Sometimes, an organization's goal is clear, such as with the Cloud Appreciation Society, which exists to appreciate clouds. But other times, groups are mysterious and have hidden layers (much like clouds). And groups that today come off as totally innocuous began with a secret shady agenda. Like how ...
The emergencies currently addressed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency include hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and floods, and it has also been on hand to step in after the occasional terrorist attack or space shuttle explosion. But back when it first formed during the Carter administration, there was one primary emergency it prepared to face: nuclear war. And its chief concern wasn't so much passing out supplies to survivors nationwide as protecting the most important people of all: politicians.
FEMA's secret original mandate was the continuity of government after America inevitably got nuked. This meant tracking the locations of all possible successors to the president 24/7 (a process they still carry out today, though using more modern methods, the same kind companies use to track you). After the bombs dropped, FEMA would take surviving politicians to form a new literally underground government in a cave complex called Mount Weather. Back in World War II, the government had used this site to house conscientious objectors they'd pressed into forced service. This doesn't actually reflect poorly on FEMA, but if you're a fan of the conspiracy theory that FEMA plans to put Americans into concentration camps, this fact will send blood rushing to every known erogenous zone.
The agency built additional shelters for government officials, and they set about investigating civilian facilities that could be converted to shelters in a pinch. These spanned everything from warehouses to casinos to Coca-Cola bottling plants, just in case the Fallout vibes weren't strong enough already. FEMA officials never identified themselves during these scouting expeditions. They instead claimed to be with the FBI. The full post-nuclear role of FEMA was kept off the books, hidden from the national budget and revealed to only 20 members of Congress.
We only know so much thanks to investigations in the 1990s, such as when The Washington Post discovered a secret Congressional bunker in West Virginia's Greenbrier Resort. When the story broke, FEMA immediately sent contractors to destroy the computers there, as well as to remove their arsenal of mounted machine guns and grenade launchers. They were afraid of the questions that would arise about what exactly FEMA planned to do with these military weapons on US soil. The unspoken answer was, "If we get nuked, that would be the least of your problems," but with the decades passing and nuclear annihilation decreasingly likely, FEMA has had to shift from its wilder schemes and stick to the mundane processes of handing out water and paper towels.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, of course, is that group of industry insiders who put together the Oscars every year for the express purpose of angering the internet. They also work on a couple other awards shows, and other than that, they don't do much of anything, which makes them the most boring of all possible academies of science. But they did set out to do other stuff back when they first formed in the 1920s -- MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer founded the organization, and he realized there was a dire need for such a group when, one summer, he decided he wanted a beach house.
Being in the movie biz, Mayer figured the quickest way to build his house was to hire the same builders who made movie sets, the ones who put together houses and entire towns seemingly overnight. He'd hire three teams and work them round the clock. But then he ran into a problem. No, the issue wasn't that these guys' constructions were fake and flimsy and just made to look good on film. The issue was that their union locked them into high hourly rates and overtime. So Mayer dropped most of them from the gig and switched to non-union labor. Problem solved.
Except now, he was newly aware of just how powerful and costly unions can be. What if writers unionized next? What if actors unionized? What if they all started demanding cuts of movie grosses instead of the simple salaries they currently received? Studio profits would implode. Hollywood needed some kind of new organization that could hash out labor disputes without any pesky unions forming. So Mayer got his cronies together and formed the Academy, an alliance, so the most powerful producers could collude and handle disputes in a safe and non-union fashion.
They came up with the idea of giving out awards as a PR move -- if they were recognizing the best pictures, that clearly made them legitimate. It also helped define everyone associated with Hollywood as artists instead of laborers, people who work for passion rather than money. "If I got them cups and awards, they'd kill themselves to produce what I wanted," Mayer said. Ultimately, actors and writers did form unions, and studio profits miraculously did not evaporate. The Academy went on, devoted now wholly to award shows because everyone involved liked pretty dresses and tuxes too much to stop.
Littering is wrong, as we all know thanks to the group Keep America Beautiful. Their many campaigns, including the famous "Crying Indian" ad, taught us that litter is bad for the environment. Funny thing, though. It kind of isn't. If you drop garbage on the street, that's bad, but only in the same way dropping it on the kitchen floor is bad: It looks bad, and it adds work for whoever eventually picks it up. Throwing stuff out your car window while driving interstate is slightly worse but not by much.
If we're talking about actual environmental impact -- ocean pollution, stuff sitting endlessly in landfills, toxic gases from incineration -- the issue isn't where you initially drop your garbage but the creation of the garbage at all. Hence all the hubbub today about single-use plastics. There was a similar hubbub back in the 1950s (the '50s were a great time for hubbubs), and people turned to the new idea of reusable materials. Vermont passed a law banning single-use bottles in 1953. Directly in response to this, manufacturers like Coke and Dixie Cups formed Keep America Beautiful. The goal was to convince Americans that the solution to pollution lay in individual action, rather than in laws limiting what corporations can do.
America has had multiple pushes since then for "bottle bills" which would have required drink manufacturers to make all bottles reusable. Finland has such a law today, but Keep America Beautiful successfully lobbied against them in the US (calling the idea communist), as well against bottle deposit laws. Environmental groups like the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club joined the bottling companies in Keep America Beautiful for a bit, but they left when the group's agenda became clearer.
