsequent commercial explosion) contains one major flaw: Spinach doesn’t contain nearly as much as iron as we think.
In 1870, a German chemist named Erich von Wolf was researching the nutritional benefits of spinach. In his notes, he accidentally printed the decimal point in the vegetable’s iron content one spot too far to the right, according to Samuel Arbesman’s “The Half Life Of Facts,” as reported by BrainPickings.
Mathematicians know what that means: Wolf accidentally increased the vegetable’s iron level to 10 times the actual amount — 3.5 grams of iron suddenly became 35 grams.
“Popeye became so popular with children in the 1930s that sales of spinach spiked dramatically across the U.S.,” wrote Michael Aushenker, a Popeye-enthusiast and editor of The Argonaut, a local newspaper in Santa Monica California, where the comic’s father, Segar, lived.
In fact, the spinach growers credited Popeye with a 33 per cent increase in U.S. spinach consumption and saving the spinach industry in the 1930s, according to Popeye’s official website.
Then, in 1937, Crystal City, Tex., our country’s purported spinach capital, erected a statute in the sailor’s honour.
In 2005, GameBoy Advanced released a game called “Popeye Rush For Spinach.”
Even a current brand, Allens Vegetables, still uses the cleft-chinned character to sell its canned spinach.
And the owners of the only Popeye shop and museum in the world, as well as the official fan club they run, fall under the name “Spinach Can Collectibles.”
Researchers recognised the fumble in 1937 and tried to correct it, but Popeye had debuted four years earlier. The myth perpetuated in the comic clearly stuck. People started to spread the idea that spinach contained just as much iron as red meat. Even today, many doctors tell their anemic patients to bulk-up on spinach.
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