Throughout history, many political observers have characterized America as a "melting pot" of ideas. Similarly, almost no commentators have compared the U.S. of A. to "a shambolic quilt-work Frankenstein, too crazy to live, yet too ugly to die."
But no matter what metaphor you use to describe the United States' heterogeneous origins, there are nonetheless those facets of American culture that are widely regarded as uniquely (and sacredly) American. Well, guess what? They came from everywhere else, too.
Ask average Americans who came up with their nation's flag and they'll almost certainly say "Betsy Ross." After all, it's been pile-driven into every good citizen's head since kindergarten that a plucky Philadelphia seamstress assembled the Stars and Stripes at George Washington's request.
And truck driver T-shirts were never the same.
Where It Actually Came From:
The British East India Company.
Ross never actually made a flag, but her descendants certainly spun a tale of bullshit when they suddenly remembered Ross' meeting with Washington 100 years after it supposedly happened. The true origins of the flag are much more complex, but historians have a pretty good idea of what the first flag looked like. It's known as the Grand Union Flag. And what the hell is a British flag doing in place of the stars?
"One Britain, with preposterous accents, indivisible, with tea and crumpets for all."
At the outbreak of war in 1775, most Americans were much more pissed at the British Parliament than they were at the king -- the rebellion was used as a means to get proper representation in the British Empire, not leave it altogether. George Washington and John Adams would even toast to the king's health during the first year of the conflict.
And their flag was also the one used by the British East India Company. The EIC controlled the trade in Britain's Asian colonies and was well-known to the founders -- after all, it was their tea that got ransacked by those pesky "Indians" in Boston. Before the outbreak of the war, American revolutionaries even considered the EIC an ally, as A) their trade was also being hurt by the British Parliament's taxes and B) the EIC represented an independent entity in the empire, something the colonists then aspired to be.
Which they expressed by playing the drum solo from "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" while dressed like a futuristic 1940s housewife.
Benjamin Franklin may have been responsible for the brief adoption of the East India Company flag. Sure, it enjoyed only fleeting popularity before it was (slightly) modified into the Stars and Stripes, but it definitely caught on better than Franklin's proclivity for a daily "air bath," a routine that required the stout Founding Father to sit entirely naked every morning next to an open window.
Since 1776, "E pluribus unum" has been the unofficial motto of the United States. It means "Out of many, one" and refers to the ability of the individual states to join up like Constructicons to form a giant robot made of interstate commerce. It's a similar sentiment to "United we stand, divided we fall" or Ben Franklin's more pants-shitting version, "Join, or die."
They chose to omit the ending phrase, "... you fucking turds."
Where It Actually Came From:
A British magazine.
Some of you are probably thinking, "Duh, the phrase isn't American, it's obviously Latin." Well, the closest it gets to coming from the Romans is a possible corruption of the phrase "The one is made up from all things, and all things issue from the one" by Greek philosopher Heraclitus.
And, yes, he looks exactly as you imagined him.
The guy who chose "E pluribus unum" for the Great Seal, Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, probably wanted it to represent the unity of the states, but he got it from an even more ridiculous source than the ramblings of an eccentric Greek.
Du Simitiere took it from a popular British periodical of the day called The Gentleman's Magazine. In turn, the phrase from that magazine can be traced to The Gentleman's Journal, a periodical from the 1690s. When the phrase was included as the motto of The Gentleman's Magazine, it just meant that the publication had a bunch of articles from different sources. One issue lists the table of contents as having parliamentary proceedings, obituaries, poetry, and comedy pieces. (Remember, the word "gentleman" in magazine terminology meant something a lot different back then.)
Via Wikimedia Commons
In other words, The Gentleman's Magazine was a content aggregator, just pulling interesting bits of writing from all over. Yup, the phrase on your pennies was lifted from the 1700s equivalent of the Huffington Post, only without all those slideshows of celebrity sideboob.
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According to trouser lore, Levi Strauss invented blue jeans out West while embarking upon the American tradition of abandoning your life to try to get rich in California.
Where They Actually Came From:
You know, back when everyone used to dress like Prince.
For starters, Strauss didn't even invent modern jeans -- that honor goes to his business partner, Jacob Davis, a Latvian immigrant with a rather unremarkable career of hoboing from place to place looking for work. On the other hand, Strauss was a successful German immigrant who had recently expanded his dry goods business out West.
It's not like Strauss took an unfair share of the credit, though. Sure, he was mostly a financial backer, but Davis' contribution wasn't earth-shatteringly extraordinary, either. We'll let him explain it with the same eloquence generally reserved for above-average YouTube commenters:
"The secratt of them Pents is the Rivits that I put in those Pockots. I cannot make them up fast enough [...] My nabors are getting yealouse of these success."
"P.S. My mom helped me write this letter."
Yes, to invent blue jeans, Davis put some rivets in to reinforce the pockets. That's not a bad idea by any means, but it's the intellectual equivalent of creating Jar Jar Binks and getting credit for inventing racism.
In reality, denim clothing existed centuries prior, and the words "denim" and "jeans" both derive from influential trading cities on the Mediterranean. Denim comes from the French city of Nimes ("de Nimes" = "of Nimes"), and jeans come from the Italian city of Genoa (with its French name being "Genes"). Cities in the region had been using the fabric for sails since the Middle Ages, and in 2010, art historians uncovered Italian paintings from the 1650s that show peasants sporting denim skirts and jackets.
"Has anyone seen my Tiffany cassette tape?"
That's right: A full 200 years before Davis and Strauss got around to putting rivets in denim, an Italian child was strutting around dressed like he had mugged Marty McFly.