7 Memes That Went Viral Before The Internet Existed
In the very likely case that you're on the Internet right now, you already know what a "meme" is. But you may not realize that the concept -- a meaningless phrase, image or joke getting repeated endlessly for no reason at all -- predates the Internet generation by a long shot. Although it was more difficult for a phrase or image to "go viral" before all this technology, pointless memes still found their way to every corner of the globe. Such as ...
"Kilroy was Here"
When you consider how many people spent their time either killing or getting killed during both world wars, it's easy to see how the issue of graffiti would go largely overlooked. Which is why, after the dust settled, people all over the world began to wonder who "Kilroy" was and why he had graffitied the hell out of their continents.
That cartoon face with that phrase would appear spray-painted on walls, scrawled in lockers and written on the back of high school notebooks for decades. What is it supposed to be? What does it mean? Who knows. The meme started with soldiers deployed around the world before World War II and rippled out from there.
The best guess about the origin of the Kilroy image is that two already popular memes merged together in an unholy alliance -- the dude with the nose was probably a well-known British doodle called "Mr. Chad," and as for the caption, we can thank an American welding inspector from Quincy, Mass., named James J. Kilroy.
What a legacy.
Back in those days, it was up to men like Kilroy to inspect the rivets of whatever piece of metal their employers paid them to stare at all day. Most inspectors simply approved the work by marking it with a piece of chalk, but Kilroy decided to add some excitement to his dead-end job by signing "Kilroy was here." Apparently he was pretty goddamn prolific.
Here he is on the Berlin Wall.
Somehow, Kilroy's message combined with the already popular image of Mr. Chad became so popular that GIs began to scribble Kilroy's name and new identity onto everything they passed throughout the war: bunkers, bridges, walls, the Arc de Triomphe and likely Hitler's bathroom at Eagle's Nest. Once the war was won, an epic race broke out to stick Kilroy's name and face on whatever else existed anywhere, from the Statue of Liberty to the Berlin Wall to, no joke, the moon. At the height of the fad, it was common for pranksters to approach some landmark or another and whip out their markers, only to find that Kilroy had already been there.
Needless to say, this was probably the last pop culture phenomenon to emerge from the profession of industrial riveting.
Decades before the Lord of the Rings films hit theaters but more than a decade after the books hit shelves, people suddenly saw this two-word phrase appearing everywhere:
By the same logic that fuels every meme or running joke (that is, almost no logic at all), the hero of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins, became something of an inexplicable cult hero during the 60s and 70s. Relatively obscure in their time, Tolkien's epic novels experienced a sudden explosion of popularity after the paperback re-release.
If you're wearing this pin, passers-by are obligated to take your lunch money.
Apparently, popular opinion among readers of the era was that Frodo was totally hardcore and a lucid metaphor for 60s hippies who felt held down by "The Man." Not only did Elrond, Gandalf and the other assholes effectively volunteer him into a suicide mission while they promptly skipped town, but along the way, Frodo got stabbed through the heart more times than we can count and even got stung by a spider the size of a Buick. Nevertheless, he kept on going. You know, just like hippies.
And thus, hippies and beatniks shouted with one voice the phrase that would chill the establishment: "Frodo Lives!" You'd see it on buttons, on bathroom walls ...
... on bumper stickers ...
... and on any surface where graffiti could be applied:
Did the people wearing the buttons and buying the bumper stickers and tagging walls with the phrase all read the books? Shit, no. Like all memes, it reached a point where people just started repeating it. In fact, we're going to guess that there was a huge chunk of people spreading this viral message who didn't have any goddamned idea what a "Frodo" even was. Just as nobody remembers exactly why that one particular cat wanted a cheezburger. At some point, memes just exist for their own sake.
"Andre the Giant Has a Posse"
For those of you thinking, That guy from The Princess Bride, right? Andre the Giant was actually best known in the 80s as a professional WWF wrestler and for being huge. The nickname wasn't ironic.
Hulk Hogan can't even work up the balls to meet his eyes.
But if you're not sure who he is and are about to Google him to find out, you'll see that one of the first suggested searches is "Andre the Giant Has a Posse." That nonsense phrase is part of Andre the Giant's other, unwitting legacy. Stickers featuring Andre's image and those words began to appear on poles and walls and sidewalks around the United States in the 80s and 90s:
This is the rare case where we actually know where it started. In 1989, two students at the Rhode Island School of Design named Shepard Fairey and Ryan Lesser created the image while practicing stenciling techniques, and just started sticking it all over Rhode Island, presumably because the nightlife there was really lacking. By the way, if you haven't heard the name "Shepard Fairey" before, you might recognize another image he produced a couple of decades later:
The Andre image eventually became popular among the skater community, and from there it went viral, appearing all over major cities throughout the U.S. We can only imagine how ominous and threatening it seemed to anyone who wasn't in on the joke.
By 1994, the image had become so popular that it attracted the attention of some lawyers who pointed out that the name "Andre the Giant" was copyrighted. Now that Andre the Giant really did have a posse and they were armed with cease-and-desist orders, Fairey stopped producing the sticker but nevertheless stuck it to the establishment by creating another image consisting only of a more stylized and threatening portrait of Andre, captioned only with the word "OBEY."
