Pop culture has really exploded into a monster since the emergence of streaming technology and a million cable channels. There are video games, books, shows and films coming out constantly telling old stories, reimagined stories, rebooted stories and brand new stories. It’s all content, as some people say, and there is a lot of it. So much, in fact, it can be hard to keep track of where it all came from or the fact that some of the characters we’ve come to know aren’t just characters but were, at some point, real people.
10. Nicolas Flamel From Harry Potter Was a Real Alchemist
In the Harry Potter books and films, Harry and crew run across the name of a French wizard and alchemist called Nicolas Flamel. A onetime friend of Albus Dumbledore, he’s the man behind the Philosopher’s Stone (or the Sorcerer’s Stone if all you saw was the American version of the film). He also has an appearance in the Fantastic Beasts movies, which take place in the same wizarding world.
But Flamel is not one of the creations of Potter author J. K. Rowling. He was a real person, and he did want to make the Philosopher’s Stone, as did many alchemists throughout history.
The “real” Philosopher’s Stone, or the thing people were hoping to find or create, was supposed to be able to not just transform things into gold, it was also believed to grant immortality. Flamel said he bought a book from a traveler in an unknown language and, after years of trying, he managed to translate it and succeeded in turning a half pound of mercury into silver and then gold.
As the story goes, he donated the money and continued pursuing learning for his remaining years, eventually giving up on transmutation because he felt such an ability was too dangerous for people. It’s said he hid the book so no one could find it and learn the secrets. Many people suspect his money was just from his savvy real estate investments, however.
Known science suggests Flamel did not succeed in transmuting common metals to gold and the fact he did die certainly makes the idea of immortality seem like it was a bust as well. Unless he faked it.
9. Bloody Mary From the Urban Legend was Mary Tudor
Long before saying Candyman’s name would attract the fury of a bee-addled Tony Todd, kids at sleepovers were saying Bloody Mary in front of a mirror in a dark bathroom hoping to catch a glimpse of a terrifying spirit. Why? Kids are weird. But the story of Bloody Mary has more to it than a party game that ultimately goes nowhere. The Bloody Mary we’re referring to was a real person: Mary Tudor.
There’s been a lot lost in translation between the real Mary and her reign as Mary I of England back in the mid-1500s and the idea that a bloody spirit will lunge from a mirror at a birthday party, but the connection makes more sense when you look at how history long chose to remember Mary.
Mary Tudor was notable for being the first Queen of England to rule without a King at her side and that makes her something of a feminist icon in a historical sense. But at the same time her legacy was of extreme religious persecution against Protestants which included a lot of executions. Hundreds of them, in fact.
Bloody Mary had Protestants burned at the stake. The execution of some 300 Protestants is how she got the nickname Bloody Mary, something that was arguably made worse buy the fact a Protestant took over after Mary’s death, allowing history to make her look even worse than she truly was. Not that it takes much effort to make mass burnings look bad.
8. Little Debbie Still Works for the Snack Cake Company Named After Her
Love them or hate them, Little Debbie snack cakes are a ubiquitous feature in grocery stores around America and beyond, and have been staples of kid’s lunches for decades. Most of us recognize the iconic image of what we had to assume was Little Debbie herself, a young girl in a checkered shirt, smiling from the corner of the box.
Turns out Little Debbie isn’t just a corporate homunculus, she was and is a real person. Debbie McKee is the granddaughter of O.D. McKee who founded the company back in the 1930s after selling snack cakes out of their car during the Depression.
In the 1960s, the company rebranded as they got larger and started selling their baked goods in quantity. They chose their 4-year-old granddaughter to be the face and name of the company. Today, Debbie McKee-Fowler still works for the company as the Chairman of the Board.
7. Captain Morgan Was a Real Privateer
Captain Morgan is one of the bestselling brands of rum in the world and their buccaneer spokesman is widely recognized from the product labels and commercials featuring his likeness. But unlike some “real” human spokespeople that turn out to just be made up for marketing purposes, Henry Morgan was a real life pirate, or more specifically a privateer meaning that any raiding and pillaging he did was backed by the authority of the British Crown and therefore arguably legal.
Morgan spent much of his life plundering Spanish cities and amassing huge wealth and land in Jamaica. He owned sugar plantations, kept slaves, and built a reputation as basically a pirate king. King Charles even knighted him and made him Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica at one point.
His reputation as a villain was very much exaggerated in books and stories from former crew members to the point that he even had to file lawsuits over it in his life. But his purported love of rum and the massive plantations he owned were perfect fodder for using him in the modern age as a spokesman for the brand.
6. Monterey Jack Cheese Was Marketed by David Jack of Monterey
Monterey Jack is one of the few cheeses that has a human name and it turns out there’s a reason for it – Monterey Jack was a person. His real name was David Jack and, despite the cheese being a fan favorite among cheese lovers, David Jack himself was apparently nothing short of a villain.
