Spinach salesman Popeye remains effective nearly a century after his debut

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Popeye remains the world’s greatest spinach salesman nearly a century after he made his comic-strip debut on the eve of the Great Depression. 

The sailor man’s legend is recounted every March 26, celebrated as National Spinach Day in the United States. 

Popeye was a gruff but noble comic-strip hero with bulging forearms. 

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He fueled his feats of super-human strength by popping open a can of spinach and swallowing all of its contents in one giant gulp. 

Popeye first appeared in cartoonist Elzie Crisler “E.C.” Segar’s nationally syndicated “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in 1929. 

He was an instant sensation. 

Popeye’s popularity fueled a 33% increase in spinach consumption in the United States by 1931, according to King Features Syndicate, which distributed the cartoon. 

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“We could use more of those messages today,” said Dr. Marc Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and a Fox News medical contributor. 

“Even if Popeye exaggerated certain aspects of its benefits, he reminded kids to eat a healthy food like spinach when they probably weren’t eating enough.”

“I think it’s a positive thing when there’s a media sensation around something that’s actually good for you.” 

Siegel said the sudden rise in the popularity of spinach is even more impressive because it coincided with the Great Depression, which began in late 1929. 

Spinach with cream

“It would have been very hard to buy spinach at the time because it got so expensive,” he said.

Spinach is a leafy green and one of the earliest spring crops. The U.S. ranks second in global spinach production, far behind No. 1 China. 

Most of America’s spinach is grown in California.

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The advent of canning made the iron-rich vegetable available all year long. 

But Popeye made spinach popular.

Segar launched his “Thimble Theatre” comic strip starring Olive Oyl in the New York Journal in 1910, according to Popeye.com. 

Popeye, however, did not make his first appearance until Jan. 17, 1929. 

Early Popeye cartoon

For unknown reasons, Segar made spinach the source of Popeye’s superhuman strength and pugilistic skills. 

It paid off for Popeye eight months later. 

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He kissed Olive Oyl for the first time on August 27 — launching an enduring if troubled fictional relationship.

Segar reportedly based Popeye on a colorful figure he knew from his childhood home in Randolph County, Illinois. 

Frank “Rocky” Feigle smoked a pipe, “was always ready for a fight, and [was] always a winner,” according to RandolphSociety.org, which is devoted to Randolph County history. 

Segar was just 43 when he died in 1938. It appears the cartoonist never explained why he made spinach the source of Popeye’s superpowers. 

Spinach farm in Florida

But the impact of the decision has been far-reaching for the public’s perception of spinach, even if Popeye’s muscular response to eating it was unrealistic. 

Spinach is considered a superfood today and is loaded with B vitamins, vitamin C, fiber and plenty of minerals, including iron — which helps fuel strength.

“I look at it as very positive to connect a healthy food with a popular figure,” said Siegel, who noted that a balanced diet, and not any one food, is the key to overall strength and well-being. 

“Even if Popeye exaggerated certain aspects of its benefits, he reminded kids to eat a healthy food like spinach when they probably weren’t eating enough.”

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