For generations, Popeye the Sailor Man has been a beloved character with a lasting impact on popular culture worldwide. Join us as we trace his rise to popularity over the decades and figure out why he (and his crew) have gathered such a huge fan following.
Popeye was created by Elzie Crisler Segar in January 1929 for King Features’ Thimble Theatre comic strip and was initially intended to be a side character. Thimble Theatre had already been around for a decade, but Popeye surprisingly gained popularity amongst readers. In fact after Popeye disappeared from the strip for several weeks, he was brought back by popular demand and eventually replaced the original main character Ham Gravy in the 1930s.
The strip was renamed Popeye following Segar’s death and permanently shifted to focusing on Popeye the Sailor Man and his fellow characters we still recognise and love today. The main cast of Popeye’s world includes Popeye himself, his love interest Olive Oyl, his arch-nemesis Bluto (sometimes also known as Brutus), his friend Wimpy, and his adopted child Swee’Pea.
The original comic strips were popular for the fantastical hijinks that Popeye got up to, as well as complex storylines that could last for months while still having a fast-moving and engaging plot. After Segar passed away in 1938, writing for the strip was taken over by various people, most notably Bud Sagendorf from 1959 to 1994.
Shift to Cartoons, TV, and the Big Screen
Maker: Mattel, Inc
Year of Make: 1957
Material: Lithographed Tin, Plastic
Country of Origin: United States of America
Following the popularity of the Popeye comics, Paramount greenlit the production of a series of Popeye cartoons. The original run of theatrical cartoons started airing in 1932 and remained part of the Paramount lineup for nearly 25 years until 1957 – catapulting Popeye to being a household name.
It was in the cartoons were the famous connection to spinach first arose. Animators could play around with gravity-defying fight and chase scenes that the comics couldn’t achieve, most of which were propelled by Popeye’s newfound strength thanks to a can of spinach. Spinach-themed Popeye merchandise such as this Popeye Spinach Can began to be produced, reflecting how the unique relationship between Popeye and spinach was a cornerstone of his identity and appeal to the general public.
A newly commissioned Popeye TV cartoon series started airing in 1960 and was syndicated until the 1990s. Several cartoon movies and seasonal specials were also released during this period, cementing Popeye’s presence in the childhood of thousands – or even millions – of kids around the world.
A live-action film starring Robin Williams as Popeye was even released in 1980 on the back of the Popeye craze; although it received poor critical reviews, it did well at the box office and on home video, signalling Popeye’s popularity amongst the masses.
An Enduring Legacy of Spinach and More
Popeye the Sailor Man’s legacy endures to this day, with lingering popularity and recognition even two to three decades after the end of the cartoon’s syndication on TV. You could even say Popeye is one of the few pop culture icons to have affected a completely different field apart from entertainment. After all thanks to the connection between spinach and Popeye’s superhuman strength, many people grew up believing that the iron in spinach was what enabled Popeye to be ‘strong to the finish’. While scientists have since debunked the spinach strength myth, Popeye’s legacy still lives on – making this a powerful testament to the storytelling ability of the cartoons and characters around us, so much so that they can even shape our beliefs and assumptions across generations.
To fully appreciate Popeye’s legacy, fans can visit the MINT Museum of Toys in Singapore and see our Popeye and Thimble Theatre collection at Level 4 Characters. Our limited-time UNBOX Presents: Popeye & Vintage-Inspired Timepieces programme is also showing at the moment, so don’t miss your chance to see it before it’s gone!
While at Level 4, check out the most popular vintage toys of characters from your childhood including Looney Tunes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the Flintstones as well as the Jetsons. Whether you were a kid in the 80’s, 90’s, or 00’s, you’re sure to enjoy a wave of nostalgia once you step foot into our museum. We also offer virtual museum tours, workshops for kids, and other exciting activities year-round that showcase the wonderful power of toys.