Jack came to California in 1848 shortly after it became part of the United States. He quickly set about taking control of as much land as he could through some underhanded means when the legitimate landowners couldn’t pay legal bills. He and a lawyer got 30,000 acres of land in Monterey for about $1,000.
Jack immediately raised taxes on lands and foreclosed on those who didn’t pay. He took control of ranches, vineyards and also cheese production. What was once the cheese made by Mexican residents and known as queso blanco país was rebranded as Jack’s Cheese.As it spread, it became Monterey Jack’s cheese and finally what we know it as today.
Jack didn’t invent the cheese by any means, but he certainly took credit for it.
5. Jethro Tull Is Named After a Real Historical Figure
Jethro Tull was one of the biggest bands of the ’70s and has a legacy of being a creative, bizarre mix of hard rock and folk music that few other bands have ever even tried to pull off. The lead singer played the concert flute on a lot of tracks, that’s just not something you see in rock bands that often.
What many fans never knew at the time, and may still be unaware of, is that Jethro Tull is a real person’s name though he had nothing to do with the band at all. The real Jethro Tull was an agriculturalist born in England in the late 1600s. He was also an inventor and created things like a horse-drawn seed drill to make neat and even sowing of seeds easier and more efficient.
Though his ideas were slow to take off, he stuck by his methods and is generally considered to have been at the forefront of the agricultural revolution. As for the band, word is they got the name because, after going through many names, a booking agent’s assistant with a penchant for history picked it at random.
4. Uncle Sam Was Allegedly Based on Sam Wilson
Most Americans would recognize the face of Uncle Sam, a sort of unofficial spokesman for the country and even a nickname for the USA. Sam is rumored to be based on businessman Sam Wilson who supplied beef to the US Army during the War of 1812.
As the story goes, soldier’s referred to it as Uncle Sam’s beef. And, since it came from the government, the name became inextricably linked with the government itself. The famous image, of course, came later as a means to encourage recruitment into the army
3. The Term Smart Aleck Comes From a Real Man
These days if someone calls you a smart aleck it’s a bit of a g-rated insult suggesting that you’re being a bit of a know-it-all or you have a smart mouth. It’s more of an old-school dig and it’s likely only coming from a parent or grandparent. But the insult didn’t come from nowhere. There was a real Alec who inspired the term.
Alec Hoag was a pimp and a con man from the 1840s in New York. He and his wife used to run scams to rip off men on the streets. He also paid off cops to make sure he never got punished. Later, he and his wife performed more elaborate scams where she would lure men to a room, he would secretly rob their discarded clothing, then pretend to be shocked to catch her with a man so that the victim would flee without noticing their stuff had been looted.
Because Alec assumed the men wouldn’t report being robbed by a prostitute to the police, he stopped paying bribes. The cops didn’t take kindly to losing income, so they absolutely arrested him. A cop referred to him as Smart Alec as in too smart for his own good and it stuck as a prison nickname. The nickname also spread among cops, referring to any criminal who thought they were too smart as Smart Alecks. It spread from there until it became part of the vernacular.
2. Mary from Mary Had a Little Lamb Was Real
Nearly everyone knows the Mary Has a Little Lamb nursery rhyme, which was first published way back in 1830. It’s not a super detailed story and is mostly about a little lamb with fleece as white as snow following a girl named Mary everywhere she goes. But, according to the author, it was inspired by a real girl named Mary and her real lamb.
Mary was Mary Elizabeth Sawyer. Born in 1806, she convinced her father to let her take care of a sick lamb in 1815 when she was just nine. Against all odds, Mary nursed the little lamb back to health and it made a full recovery. Thus, a friendship was born.
From the sounds of what Mary wrote many years later in the 1880s, the lamb likely imprinted on her as she took to feeding it and caring for it in every way. As a result, it followed her everywhere she went and, indeed; it followed her to school one day. The teacher who kicked the lamb out wrote the popular version of the nursery rhyme years later.
1. Granny Smith Apples Came From Maria Ann “Granny” Smith
Granny Smith apples are the third most popular apples in America and they are consistent among the most popular in the world. Bright green and tart, they’re popular for eating by themselves, for use in candy apples, and for pies. The name isn’t just a cute moniker meant to bring to mind nostalgic memories of grandma baking a pie, either. There really was a Granny Smith, and she’s responsible for the apple’s popularity.
The apple dates back to 1868 in Australia where Maria Ann Smith, known locally as Granny Smith, had an orchard with her husband. She had been testing out various kinds of crab-apples to find the best ones for cooking and tossing cores out of her window. These sprouted new seedlings, and she began propagating the best of the ones she discovered until she settled on an apple she felt was suitable for cooking and eating.
After Smith passed away, other farmers kept her strain going, calling it Smith’s Seedling, then Granny Smith’s Seedling and finally just Granny Smith apples.