These are names you’ve been wearing, eating, drinking, and avoiding your whole life. Here are the faces and stories attached to them.
1. Levi Strauss
Every good business man knows: In an 1870s San Francisco gold rush, you don’t make your fortune squatting in a creek panning for pebbles. You make your fortune making and selling the copper riveted “waist overalls” that cover the butts of those squatting in a creek panning for pebbles. Levi first made his revolutionary workpants from heavy canvas. He later switched to denim, dyed blue to hide the dirt (which any college student will tell you still works!). He insisted everyone, even his employees, call him “Levi,” which is why you don’t worry about how much room your “Strauss’s” have in the crotch.
There once was an elephant. He was so big, they called him “Jumbo.” HA! Wrong! That’s all backwards, friends. There was an African elephant named Jumbo, born in 1861, but his name likely came from the Swahili words for chief (jumbe) and hello (jambe). The whole world knew and loved him, as he was passed from zoos to circuses throughout the Western world. He died under P.T. Barnum’s ownership, when he was struck by a train in a rail-yard. He is remembered through many memorials and hopefully now, every time you order the Jumbo Shrimp Skewer at Sizzler.
3. Lane Bryant
Before Lena Bryant got her name misspelled on a bank application form in 1904, fat and pregnant ladies never indulged in the emerging trend of store-bought clothes. Pregnant ladies were supposed to stay home to conceal their shame, and fat ladies to stay in their gypsy caravans from which the circus would charge two bits a gander. Lena changed all that. First an orphan and then quickly a widow, dress making was how she supported herself and her son. When a customer asked her for a discrete dress to accommodate her pregnancy, Lena designed the first ever commercial maternity dress. She then turned her attentions to another consumer population no one wanted to tap, the “stout.” She designed clothes for “all-over stout,” “flat-busted stout,” and “full-busted stout.” A pioneer of body acceptance, and the reason I personally don’t have to wear muumuus except for special occasions, her motto was, “Of course we can fit you!”
4. Hans Asperger
As a child in the early 1910s, Austrian Hans Asperger liked poetry. He liked to quote it to his schoolmates, who thought he was weird. He furthered that perception by his tendency to quote himself, and refer to himself in the third person. Just as the schoolyard pretty much ignored him, so did the pediatric medical community he eventually became a member of. He pegged Asperger’s symptoms early on in his career, in 1944, when he observed children of normal intelligence who “lacked nonverbal communication skills, failed to demonstrate empathy with their peers, and were physically awkward.” Unfortunately, autism wasn’t really on anyone’s radar until the 1980s, after he had died. At that time, his work was translated into English, and the condition he’d observed was given his name.
5. Uziel Gal
Gal was born in Germany before the Second World War, but he was a Jew, so he got out of there pretty quick. He lived in the British Mandate of Palestine, where, in 1943 he was arrested for carrying a gun. Gal was sent to prison and served 3 years of his sentence. Then, when he got out, he joined the Israeli army and designed the Uzi, the first in a family of Israeli open-bolt, blowback-operated submachine guns. The Uzi has been exported to over 90 countries, used in at least 12 wars, and was the best-selling sub-machine gun until the 1980s.
6. Typhoid Mary
Mary Mallon just wanted to earn a decent living as a household cook for the well to do families of New York. It wasn’t her fault that the people she cooked for kept getting typhoid and sometimes dying. She had to change jobs just about every year, as some of them had the nerve to blame her, when she obviously was not sick with typhoid. Eventually she was caught, tracked down by the long trail of distended stomachs, fevers, and life threatening diarrhea she left behind her. She was shown to be an asymptomatic carrier and forced into isolation. She was released after three years, the State of New York making her promise to stop handling food. She agreed and became a laundress. For about an hour. She then spent the next five years continuing to infect New York, causing severe illness and death. When investigators finally caught her again, she was sentenced to quarantine on an institutional island for the remainder of her life, from 1915 to 1938.
7. Arthur Guinness
The Guinness Brewery has been around for a long time, since Arthur Guinness bought the lease for a disused brewery in Dublin in 1759. And it’s probably going to be around for a long time to come, because the lease he signed was for 9000 years. He wanted that particular brewery because it included water rights of a nearby canal, which allowed him to easily ship his barrels of porter. When the Dublin sheriff came in 1775 with the instructions to cut off the water supply and fill in the canal, Guinness defended it with a pick axe. History is silent on whether or not this Irishman was sober when he attacked cops with a pick axe, but it does record that he won.
8. McDonald’s Brothers
Even if you think of Mac and Dick McDonald as the fathers of the American obesity epidemic, you have to admire their style. Their early restaurants in the 1940s were unlike anything seen before. Everything was streamlined; the spatulas specially designed for mass flipping, the ketchup dispensers built to squeeze a uniform amount of ketchup on each burger. Their menu was limited and they had no waiters, making things move even quicker. They were a huge success. So much so that their business partner, Ray Kroc, bought them out in 1961 for the exorbitant sum of $ 2.7 million dollars. Kroc agreed to give them 1 percent royalties every year, but the brothers never got it in writing. Do not do handshake deals with the kind of man whose shark-like business acumen will eventually build a 24-billion-dollar-a-year empire out of hamburgers. If it had been in writing, the McDonalds and their heirs would be receiving around $200 million a year today.
9. Jean Nicot
Speaking of people we blame for making us fat and sickly, in 1559, French Ambassador Jean Nicot was in Spain, arranging the marriage of a 6-year-old princess to a 5-year-old king. While there, he discovered the delightful effect of the tobacco plant. When the leaves are dried, pulverized into dust, and sniffed up the nose … well, it just felt great. Catherine de' Medici, the French queen mother, thought so, too. Pretty soon all the cool courtiers were snuffing. Nicot was a celebrity, so much so that when chemists got around to isolating the mind-altering chemical in tobacco, they named it nicotine, after him.