5 Famous Companies With Unexpectedly Dark Origin Stories
Most companies offer up some inspiring origin story about how its founder had a great vision for helping the world and saw it through, growing from a single garage to a worldwide brand. Meanwhile, the actual backstories of these companies are often weird or horrifying, if not both. Like how ...
Victoria's Secret Initially Failed, And Its Founder Died By Suicide
Though Victoria's Secret uses attractive models and sparks occasional furious debates about whether its whole thing is bad for feminism, it very much caters to a female customer base. But this was not originally the case. At first it catered mainly to men. Founder Roy Raymond started the company after being unable to buy lingerie for his wife in a department store without suffering major embarrassment. We don't have an exact account of what his experience was like, so we can only imagine:
Raymond: "Hi, I'm looking for women's wear. Which is to say, not dresses. I'm looking for inner wear. Intimate wear?"
Saleswoman: "Certainly. Perhaps something like this nightgown?"
Whatever happened to him in that department store, Raymond overcompensated and made a lingerie shop that men could visit comfortably, but women sort of could not. He designed the decor after what he imagined a Victorian brothel looked like. Sources say the models in his catalogs looked awkwardly like Pretty Baby-style prostitutes (meaning Susan Sarandon, not Brooke Shields). Despite all the jokes about men ogling the Victoria's Secret catalog today, modern shoots are designed to appeal to women, and they do a very good job at that, if sales figures are anything to go by.
The success of Raymond's chain was pretty limited, because men only buy so much women's underwear. With the company facing bankruptcy, Raymond sold Victoria's Secret for $1 million. Then the new owners switched tracks and marketed to women, and Victoria's Secret grew to be a multi-billion-dollar company. His new business venture went bankrupt, Raymond's wife left him, and he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge to his death. Yeah, you have to wonder how many entrepreneur stories look more like this guy's than Jeff Bezos'.
YouTube Was Inspired By The Need To See Janet Jackson's Breasts
As we've told you before, YouTube tried its hand as a dating site in mid-2005, and it struggled to get anyone to upload "dating videos," even when the founders offered $20 to women they sought out on Craigslist. But it had been a video upload site even before that, just one that failed to attract interest from anyone. The first ever video, the 20-second "Me at the zoo," may have 70-million-plus views now, but it didn't exactly set the web on fire at the time. And thanks to the site's policy of showing you videos at random rather than letting you navigate to or share specific ones, it seemed destined to become a footnote in the grand history of the internet.
But one thing that the YouTube guys had going for them was that they got into the game early. And the reason for this came around about a year earlier. It was Super Bowl XXXVIII, and during the infamous halftime show, Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson's breast. Today, an incident like that would lead to lengthy Twitter threads about the nature of consent, but at the time, people's response was more "How dare she do this in front of all those children? And also, where can I watch this video, preferably in slow motion?" Back then, it was really hard to find the uncensored footage anywhere after it was first broadcast. TV channels wouldn't show it, and internet video may as well have been Bill Gates slowly describing whatever you wanted to watch.
And so, young computer scientist Jawed Karim, aware that lots of people really wanted to see some nipple jewelry, realized there was a demand out there for a website where anyone could upload videos, unburdened by silly things like FCC restrictions or "whether you owned the rights to that footage at all." A decade and a half later, we now have a sprawling video monopoly that is mostly good for unboxing videos and essays about how the Holocaust didn't happen. Yay, progress!
News Corp Was A Mining Group's Propaganda Outlet
News Corp is the big old media conglomerate behind Fox News, The New York Post, Britain's The Sun, and a bunch of other outlets. If you're not a fan of these particular news sources, you probably already think of them as peddlers of right-wing lies under the direction of evil overlords. But their role as spouts for propaganda actually goes back to its very beginning, even though the company has done its best to cover up the truth with their own "fair and balanced" history lesson.
According to the popular story, News Corp was started in the 1920s by James Edward Davidson, an honorable journalist who'd worked his way up from the bottom at several Australian papers, before resigning because he was in fact too honorable for them. On a train one day, he met a miner (literally a salt of the earth man), and the two came up with the idea to make their own newspaper. News Corp grew from there, and in 1949, control went to Sir Keith Murdoch, a knight of the king's guard. A few decades later, it transferred to his son, master Rupert.
