5 Powerful Organizations That Started For Stupid Reasons
Every organization has to evolve; otherwise, they run the risk of becoming obsolete. For the most part, this means they get updated computer systems or a slick new logo that looks slightly less phallic than the old one. But, every once in a while, that massive organization that you think you know turns out to be pulling a Don Draper -- just using that expensive suit to hide their bizarre and unexpected past. Like ...
Cosmopolitan Magazine Used to Be Mostly for Conservative Men
Today, Cosmopolitan magazine is exclusively for women. If that's not apparent from their cover images and garish colors, you at least get the hint from headlines like "101 Moves to Turn Your Man Into Sex Pudding."
Cosmopolitan has actually been around since 1886, originally with the name The Cosmopolitan, and it started out as a far cry from the sexually liberal blow job manual we all know and love. Its original audience? White-bread conservative families. That's right: The modern magazine dedicated almost exclusively to Kardashian revelations and how to twist your wrist during hand jobs was first dedicated to good old-fashioned family values.
Now, the "The Pillars of Hercules" would be a sex move, ending up with four weeks of
physical therapy and six weeks of emotional therapy.
At first, The Cosmopolitan was a family magazine, which, back in the day, meant it was mostly for dudes, with a small section for women featuring articles such as "How to Shut Up and Listen to Men" and "Seriously, Shouldn't You Be Cooking Right Now?" Eventually, it morphed into a literary magazine, publishing stories by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells, none of which involved very useful blow job advice.
"69 Orgasmic Positions You Must Try Before the Martians Drain
Your Blood and Throw Your Corpse Into the Flames."
The Cosmopolitan continued enjoying moderate success among family-minded conservatives well into the 20th century, when changing times and a lack of innovation finally forced the magazine to start looking for ways to shake things up. For better or worse, they found their new niche when the reins were handed over to editor Helen Gurley Brown in the '60s, who abandoned the white picket fences and posh literature to shift the magazine's primary focus to drastically overthinking how we fuck each other.
Shell Oil Had a Seriously Literal Origin Story
Shell is probably the least hated of the oil super-conglomerates, which is a bit like saying that Lex Luthor is the least hated member of the Legion of Doom. Shell is a massive corporation that controls a huge chunk of the world's oil and therefore controls a huge chunk of the world. There's no way all of that started with innocent intentions ...
You might assume that the name "Shell" and its iconic logo exist mainly as a kind of greenwashing -- an attempt to distract consumers from the fact that the entire company is basically one giant Captain Planet villain. But, back when the business first started, it was completely literal: Founder Marcus Samuel imported seashells from the Far East for people to decorate their homes with. To reiterate: A global mega-power first started out by selling those tacky knickknacks your grandma hangs above her toilet.
If you put it to your ear, you can hear billions of fish, gasping for life, as their gills fill with sludge.
Eventually, Marcus Samuel retired and passed the business to his son, Sam. Yes, Marcus Samuel turned over control of Shell, his shell business, to his son, Samuel Samuel. (Proof that not all successful businessmen are geniuses.) Sam and his brother, Marcus Jr., thought that oil was starting to look like a promising new investment, and the rest was a bunch of boring business history. But, in some alternate universe, Shell is its own worst enemy -- a small-time hippie beach company protesting the crude oil conglomerate whose spills keep ruining their product.
"Can I still dress like Lil Jon in that other universe? Cuz if not, I'm not going."
The Secret Service Originally Had a Much Less Dramatic Job
You can picture the Secret Service agent right now: a somber, dark-suited gentleman in sunglasses who is willing to take a bullet for the President and his family. Truly, Secret Service agents are noble modern warriors, born to sacrifice and look damn fine while doing it.
Ever tried to pass off Monopoly bucks at the Stop N Shop? That used to be Secret Service territory.
Back when Lincoln was president, currency was issued by the individual states. If Jersey wanted to pay their bills in chickens and pine cones, that was their business. Of course, the federal government had a hell of a time keeping track of what was or wasn't legal tender across all of the states, and the confusion opened the gates for a thriving cottage industry of counterfeiters. By the end of the Civil War, it's estimated that one-third of all circulating money was counterfeit.
