By Fred Grandinetti
(left) The one-eyed sailor prepares to eat his spinach in "Popeye the Sailor" (Fleischer Studios, 1933).
Generations of children have been told by their parents, “Eat your spinach and you’ll be strong like Popeye the Sailor Man”.
It may come as a surprise to learn Popeye’s original source of strength was not the green vegetable.
Popeye first appeared in the Thimble Theatre comic strip on January 17, 1929 created by E.C. Segar. During his first adventure Popeye is shot multiple times by crime boss, Jack Snork. The sailor then rubbed the feathers of the Whiffle Hen to bring him luck. The hen’s powers healed the sailor’s injuries and he knocked out Snork with a blow from his fist!
Popeye would continue to dazzle newspaper audiences with feats of strength which pre-dated anything Superman would accomplish. Segar eventually phased out The Whiffle Hen and had to come up with another explanation for Popeye’s super abilities. When asked, on June 26, 1931, “How are you able to do such things?” Popeye replied, “Tha’s easy. I eats Spinach.”
(left) On June 26, 1931 Segar's Popeye announces the source of his strength.
Popeye’s association with spinach in the public’s mind had little to do with the comic strip. Segar rarely used it except in perilous situations. The green vegetable played a much bigger role in the animated cartoons which debuted in 1933.
The Fleischer Studios were the first to bring Popeye, his girlfriend Olive Oyl and Bluto, to the big screen in a Betty Boop cartoon titled, “Popeye the Sailor.”
(right) Popeye shoves his spinach can down Bluto's throat in "Seein' Red, White and Blue" (Famous Studios, 1943).
When Bluto begins stomping on Popeye’s back he casually pulls out a can of spinach, eats the contents and wallops Bluto into a coffin.
It was Fleischer’s original intention not to have spinach play a major role in the animated series. However, Paramount Pictures, who financed the cartoons, objected and spinach became an important plot device.
(above) Popeye is fed spinach by a Goon in "Popeye The Ugly Ducklin'" (Jack Kinney,1960)
In the animated cartoons anyone who ate spinach gained strength! Some of the more memorable film moments when characters other than Popeye consumed spinach include:
Adventures of Popeye (Fleischer, 1935) In a live action sequence a little boy eats from a huge can of spinach to defeat a bully after he’s encouraged by Popeye.
Never Kick A Woman (Fleischer Studios, 1936) Popeye takes Olive Oyl to a gym so she can learn to defend herself. A Mae West type gym teacher has her eye on Popeye and proceeds to beat up Olive. Olive manages to grab Popeye’s can of spinach from his pocket and pulverizes the gym teacher. She also beats up the sailor for responding to the gym teacher’s romantic overtones.
The Twisker Pitcher (Fleischer Studios, 1937) Popeye loses his spinach can while competing in a baseball game with Bluto. The bearded bully finds the can and devours its contents. Bluto stuffs Popeye’s cans with weeds and throws it back to the unsuspecting sailor.
Hospitaliky (Fleischer, 1937) Popeye and Bluto attempt to get injured to be cared for by nurse Olive Oyl. Popeye holds Bluto down to force feed him spinach. When Bluto sees what is happening he says, “Get away!” Popeye pours the spinach down Bluto’s mouth muttering, “You’re going to eat the spinach this time.”
Lost and Foundry (Fleischer Studios, 1937) Baby Swee’pea eats Popeye’s spinach to save the sailor and Olive Oyl from being squashed by the equipment in a factory.
Goonland (Fleischer Studios, 1938) Popeye’s father, Poopdeck Pappy, is held prisoner on Goon Island. When Popeye is about to be crushed by a boulder Pappy eats spinach to rescue his son.
Flies Ain’t Human (Fleischer, 1941) A fly eats spinach to pester Popeye who just wants to take a nap.
Seein’ Red, White ‘N’ Blue (Famous Studios, 1943) Popeye and Bluto are beaten up by a gang of Japanese spies. Popeye feeds himself spinach and gives the rest to Bluto including the can! Together, for Uncle Sam, they clobber the spies and send a powerful punch to The Emperor of Japan and Adolph Hitler!
Baby Wants Spinach (Famous Studios, 1950) Cousin Swee’pea accidently swallows Popeye’s spinach and socks a gorilla beating up the sailor man.
The Cure (Paramount Cartoon Studios, 1961)-While attempting to swear off eating hamburgers Wimpy eats Popeye’s spinach and socks one of The Sea Hag’s goons!
Ballet-Hooey (Hanna Barbera, 1978) When Popeye and Bluto interrupt Olive Oyl’s ballet performance she eats Popeye’s spinach to teach the pair a lesson.
Unidentified Fighting Object (Hanna Barbera, 1979) Popeye’s nephews eat a bowl of spinach to thwart Bluto’s efforts to capture their friend from outer space.
(above) Olive Oyl ate Popeye's spinach in the sailor's animated adventure.