What's rarely mentioned is that the "miner" on the train, Gerald Mussen, was actually a mining consortium's high-up consultant and PR man. And a closer look at letters from the era reveal that the venture was the idea of executives from the consortium, who wanted new papers to counter the ones written by union activists. In their own words, they wanted to spread propaganda, and News Corp's first papers, The Barrier Miner and The Recorder, were all about educating the public about how mines were awesome and being run flawlessly and definitely weren't a horrific danger to the people working in them.
Even at the time, a whole lot of people suspected that these were secretly company papers and being funded by the mines themselves, but they had no proof. Only a recent analysis of dusty documentation from the era revealed that, yep, the people who owned the paper were almost all also owners of mines. Davidson was just a figurehead, and as News Corp grew, he lost more and more power. They moved to force him out, he fell into alcoholism, and he got fatal pneumonia while traveling to London. And his legacy is now whatever Tucker Carlson's mouth farts into the atmosphere.
The Washington Times Was Founded By A Cult Leader
The Washington Times is considered a legit conservative newspaper, despite occasionally indulging in birther conspiracies or flirting with neo-Confederatism. But it was started by some sinister backers, and if you're guessing some sort of GOP bogeyman, you're wrong. It was much weirder than that.
The Unification Church, also known as the "Moonies" after church founder Sun Myung Moon, was one of the stranger religious movements to hit the United States in the '70s. Depending on how old you are, you might remember them for the nutty mass weddings they hosted. The largest, in Korea, featured 30,000 couples in an Olympic stadium. Fun fact: Those weddings didn't actually matter, and the real things were held later.
We also had Reverend Moon thinking he was an incarnation of God, and most of Europe banning him from visiting because they considered him a cult leader. "The whole world is in my hand, and I will conquer and subjugate the world," said Moon. And he set about this not just by trying to grow his religion, but also by running hundreds of different businesses, funded in part by his many followers collecting donations worldwide. His companies grew tea and built guns. He sold tourist knickknacks in Japan and ran a hotel in North Korea. And in 1982, he started The Washington Times and sank billions of dollars into it, saying it would be "the instrument in spreading the truth about God to the world."
That's ... confident. Also, the paper's first president once said, "We are going to make it so that no one can run for office in the United States without our permission," and we're pretty sure that's not the case now either. Though if it were, how would we know?
Taco Bell Grabbed Its Taco Shell Recipe From An Obscure Rival
Yeah, yeah, we know what you're thinking. "Taco Bell stole a recipe? They needed a recipe to learn how to make diarrhea cardboard?" But even so, you don't get a restaurant with dozens of branches by serving terrible food. You need food people genuinely like a lot. Then, once you're famous, you cheapen the stuff and streamline the process, and you get thousands of branches by serving terrible food. But to start with, you really do need that "good" part.
And that brings us to Glenn Bell (yep, the "bell" in Taco Bell is the name of founder). In the early 1950s, Bell was a restaurateur with the most noble of dreams: to make and sell really tasty hot dogs. Then he sold his hot dog stand and expanded to burgers with the creatively titled Bell's Hamburgers and Hot Dogs in in San Bernardino. Next on his checklist was tacos, and in later years, he'd tell a fun story about how he figured out what kind of shell would make tacos that could be cranked out quickly.
But he actually figured this out by checking out the Mitla Cafe next door, which served tacos in hard, previously fried shells (up to then, the practice was to use soft shells and then fry the whole thing, which took forever). Bell first bought the tacos and took them home to reverse-engineer them. Then he gave up on that and made friends with the staff at Mitla, wormed his way into the kitchen, and finally got them to teach him how it was done. Bell recreated these tacos at his own restaurant, then switched to a dedicated taco stand called Taco-Tia. One taco stand became three, which became four full restaurants called El Tacos, which then became Taco Bell.
Once he had 868 different Taco Bells, he sold the business to Pepsi for $125 million. Mitla Cafe, meanwhile, just went on being Mitla Cafe, and Bell never mentioned its name to anyone. But if you ask the people who eat there now, that's not a sad story. A restaurant going strong after 75 years and still serving great food is pretty damn cool in its own right. Not everybody is out to take over the world.
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