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The Faces Behind 9 Recognizable Names

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.   

2. Jumbo

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. 

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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