Because TV and film-based creations like the Enterprise and the Death Star have prompted us to pore over every little detail of fictional universes at the expense of a social life, it's easy to assume that unsettling pop culture obsessions are a relatively new phenomenon. But unless your concept of a "nerd" is a Depression-era newsie shooting pre-YouTube fan trailers, you might be surprised to learn that nerd culture has existed for way, way, way longer than you think. In fact ...
#6. Science Fiction Cosplay Has Been Around for a Hundred Years
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Cosplay, that thing where fans dress up as their favorite characters and try to bone each other in a conference center, has reached enormous levels of popularity. It seems like something that could really take off only after the rise of the Internet and the subsequent diffusing of shame across all of humanity. But no, it's been happening since the early 1900s, at least: From 1907-1915 newspaper readers could enjoy the adventures of Mr. Skygack, from Mars. Skygack made humorous observations about Earth life and sent them back home on his off-brand wireless notebook. So, basically it was a turn-of-the-century 3rd Rock from the Sun, but without the infinite sexual magnetism of Jane Curtin.
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Or the squintiness of French Stewart.
In 1908, the attendees of a masked skating carnival were delighted by William Fell's Skygack costume. He appeared alongside his wife, dressed as Diana Dillpickles (another character from the same author). Because one instance is not enough to prove a trend: At a masked ball in Monroe, Washington, in 1912, August Olson's impressive homemade Skygack costume, complete with notebook, won him first prize and a place on the front page of the local paper.
And from then on, people in elaborate costumes were always held in the highest regard and never thought of as kinda weird.
These proto-nerds were so dedicated to the art of social ostracization via costume that they even went to jail for it: In March 1910, the front page of the Tacoma Times informed readers: "Mr. Skygack is in jail!" A man named Otto James in a borrowed Skygack costume was arrested and fined $10 for violating laws against masquerading in public. No word on whether he was immediately beaten to death after being thrown in an old-timey jail wearing full dork regalia, so we are forced to assume he was. Rest in peace, brave hero.
#5. Intellectual Piracy Dates Back to the 1870s
These days, if you release a movie, album, or video game, it comes with the virtual guarantee that scores of people will illegally pirate it, because "not free" can never compete with "free."
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We'd be ripping off Trader Joe's round the clock, if it weren't for their "theft reduction associates."
But mass piracy did not begin with Napster. It didn't even begin with cassettes ("home taping is killing music" -- never forget). It began in the 1870s, with the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. It was a major hit in their native England, and the duo banked on American audiences being just as enthusiastic. Imagine their shock when, at opening night in New York, audiences were small and subdued. It was almost as if they'd seen such amazing elocution before ...
Well, as it turns out, they had. See, Pinafore premiered in England in May of 1878 but did not officially make it to America until December of 1879. Even back then, 19 months was enough time for an awesome script to make the rounds, even if it had to cross a whole damn ocean on a rickety boat to do so. Those who read the leaked script liked it so much, they decided to stage their own productions, permission be damned. Over 150 episodes of pirate theater played out from sea to shining sea, with countless variations to suit the local audiences, including all-black, German, all-child, and Yiddish adaptations.
The all-cat rendition was not well-received, however.
The piracy was so out of control that, at one point, at least eight different Pinafores were performing in New York City, totally independent of each other. And, shockingly, everything was completely legal (if still an entirely dick move): International copyright law wasn't a thing until 1891, meaning Gilbert and Sullivan's rights to the play they wrote and scored only counted in England. They didn't receive a penny for anything anyone did in America. This justifiably made the blood in their pudding boil, so they premiered their follow-up, The Pirates of Penzance, in New York instead of London, sanctioning several different companies to tour the country so everyone could see it (and, more importantly, give them money for it. Sully and G-Bert got to get paid, son).
#4. Aggressively Whoring Out Pop Culture Merchandise Dates Back to the 1930s
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It's one thing to sell merchandise related to a popular franchise -- if, say, we want to put our money toward Street Fighter toys first and rent maybe eighth (if at all), that's our prerogative. But lately it seems like marketers go completely overboard, slapping their characters on everything and in every possible scenario, regardless of whether it belongs. But hey, if molding a line of action figures featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles playing baseball makes the guys in charge an extra $20, who are we to judge?
We'd never be that greedy. So, therefore, you should buy more of our stuff, right?
It is tempting to think of this as an exclusively modern problem: There weren't any "I'm Daft for Taft" lunchboxes cluttering up the shelves back in the day. It's only recently we really sold out our cultural soul to such a degree. But even the legendarily whorish Turtles would have retreated to their sewer playset in embarrassment had they known the shameful lengths that Tarzan went to in the 1930s. Bored with selling the expected bows and arrows and trading cards to children and fans of the property, the marketing geniuses behind the Yodeling Ape Man strove instead to make him a part of every aspect of your daily life.
And we mean every aspect. If you wanted to buy a loaf of Tarzan bread (20 million loaves sold in four months), you could put on a Tarzan pith helmet and Tarzan sweatshirt, hitch up your pants with a Tarzan belt, and get to driving. Don't forget to fill up with official Tarzan gasoline along the way!
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The only gasoline good enough for a guy who never drove a minute in his life.
Or you could just stay home and get drunk on the official Tarzan cocktail, because if there's one thing the King of the Jungle was known for, it was his crippling alcoholism. Hey, suddenly all the fistfights with animals make a terrifying amount of sense. Not a drinker? How about a delicious bowl of Tarzan ice cream?
Mmm! You can really taste the stabbed leopard!
You might recognize these products as having absolutely nothing to do with Tarzan whatsoever (his drink wasn't even banana flavored -- that's a missed opportunity that will haunt some poor marketer to the grave). It's enough to make the Power Rangers look like absolute paragons of commercial integrity.