You can't help but trust a face like that.
This image went viral even harder than the original, and now it has ended up stickered, stenciled and scrawled on walls all around the world. That's right, Andre the Giant was posthumously memed on two separate occasions.
Alfred E. Neuman
You know him as the mascot of Cracked's ancient enemy, but you'll be surprised to learn that the story of Alfred E. Neuman begins long before Mad magazine. The truth is that this gap-toothed, jug-eared figurehead of what remains of the Mad empire is actually a joke that's about as old as making fun of the Irish. We know this because that is precisely what it was.
What, me racist?
Alfred E. Neuman actually descends from the hateful, apelike caricatures "Paddy" and "Bridget" that made life for millions of Irish in the 19th century even shittier than it already was. All Mad did was slap a different name onto an already successful stereotype. Hell, even the basic joke was the same.
"What, me worry?"
Paddy and Bridget were part of an enormous and ridiculously hateful advertising sensation that swept the English-speaking world, appearing in prints, posters and greeting cards along with such other cultural stereotypes as "thieving Spaniards as pirates, cheating Jews selling less for more, and savage Indians killing settlers." Yes, these were hard times we are talking about. Hard, racist times.
At some point, the Irish caricature evolved into the more familiar image of the "toothless fool" whose face was used to advertise everything from painkillers ...
... to soft drinks ...
... to political campaigns:
Audiences were already in on the joke by the time Mad started using him as a mascot, and he appeared among the pages for decades before they put him on the cover and gave him a name that was a little more whitebread and distanced him from his earlier career as a tool to propagate hatred.
The Three Hares
Of course, all of these examples so far are from the modern, globalized world, where planes and inexpensive travel allow people and ideas to spread overnight. But there are memes that predate all of that. Go back 1,500 years or so ago, and at some point you'll probably come across LOLcats' great-great-great-grandfather, the three hares.
Memes then were just as funny as they are now.
A very popular image that was probably spawned during the Sui Dynasty in China, the three hares is an image of, well, three hares, chasing one another in a circle with their ears attached in the kind of lame optical illusion that entertained people back then.
Cave 407, Dunhuang, China, Sui Dynasty, 589-618
The image broke out of China and spread, where it eventually became a popular architectural feature in medieval Europe.
Eventually it ended up in Britain, where it became such a viral sensation that it started popping up on buildings every damn where. Fifteen centuries later, they're still sticking it on buildings.
This really demonstrates the amazing ability of simple images to persist across time and cultures. Imagine you get cryogenically frozen, and when you wake up, it's the year 3,568. Humans have colonized other solar systems. We are flying with bioengineered wings and storing our consciousness on embedded neural processors. All goods are manufactured instantly with superintelligent nanobots. And then you walk by a building and see that the Rage Face Guy is etched into the bricks:
But that's not even our oldest example ...
You probably learned this word alongside "alakazam" back when you got that amateur magic kit for your eighth birthday. Watch any cartoon where the character is about to pull a rabbit out of a top hat, and he'll preface the magic trick with "Abracadabra!"
Moments later things got X-rated.
But what the hell does it mean?
Well, this nonsense word has been repeated as a sort of running joke going all the way back to the freaking Roman Empire. And yes, it originally was used as a real magic word by magicians back in the day.
"Abracadabra" is first attributed in print to Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, a second/third century Roman sage/white wizard who reported on its healing properties. The idea was that if you said "abracadabra" multiple times in succession, dropping one letter each time, by the end you would be cured of whatever ailed you. Kind of like saying "Bloody Mary" in the mirror, except with less grisly death.
Apparently, even this spell was deemed too demanding for Gandalf's lazy ass.
The etymology of this nonsense word is difficult to pin down, but a popular theory is that it began as the Aramaic avda kedavra, which roughly translates into "create as I say." Wait, isn't that the spell from Harry Potter that kills people?
The Sator Square
And now we arrive at probably the oldest meme in history, and it's interesting to note that it's every bit as nonsensical as "all your base are belong to us."
You all just got ancient-world rickrolled.
The phrase "SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS" roughly translates to "The sower is at the plow," but nobody has cracked a better translation because we don't know what "arepo" means. Keeping with the theme, we're going to go with "cheezburger."
The phrase is a palindrome and can be read in any direction, including upside down and backward, so our best guess is that some Roman simply thought he was incredibly clever, and the rest of the ancient world thought it was cool enough to continue sharing with strangers ... for the next 2,000 years.
In Oppede, France ...
... and Cirencester, England ...
... and the Abbey of St. Peter ad Oratorium in Capestrano, Italy ...
...and ,circa 323 B.C.-A.D. 256...
... and in a cabin in the woods outside Morristown, Tenn.:
Maybe the true meaning of this is something incredibly insightful, but we're rather more convinced it was just mindless trolls from old-timey IVchan playing pranks on the world.
And buy the book that future races will consider the first.
For more Internet trends that have been around before you were born, check out 8 Online Fads You Didn't Know Were Invented Decades Ago. Or learn how our ancestors continue to best us, in 11 Modern Technologies That Are Way Older Than You Think.
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