The group's other campaigns encouraging recycling don't hurt the environment, but think about how much they benefit the drink companies themselves. It's much cheaper to make cans and bottles from used aluminum and glass rather than raw ore, if the material is directly handed to you. Imagine an alternate system where we let companies organize and pay for the collection of cans and bottles. But no, we mostly do it ourselves. "People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It," the group told us, and we just nodded and believed them.
Not too many people reading this are necessarily deeply invested in the Bollywood music industry, but you don't have to be to have heard of T-Series. The record label has the most subscribed channel on YouTube by a huge margin -- they were famously neck and neck with PewDiePie for a while, but they've left him long behind now. They also have the most total views, and here, it's not even a contest. Their 100 billion views puts them at almost twice the size of their nearest competitor, while poor PewDiePie isn't even in the top 10.
In the PewDiePie vs T-Series race, there was some reason to root for PewDiePie simply because he had to be the underdog in that fight, being just one guy rather than a giant company. But T-Series comes from humble beginnings. Even humbler beginnings than one Swede in his bedroom: It was founded by Gulshan Kumar, who ran a fruit juice stand in New Delhi. His family then started selling audio cassettes in the 1980s, and Kumar got people to record covers of songs so he could sell them too.
via Wiki Commons
Even those people reading this who are deeply invested in the Bollywood music industry don't necessarily know about the minutiae of the Indian copyright system. But there's a quirk in the law that says anyone can cover anyone else's song, so long as they send the original artist a "letter of intention." Kumar made a bunch of money recording covers of famous music, then, emboldened, just started pirating music outright. To really get the edge on the competition, he took to stealing scores from studios and producing the music himself, so listeners could buy songs from T-Series before the actual artists had even recorded them.
The only reason T-Series had to shift to legitimately creating their own music was that the quasi-legal and not-at-all-legal piracy industry became overcrowded with too many competitors. All in all though, it was a fairy tale success story for Gulshan Kumar. Right up until 1997, when he was shot 18 times by Mumbai hit men. T-Series went to Kumar's son and today regularly sues people for copyright infringement, and the likely killer is hiding out in London, a city without laws.
Leisure travel, where you pack up and go somewhere weird or relaxing just for the hell of it, is pretty old. But for a long time, it was largely a hobby enjoyed only by the very rich. Travel meant not just buying tickets somewhere and heading out but outfitting an entire troupe of servants to accompany you. You'd go somewhere exotic, often without any set return date, because you were so rich that no one could demand you come back. Inevitably, someone on the voyage would be murdered in a locked room. Note: Most of our sources on travel are mystery novels.
The modern travel industry, however, with individuals buying all-inclusive packages without even a modest retinue of servants in tow, started with Thomas Cook. This British agency began back in 1841 and was still in business right until September 2019. Its founder was -- surprise -- a man named Thomas Cook, a cabinet maker and sometimes preacher who happened to be majorly into Britain's 19th-century temperance movement. His first attempt at organizing any kind of travel was when a group of Temperance Society members wanted to go to a rally ten miles away, and Cook ordered the train tickets.
He continued booking tickets for group members, and then it hit him that travel and abstinence seemed a perfect fit. All those people hanging around London getting thoroughly sloshed? They wouldn't need to turn to drink if they had the alternative of travel. So he subsidized or totally paid for train tickets and just handed them out to people. It didn't take long, though, to realize people really liked the idea of having a tour ready for them, and he didn't need to be subsidizing anything.
via Wiki Commons
So Cook's jihad against alcohol turned into straightforward fun vacations (that even sold alcohol, and charged a lot for it). It expanded from England to farther in Europe then America and the rest of the world too. The company made the first traveler's cheques for tourists and was the first to market flying for pleasure. It was a long and successfully history, right up until the company suddenly went bust, leaving 150,000 customers stranded overseas and the British government having to charter aircraft to rescue them all.
Sports is another pastime so old we could never fully track its history. Ditto spectator sports -- people were probably watching each other race or box before we even invented language. But if we narrow our search down to organized spectator sports featuring kids, we find it's a relatively new phenomenon. Kids have played sports spontaneously for eons, sure, but we never had much reason to put kids in teams outside of school and watch them duke it out. We like watching people play sports because they're good at it, and little kids aren't very good at sports, or at anything.
Youth sports began in the 1800s in the US, set off by Massachusetts introducing the wacky concept of mandatory schooling. We're not saying mandatory schooling led to sports as a part of school (that had already existed). Instead, by officially setting school hours for all kids, school also created official leisure time for all kids, which led everyone to wonder what should fill that time, so kids didn't use it to unite against us.
The greatest scrutiny fell on all those poor immigrant boys who everyone kept seeing in the streets. Rich kids were usually pushed to such activities as formal dancing and playing instruments, but those weren't options for everyone. For the poor, urban reformers created organized sports. Sports would teach them to work hard, work together, and follow orders -- and would make them physically fit, so they could grow up to be laborers in industrial society.
via Wiki Commons
As time went by, it also emerged that playing competitive sports was really fun even if you aren't a filthy street urchin, so rich kids did it too ... right up until the Depression, when public funding went away, and it became for a while only open to rich kids. Today, kids' sports is a $15 billion industry in the US. Which is good, because not that many of those kids will grow up to labor in industrial society once the machines rise, so let's at least make the best use of them that we can.
Top image: Eduardo Balderas/Unslpash