A Brief History of the Guy Fawkes Mask

Getty Images
Getty Images

Over the past decade, dissidents across the globe have appropriated the visage of Guy Fawkes, the infamous insurgent who tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605, warping the once-reviled fringe rebel into a widespread symbol of resistance.

The iconic version of the Guy Fawkes mask owes its popularity to the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta, which centers on a vigilante's efforts to destroy an authoritarian government in a dystopian future United Kingdom. Although he didn't predict the mask's role in popular protest, David Lloyd, the artist who illustrated the comic, told The New York Times, "It's a great symbol of protest for anyone who sees tyranny."

Before V for Vendetta (which was published in serial form throughout the 1980s before being made into a 2005 film), Guy Fawkes costumes and effigies were only popular in the U.K. on Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day, a November 5 celebration that, by the 20th century, had been largely divorced from Fawkes' violent plot.

But as you've likely noticed, over the past few years the stylized mask has evolved into a global symbol of dissent, employed by everyone from shadowy computer hackers to Turkish airline workers. And although the masks are often used in anti-establishment demonstrations, one of the largest media corporations in the country gains the most from the masks' rising popularity. Time Warner owns the rights to the image, and at over 100,000 masks made each year, it is by far the company's best-selling facial costume.

Here, a brief history of the mask's unlikely rise:

ANONYMOUS

The hacktivist collective Anonymous popularized these masks in 2008 when it launched Project Chanology, a movement targeting the Church of Scientology after the church tried to censor an interview with Tom Cruise on the web. Members of the collective agreed to come out from behind their computer screens to protest the Church of Scientology, but needed a way to conceal their identities. The Guy Fawkes mask was their chosen disguise. Although the collective has never officially stated the reasoning behind this choice, it's likely an homage to an eerie scene in V for Vendetta in which a group of masked protesters marches on the British Parliament. When asked why the mask was selected, one protester told The Boston Globe, "I can't say, not having contact with the inner circle—wherever they are—but I can say the image of people marching towards Parliament in the spirit of protest, that wall of masks, had a certain resonance amongst those who held negative feelings about organizations such as Scientology but also towards the government." The project grew into a national movement with demonstrations in Florida, Michigan, Boston, and Los Angeles. Since then, the masks have become a go-to symbol of the collective and anti-establishment movements worldwide.

After Anonymous' first major political demonstration in 2008, the collective began cleverly aligning itself with a variety of anti-establishment movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. It is, in part, due to these loose affiliations that the adopted emblem of one movement evolved into a global symbol of resistance.

OCCUPY

The Occupy Movement, born out of the Zuccotti Park-based Occupy Wall Street, adopted the mask in 2011. On Guy Fawkes Day that year, a Facebook invitation urged "all OCCUPY protesters of the world to come together on November 5th to rally again for our efforts to end corruption and social injustice." From that point on, the symbolism of the mask evolved concurrently with the movement.

It's logical that OWS would appropriate the disguise of the faceless anti-establishment crusader from Lloyd's franchise. Still, the mask doesn't carry such weight for everyone who dons it. Sid Hiltunen, an unemployed stockbroker who joined the OWS movement, told The New York Times, "If you want to show your support but are afraid you'll lose your job, just wear a mask—any mask."

Protesters around the world were spotted wearing the anti-authoritarian vigilante's trademark disguise. Even Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks, wore one to an Occupy rally in London.

PROTESTS IN THAILAND

This summer, another anti-government movement embraced the Guy Fawkes mask. In Thailand, protesters wore them in demonstrations against the so-called puppet administration controlled by an exiled ex-prime minister. This isn't the first time the mask has surfaced in Thailand. In 2011 a small band of protesters in Bangkok donned them the same day the "Anonymous Thailand" Facebook page launched. The masks and leaderless nature of the demonstrations are reminiscent of the global Occupy movement and the anti-establishment Anonymous message.

TURKISH AIRLINES WORKERS

In a contemporaneous movement, Turkish Airlines employees have adopted the masks to fight for their rights as workers.

THE MIDDLE EAST

The mask also played a role in the Arab Spring movements of 2011, and photos of masked protesters in Egypt also emerged this fall. The Guy Fawkes mask has become so incendiary that several Middle Eastern countries are prohibiting its import and sale. The Saudi Ministry of Interior did just that on May 30, claiming the mask "instills a culture of violence and extremism." The measure was expanded several days later to include the destruction of all masks currently in Saudi stores. In February the government in Bahrain also banned the masks.

THE NSA LEAKER'S GIRLFRIEND

The voyeuristic media coverage surrounding NSA leaker Edward Snowden's alleged girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, includes some undeniably frivolous content, but one aspect of the story is pertinent. At one point, Snowden uploaded a photo of a woman (presumably Mills) wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. As a symbol of anti-government resistance and the unofficial emblem of a pro-transparency hacktivist collective, this mask may be the most relevant piece of information surrounding her.

**

The unlikely proliferation of the Guy Fawkes mask in popular protest came as a welcome surprise to its creator. Alan Moore, author of V for Vendetta, told The Guardian, "I suppose when I was writing V for Vendetta, I would in my secret heart of hearts have thought: Wouldn't it be great if these ideas actually made an impact? So when you start to see that idle fantasy intrude on the regular world … It's peculiar. It feels like a character I created 30 years ago has somehow escaped the realm of fiction."

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

More from The Week

The Healing Powers of Sand
*
The Beauty and Tragedy of Charlie Brown's Love For the Little Red-Haired Girl
*
The Joy of Traveling Alone

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Submarine Expedition Reveals Parts of the Titanic Have Fully Decayed

NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

In 1985, oceanographers Robert Ballard, Jean-Louis Michel, and their crew located the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Images of the shipwreck have since become as iconic as photographs of the ocean liner taken before the 1912 tragedy. But the ruin's time in the ocean is limited. As part of an upcoming documentary, a crew of scientists carried out the first manned expedition to the wreck in 14 years and discovered the Titanic is rapidly decaying, BBC reports.

After it sank, the Titanic settled in two parts on the seafloor about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the wreck is still intact, but a lot has changed since 2005, when it was last visited by a human-occupied submersible.

While working on a film for Atlantic Productions London, an exploration team from Triton Submarines visited the wreck five times over eight days and discovered that entire sections of the ship have disappeared. The starboard side of the officer's quarters has deteriorated, and the captain's bathtub is totally gone. The deck house on the same side and the sloping lounge roof of the bow are also on the brink of collapse, according to the crew.

Unlike other artifacts and historic sites, there's no way to preserve the wreckage of the Titanic for future generations. Churning ocean currents, corrosive salt, and metal-eating bacteria will continue to break down the steel behemoth until it becomes part of the sea. Some experts estimate that by 2030, it's likely that no part of the wreck will remain.

Whether that projection is off by years or decades, these findings suggest that every new team that visits the Titanic may find something different than the team before them. On this most recent expedition, the Triton Submarines exploration team was able to film the wreck in 4K for the first time. That footage may end up being some of the last ever captured of many elements of the ship.

[h/t BBC]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER