Popularity is a fickle thing, just ask any One Hit Wonder in the history of music. You ride high for a little while and then crash and burn. Often it’s easy to tell how popular something is – when a Marvel movie makes over $1 billion at the Box Office, you can bet a lot of people saw it. But there are some other things throughout history that have been remarkably popular, even though it’s not nearly so obvious that they would have or should have been.
10. The Compleat Angler
As popular as books like Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings have been, it’s hard to even compare them to the Bible. The book has been around for about 1500 years, after all. And we will never know how many times it’s been printed because records like that just don’t exist, but Guinness has estimated at least 5 billion copies have been made.So yes, the Bible is the most popular book in history. But surprisingly enough, riding the Bible’s coattails is The Compleat Angler.
Published in 1653 and revised for the final time 1676, it was a guide to fishing as well as a sort of treatise on nature and man’s place in it. It was, and is, so popular that only the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and some Shakespeare have enjoyed more reprints in the English language. The 1886 reprint sold 80,000 copies alone. Ten editions were published in the 18th century and then a stunning 117 in the 19th.
9. Veronica Lake’s Hairstyle
If you’re a fan of classic Hollywood, then you know actress Veronica Lake, famed for her roles in films like The Blue Dahlia and I Married a Witch. Lake was a popular femme fatale, and her hairstyle may have been even more popular than she was. It wasn’t all that unusual our outlandish, but it did involve one side of her long hair cascading down the right side of her face, obscuring one eye.
This look was so popular that women across America had their hair styled in the same way and that became such an issue for the US government that they had her change it.
During World War II, women at home were contributing to the war effort in the workforce, but the hairstyle was considered problematic. Working in a factory with hair covering one eye was dangerous. Also, as a film made at the time pointed out, it was a time waster. If you kept pushing your hair out of the way, you were taking time away from work.
Lake obliged and changed her hairstyle to what became known as the “victory roll” and word is it did have an effect on lowering workplace accidents as a result.
8. Dragon Quest
If you’re into gaming at all, you know there are as many gaming urban legends as there are ones dealing with everything else in the world. For many years there was a pervasive myth that Square Enix, makers of popular games like Final Fantasy, were forced to sell Dragon Quest on the weekend because it was so popular kids skipped school to buy it and the police made them stop releasing it during the week. So is it true? Yes, and no.
The story sounds like great PR. “Our games are so popular we have to release them on weekends so as not to disrupt the lives of school kids!” But there is truth to the story, it’s just that the messaging is a little off in the mythical version.
Did the government ever force the company to stop selling the game on weekdays? No. But there was a request. According to game producer Yuu Miyake, games used to be released on Thursday. Back in the day, physical media was always in short supply and they would sell out. So kids would skip school in an effort to ensure they got a copy.
The police told them that it was an issue and asked them to do something about it, so they obliged, releasing the game on Saturdays instead from then on.
If you ever want a reason to believe things weren’t truly better back in the day, just look at what used to amuse people. Public executions were fun for the whole family and the guillotine, which was used to execute thousands, was a popular item not just for taking off heads in real life, but for cutting stuff up back home, too.
In the 1790s, a home version of the guillotine was available for children to play with. They could lop the heads off their dolls or even rats because some people considered that normal and not at all terrifying. It wasn’t just children having fun either. There were novelty versions of the device used by upper class folks who wanted a morbid way to slice up bread and vegetables. Try to imagine having a little electric chair in your kitchen for making grilled cheese today.
6. Seth MacFarlane’s Ted
The movie Ted, written and directed by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane, came out in 2012. It’s about a teddy bear that comes to life and then goes on to become a foul-mouthed stoner. It made over $200 million and had mostly positive reviews with a 69% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It also spawned a sequel that was less popular at the box office and with critics pulling in $81 million and netting a 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. But a site that aggregates movie reviews is not the be all and end all of popularity by any means.
In 2016, after Ted 2 was released, a Ted-themed restaurant opened in Japan. Considering how many restaurants are opened in honor of movies, which you can likely count on one hand, if you can count any at all, that’s pretty remarkable.
A writer from the website Eater could only get a reservation at 11 am on a Wednesday. Crowds of people were taking pictures with a life-sized Ted. It was part of a trend called “collab cafes” which take a theme and run with it, much to the delight of patrons who got to enjoy Ted-shaped pizza and burgers alongside vulgar quotes from the movie painted on the walls.
Columbo was a detective show starring Peter Falk that enjoyed a remarkably long, if sporadic, life on TV. A pilot aired in 1968 and then another aired in 1971. If you’re thinking you remember Columbo from the ’90s and not nearly that far back, you’re right. It ran for the bulk of the 1970s and then again from 1989 to 2003. Despite spanning roughly 35 non-consecutive years, they only made 69 episodes.
While the show enjoyed a solid fanbase in North America, it was so popular in Romania that it actually led to panic from the government. This dates back to 1974, when the Romanian people were first introduced to Columbo and man, did they love it. When the season ended, the citizens voiced their dissatisfaction and blamed the Romanian government for it.
At the time, Romania had entertainment quotas. They only allowed a certain amount of US content on TV. So when the season was over, they feared the government shut it down. To quell potential civil unrest, the Romanian government got in touch with the US State Department. They, in turn, got Peter Falk to record a message specifically for his Romanian fans, in which he assured them that Columbo would return.
4. Google’s Interactive Pac-Man Doodle
The Google Doodle is a ubiquitous part of everyday internet life these days. The image on the Google homepage changes daily and sometimes it’s more memorable than others. For instance, when it’s interactive, it becomes a real standout. But the very first interactive doodle holds a special place in history for just how distracting it was.
In May 2010, Google’s first interactive doodle was in celebration of Pac-Man’s 30th anniversary and was a playable version of the game. It was available for just 48 hours but in that time racked up 500,000,000 hours of game gameplay.
Based on how much time people spent playing the game instead of doing work they were meant to be doing, it was calculated to have cost about $120 million in lost productivity.
3. Japan’s Mount Mihara
Like the guillotine, Japan’s Mount Mihara is popular for some very dark reasons. In this case, the active volcano has become a high-profile destination for those who wish to end their life.
Located on Izu Oshima Island, the volcano is located in some gorgeous countryside and was even used as a home for Godzilla in some of the older Toho films. Unfortunately, it also offered very easy access to the end of the road for those looking to go out in dramatic style. If one were to hike to the top of the cone and head to the right spot, it’s a simple jump into the crater itself. In 1933, 944 people killed themselves doing just that.
It’s believed the suicide trend started about 250 years ago and picked up steam in the last century. Between 1936 and 1937, the number had been pegged at around 2000. The government ended up building a fence around the volcano and airlines will not sell you a one-way ticket to the island, just in case.
2. Sanka Decaffeinated Coffee
If you’ve been to a diner in the last 80 or so years, then you’ve seen at least two coffee pots sitting behind the counter. One will have a brown or black handle and one will have an orange handle. This is just the way it’s done. Orange is decaffeinated coffee. It’s like an unwritten rule. But even if it’s not written down, there is a reason for it and that reason cuts to the heart of one of the most popular brands of coffee in the world – Sanka.
Even if you’ve never bought Sanka, or even heard of Sanka, it’s big. Or it was, anyway. From Germany, Sanka was sold starting in 1923 in orange-labeled jars. In 1932, General Foods bought the company and sent promotional coffee pots to restaurants and coffee shops around America. Those pots were orange. It caught on so well that everywhere you go today you know that orange means decaf, all thanks to the popularity of Sanka.
1. James Bond: Spectre
The 007 film Spectre came out in 2015 and, despite average reviews, it managed to pull in $880 million worldwide, so it did pretty well. One of the most memorable scenes in the film takes place in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead parade. The streets are full of people dressed like skeletons, there are floats and decorations and music, and it seems like a hell of a time. Up until Bond nearly gets killed, anyway.
What most people who aren’t familiar with the culture didn’t realize is that the parade wasn’t a real thing. Mexico City never had a Day of the Dead parade before, and it’s not how the day is celebrated at all. The tradition, which dates all the way back to Aztec times, was much more somber than the big street party atmosphere made it seem in the movie. Or it wasn’t until the movie came out.
The parade scene proved to be so popular that the city and the Mexican tourism board made it come to life the next year. Thousands of people attended, and it has become a tradition. The Covid-19 pandemic put the parade on pause but it returned for 2021.