6 Sacred Icons of American Culture That Aren't Even American
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.
The American Flag Was a Ripoff of the Flag of the British East India Company
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.
"E Pluribus Unum" Came from a British Gentleman's Magazine
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.)
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.
Blue Jeans Came from Renaissance Europe
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.
Fast Food Franchises Go Back Thousands of Years
If it's Friday night and you have but a fuzzy recollection of what you've been doing for the past five hours, then you're ready to indulge in the great American pastime of on-demand fast food. Yes, your 2 a.m. jaunt to White Castle represents everything quintessentially American: freedom, entrepreneurship, and the looming specter of adult-onset diabetes.
He's practically shaking with anticipation.
Where It Actually Came From:
Or, fast food has been around everywhere, for a very long, long time.
Back in the days of feudalism, only the rich could afford actual kitchens, and going out to eat meant heading over to your neighbor's castle. Therefore, the only restaurants around catered to the poor and travelers by serving quick, on-the-go food.
"Order up, I need two giant bags of sticks and dirt on the fly."
Even traditional American fast foods (like hamburgers and hot dogs) got their delicious start catering to German sailors at ports (like prostitutes and mustache-cream vendors). In fact, most classic American fast food is named after somewhere else -- hamburgers come from the German city of Hamburg, and French fries originated in Belgium.
How far back can we trace fast food? In 1100s London, fast food flourished along the Thames River, where a medieval-style drive-in served customers day and night. Heck, the drive-thru window -- that omnipresent staple of the American landscape -- very well may date back to ancient Iran.
Also, archaeologists estimate that 200 cafe-like restaurants known as thermopolia -- which sat at the intersections of busy streets -- dotted the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Further, there was one of these restaurants for roughly every 60 residents of the city. Not even Los Angeles pot dispensaries can pull that kind of ratio.
"The bathroom and dining room are one and the same. It saves so much time."
The Assembly Line Is Nearly a Thousand Years Old
Henry Ford revolutionized the auto industry and -- by extension -- American manufacturing with the assembly line. By assigning each worker a specialized task, he was able to pump out cars quickly and cheaply, finally leading humans to victory in our eternal war on horses.
"That's OUR grass, you assholes!"
Where It Actually Came From:
The economic idea of assembly lines was first outlined by Scotsman Adam Smith in his fast-paced international thriller The Wealth of Nations. Smith's capitalist tome (which fortuitously debuted in 1776) described the division of labor, or a system in which each worker was assigned a specific task to maximize efficiency and output. Smith was cautious, though, noting that doing the same thing over and over gets, like, snooze-a-rama.
Which is why it's always better to hire children since they have much more energy.
But years before Smith's grandpappy even popped a courtship-boner, Venice had already mastered the assembly line. Beginning in the 12th century, shipbuilders started to conglomerate in a public dockyard known as the Arsenal to create one of the largest manufacturing plants the world had ever seen.
The workers -- who at one point numbered close to 16,000 -- would build galleys piece by piece in a highly standardized (and likely boring) process. At the peak of the Arsenal's production, they could produce an average of about two ships a day, 160 feet long, complete with oars and rigging, and ready to hold as many as 700 men. In sum, it was a lot like Henry Ford's assembly line, if Ford created giant Model T's that each held a small town and terrorized Mediterranean trade for 500 years.
Which they absolutely did.
"The Star-Spangled Banner" Was a British Drinking Song
During the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key wrote America's national anthem while witnessing the siege of Fort McHenry. He did so for the express purpose of embarrassing future pop stars at sporting events.
Where It Actually Came From:
A British drinking song, which is kind of like Vietnam rejiggering their national anthem around the opening riffs of "Purple Haze."
While the lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner" were penned by Key, the melody was taken from the anthem for the Anacreontic Society, a London gentlemen's club devoted to poetry and drinking. Much like the aforementioned Gentleman's Magazine, history once again reveals that -- in terms of all things gentlemanly -- that age was all about prose before hos. Nonetheless, the society got its name from the Greek poet Anacreon, who was famous for writing about getting shitfaced, partying, and boning.
And being all like, "Which one of you fuckers stole my slappin' hand?!"
The British composer John Stafford Smith wrote the song in the late 18th century -- the original words were added later by the Anacreontic Society:
Remember, this was the 18th century, so nobody gave two whole notes about music copyrights. Prior to "The Star-Spangled Banner," Smith's melody had been used in other patriotic songs, including a different poem Key himself wrote in 1806 about America's naval victory over the Barbary pirates. That song included such delightful couplets as "How triumphant they rode o'er the wondering flood/And stained the blue waters with infidel blood," which would've certainly livened up some Little League games.
For more all-American wholesomeness, you can visit Steve's blog.
For more "American" mainstays that aren't exactly original, check out 6 Famous Characters You Didn't Know Were Shameless Rip-Offs. Or learn about 7 Classic Movies You Didn't Know Were Rip-Offs.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out Why 'Time' Has Published the Least Responsible 'How To' Ever.
And stop by LinkSTORM to see how European Playboy is a total rip-off of Playboy.
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