How Popeye began eating spinach was the subject of several animated cartoons. Each offered different explanations why the one-eyed sailor started chomping on the vegetable. Some of the more notable films include:
The Football Toucher Downer (Fleischer Studios, 1937) Popeye, trying to get lil’ Swee’pea to eat spinach, explained he didn’t like it growing up. The sailor tells a story from his childhood how spinach helped him win a football game against Bluto.
Let's Stalk Spinach (Famous Studios, 1951)Popeye’s rendition of Jack and the Beanstalk is used to convince his four nephews to eat spinach.
Lunch with a Punch (Famous Studios, 1952) Popeye tells his nephews a story how spinach helped him as a child save Olive’s life and defeat Bluto the bully.
Greek Mirthology (Famous Studios, 1954) Popeye’s nephews refuse to eat spinach! The sailor tells them about their Uncle Hercules and how he first discovered spinach.
Caveman Capers (Larry Harmon, 1960) Popeye remembers his prehistoric ancestor's discovery of spinach.
Popeye the Ugly Ducklin (Jack Kinney, 1960) Popeye tells Swee’pea how the Goons taught him as a child to eat spinach and gain confidence.
Popeye Thumb (Paramount Cartoon Studios, 1961) Swee’pea learns the story of Popeye Thumb and how his discovery of eating spinach helped his family become the richest in the village.
The various writers of the Popeye cartoon series would on occasion take a typical situation involving spinach and give it a humorous spin. Films which included this scenario include:
A Clean Shaven Man (Fleischer Studios, 1936) Bluto drags Popeye on the ground and the sailor man pulls a can of spinach out of his pocket. When Bluto sees what’s happening he yells, “Hey none of that stuff!” and tosses the can away.
How Green is My Spinach (Famous Studios, 1950) Bluto finally realizes spinach is what gives Popeye the upper hand in their fights. He creates a spray intending to wipe out the world’s spinach supply.
Friend or Phony (Famous Studios, 1952) Popeye’s spinach can literally takes on a life its own by galloping to the sailor’s rescue after Bluto pounds him into the ground using machinery.
Taxi Turvy (Famous Studios, 1954) Popeye uses his pipe to latch on to his spinach can when Bluto drives up in a taxi. The bearded brute pulls the spinach can off his pipe and says, “Oh no! You ain’t eatin’ no spinach in ‘dis picture!”
(right) "Oh, no! You ain't eatin' no spinach in 'dis picture!" From "Taxi Turvy" (Famous Studios, 1954)
Where There’s A Will (Gerald Ray, 1960) After beating up Popeye Brutus tosses a can of spinach in the sailor’s direction. As Brutus walks away the spinach eating theme plays and the bully says to the audience, “Whoops I shouldn’t have done that!”
County Fair (Paramount Cartoon Studios, 1961) Popeye and Brutus are farmers competing in various contents. The last is the spinach eating contest and the test to prove its strength. Both contestants each have a bowl of spinach to eat. Brutus flings Popeye aside and looks straight at the viewing audience and says, “You didn’t think I was gonna play fair with that runt and take a chance against his spinach!”
Popeye’s Self Defense (Hanna Barbera, 1979) Olive forces Popeye to join a gym because he relies on his spinach to often when he’s in trouble.
(above) Ralph Stein offered an explanation why Popeye refrained from eating spinach in the cartoon strip, published on June 17, 1957
As previously noted Popeye didn’t rely on eating spinach to gain strength in the comic strip. When Ralph Stein began writing the daily strip on December 6, 1954 he decided to address this issue.
On June 17, 1957 Popeye is seen securely chained to a wall. His captors unknowingly give him spinach to eat. While gobbling down the spinach Popeye says, “I ain’t et any of it fer years-makes me too strong an’ dangerous!”
When the Popeye theatrical cartoons debuted on television in September of 1956 they became a huge success. Their popularity led to the sailor’s frequent consumption of spinach in the strip and comic books.
(above) On March 12, 1992, Bobby London referred to what happened when Popeye ate his spinach in the movies.
From 1986 to 1992 Bobby London handled the daily strip and derived humor referring to Popeye’s animated career involving his favorite vegetable.
On March 12, 1992 Wimpy is anxious to witness Popeye’s muscles “bounce about and do funny things” after the sailor consumed a can of spinach. Popeye explained, ‘At was jusk in the movies.”
(left) Popeye statue erected on March 26, 1937 in Crystal City, Texas.
Popeye’s association with spinach would go beyond both print and film. Crystal City proclaimed itself "World Spinach Capital" and paid tribute to Popeye by erecting a full-color statue of him on March 26, 1937.
Alma, Arkansas also proclaimed itself “Spinach Capital of the World” and unveiled a Popeye statue in 2007.
For more information on the latest Popeye statue go to http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/15404.
(left) 1986 Allen Canning Company and King Features Syndicatem, Inc.
Allen’s Popeye brand spinach was sold in supermarkets for several years. It is now being distributed by Sager Creek Vegetable Company.
Today on all sorts of clothing you can still see Popeye holding a can of spinach declaring:
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man, I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.
I'm strong to the finich, cause I eats me spinach.
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man.
A Popeye T-shirt.