The Ass Treasurer is not amused.
So, Lincoln commissioned a crack team of special agents whose mission was to shut down all of those phony-Jersey-chicken-and-pine-cone operations. Sorry, buddy -- that's a spiky rock and a duck, you're going to fucking jail. Ironically, Lincoln would officially kick off the task force that later would have protected him from assassination on the day that he himself was assassinated.
"Hiring some dude to point and yell 'NOOOOOO!' didn't work like I planned."
The Secret Service performed their counter-counterfeiting job admirably for some time. Cut to 36 years and two presidential assassinations later, and somebody finally thought, "Maybe, we should try to stop folks from shooting the guy in charge when they don't like what he does." So, in 1901, Congress figured that the Secret Service didn't have much to do anymore and already had a suitably badass name -- why not upgrade them to the President's personal security force? Any agents reluctant to switch roles were quickly placated when told they could wear sunglasses indoors, and nobody would make fun of them.
The Stock Market Owes Its Existence to the Neighborhood Barista
The Stock Exchange: the logical endgame of capitalism whereby the rich make fortunes by trading imaginary money, while the poor flip burgers and sling coffee just to survive. Could there be any greater divide?
The stock market and the lowly neighborhood coffee shop were once one and the same. Back when coffee first made its way into Europe, it was an expensive luxury, so coffee houses became a gathering place for rich businessmen, who inevitably talked shop over the simpler precursor to our modern "half-caf skim foam skinny caramel mochabortions."
Never once pausing to write shitty poetry or even shittier Romeo/Othello slash fic.
When stock traders were exiled from the Royal Exchange in 1697, the coffee shops became a logical place for them to go, and it was there that they resumed talking futures and trading shares with one another because, for the rich, it's either that or discussing the finer points of hunting hobos for sport. That's how one popular London coffee shop -- known as Jonathan's -- unwittingly became the home of the stock exchange.
Share trading isn't the only venture that owes its origins to our daily poop-provoker. One of Britain's foremost insurance companies, Lloyd's, had its humble beginnings as a coffee house run by one Edward Lloyd. Back in 1688, not many London merchants had their own offices, so they conducted their business at Lloyd's coffee house. But, Lloyd eventually got sick of being something as unrespectable as a coffee vendor, so he figured he would try his hand at something more classically beloved -- like an insurance agent.
In both ventures, his premiums were overpriced.
The Ku Klux Klan Started Out as Something Like a Dorky Frat House
The Ku Klux Klan is a racist institution that drastically overestimates the intimidation factor of alliteration.
Membership in the KKK carries with it a hierarchy of titles that sound like they were pulled from a Dungeons & Dragons game -- the faction leader is known as the Grand Wizard, and below them are Scribes, Sentinels, Hydras, and Goblins. That's because the grand tradition of the Klan, despite its current incarnation as a hate group with violent tendencies, started out as a social club full of huge nerds.
Except nobody wanted to be the Black Mage.
Founded at the end of the Civil War by six former confederate officers, the KKK was originally just a basic frat house complete with dumb hazing rituals and idiotic titles. The name was selected almost at random, from the Greek "kuklos" meaning "circle," and the English "klan" meaning, "What's another word for 'group'? Spelling is not important."
Originally, their modus operandi was to cloak themselves in sheets, get drunk, and ride around Tennessee on horseback, pretending to be ghosts. Subtract the alcohol, and the Klan started out the same way as most grade-school slumber parties.
Playing truth-or-dare with them rarely ended well.
Just like today, any time people see a strange fad sweeping the nation, they assume it's terrifying rather than just kind of dumb. Since a considerable number of the Klan's new members were dyed-in-the-wool racists already, they decided to take advantage of their new fear factor and scare some black folks. Eventually, that escalated from "racially targeted pranks" to "hanging is a sort of prank, right?"
For more crazy pasts, check out 6 Global Corporations Started by Their Founder's Shitty Luck and 6 Organizations You Didn't Know Were Secretly Badass.
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Want to know how to go mano-a-mano with a president? Daniel O'Brien can help with How to Fight Presidents: Defending Yourself Against the Badasses Who Ran This Country.