The Real Popeye The Sailor

I've always lacked common sense. I admire it in others, but can't seem to cultivate its use, so I find myself in odd situations, like in first grade when I talked a pal into screwing two metal trash cans together with me inside and rolling me off the end of his dock into the lake, where I hoped to submerge and learn how to improve the craft's design. It was an outstanding success, because I submerged wonderfully and learned a whole lot about what needed improving. We'd found only two screws and I pushed my way out, but when things were at their worst, what I found myself thinking was, "What would Popeye the Sailor do?"

And that didn't help me at all. Popeye would have puffed until his pipe became an acetylene torch and used it to cut a hole and then as a propellor to bring the submarine to the surface in glorious victory. Then, again with his pipe, he would have provided the appropriate celebratory fireworks display, rockets shooting out of the bowl and lighting the sky. I had no pipe when I was seven years old, so there were no fireworks, but I vowed that one day I would wield a pipe with the power of Popeye.

That turned out to be impossible, probably because I don't care for spinach, which was the source of Popeye's superhuman aptitude. He was an inspiration to me when I was little, and though I never attained his strength or his affection for spinach, I now smoke a pipe almost as much as he did.

Those cartoons of my youth provided a superhero who used not only physical superiority to solve problems, but creativity. He used his pipe as all sorts of solutions: a horn, smokescreen, spinach inhaler, whistle, jet pack, propellor, blowtorch, water jet, periscope — when smoked by Popeye, a pipe was more useful than a Swiss Army knife. Wise-cracking under his breath, usually with a dose of irony, Popeye had a wise-ass attitude tempered by a compassionate humanity as impressive as his physical powers. He recognized when things were wrong, fixed them, and did it all in black-and-white. Later he was colorized, and eventually he even gave up his pipe. In The All-New Popeye Hour, which ran from 1978 to 1983, he advised his nephews (Pipeye, Poopeye, Peepeye, and Pupeye) against smoking and said he now used his pipe only for its qualities as a whistle, but that is a different Popeye from the one I best remember.

Popeye's Youth

Abandoned as a baby by his father, Poopdeck Pappy, Popeye found himself being raised in an orphanage. Even as an infant he smoked a pipe constantly, removing it from his mouth only for an occasional baby bottle of liquified hardtack. He was scrappy in his youth but avoided most fights until he was four, when he grew tired of the abuses of the orphanage superintendent and beat him soundly. He would soon leave the orphanage, but was destitute, with only old flour sacks for clothing. That's when Whaler Joe met him and bought him some clothing and a new corncob pipe.

By the time he was six he was exercising and improving his stamina, and he built a reputation with the local bullies. Popeye could not tolerate bullies and invariably laid them out. He was an excellent example for his youthful friends and convinced them to give up crap shooting, mainly because he was so much better than they. He always won 18 straight rolls and it was his favorite pastime, but when Whaler Joe struck hard times, he had to sell the lead from inside his beloved weighted dice. To further contribute, he decided to catch a whale, and rowed out to sea in a small dinghy, armed with only some thread and a bent pin as fishing tackle. The whales were amused, which angered Popeye, and the largest one blasted him with a spray of water that would have killed anyone else. Popeye became furious and landed a single fatal punch on that whale, and by the time he was finished he returned to shore with the entire pod on his string.

Popeye matured quickly and was a full-grown man by the age of 12, when he was shanghaied. Someone spiked his soda and he woke to find himself on a ship. Using his fists, he subdued the crew, but soon decided that he liked sailing and joined willingly. It was a tough crowd, but young Popeye held his own until one fateful night following a craps game. He had won everyone's money and the cook of the ship, a violent thug known as "The Ape," decided that he would give Popeye a thrashing.

Olive Oyl, 1936

It was a horrible defeat for the young Popeye, and he lost his right eye in the battle. That defeat left him with the name "Pop-Eye," after his popped right eye. For a time after that, whenever he was in a fight (which was often) he used only his left arm to deliver punches because without his right eye, he couldn't coordinate the strength of his right fist and would inadvertently kill whomever it landed on. He was a good man and tried not to kill his opponents, not when crippling them would suffice.

His shipmates often talked about women in a lascivious and disrespectful manner, and Popeye refused to participate, instead becoming more chivalrous and protective of any fair maiden in need, human or otherwise. When an Albatross in small lady's shoes landed on the deck and The Ape grabbed it for cooking, Popeye wound up his fist and dispatched the bad guy, because that albatross could be someone's sister.

As Popeye matured, he began travelling from port to port and finding adventures in different localities. He met the love of his life, Olive Oyl, through her brother, Castor Oyl. Olive at that time was seeing Ham Gravy, and she and Popeye argued often and didn't like each other, but after months of bickering they realized they were right for each other, and Olive left Ham Gravy to be with the manliest man in all mandom. Later, a sailor named Bluto would spend a great deal of time and energy trying to steal Olive from Popeye, but Popeye always prevailed, often using his pipe in ways incomprehensible to the everyday pipe smoker.

Cartoon History

Thimble Theatre - December 2, 1951

As awesome as he was, Popeye didn't gain notoriety right away, though he was popular from his first sarcastic line: "Ja think I'm a cowboy?" In fact, Popeye was introduced as a minor character, a pipe smoking deck hand. In 1929, his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar, introduced him in Thimble Theatre, his syndicated King Features cartoon strip featuring Olive Oyl, Castor Oyl, and Ham Gravy. Someone like Popeye gets a lot of attention, and his popularity with fans soon made him a star.

In 1933, Max Fleischer Studio decided to capitalize on his broad appeal, and Popeye broke into animated films with Betty Boop meets Popeye the Sailor. That was followed by several animated short films under the banner, I Yam What I Yam.. Famous Studios, owned by Paramount Pictures, took over production in 1942, continuing with the popular cartoons. In 1957, all 228 Popeye cartoons were distributed for television.

The 1960s saw Popeye cartoons made by various animation studios and of various quality. For true, manly pipe smoking Popeye adventures, those cartoons made previous to the '60s hold the most merit.

A feature film finally came in 1980, when Robin Williams played the cob-smoking sailor, and it was great to see Popeye in a high-production value film. The Thimble Theatre newspaper-syndicated strip continued into the early 1990s. Popeye has been pretty quiet since.

The Real Popeye

Frank Fiegel, 'real-life' Popeye

Popeye was loosely inspired by a real person from creator Elzie Segar's hometown of Chester, Ill. He was named Frank Fiegel; he was one-eyed, he smoked a pipe, and he had a reputation as a tough guy and brawler. He looked the part, too, with a prominent chin, unshapely nose (probably from being punched too often), and ever-present pipe. The only photo that seems to exist is a reproduction from a newspaper article published in 1979, and it is not good quality; it's easy to use one's imagination, however, to superimpose Popeye over that image.

Fiegel was not a sailor, but a bartender and a day laborer whom the local youths would sneak up on, yelling in his ear when he fell asleep in a chair outside the saloon, and then laugh when he jolted upright, fists raised for a fight. He was known for his strength and physique, and carried the nickname "Rocky."

Feigel died in 1947, and his obituary noted that he was the inspiration for Popeye. One can easily find another photo online that is widely circulated as being of the original, real Popeye, but it is from 1940, when Feigel was 70, and is of an anonymous British sailor. He sure does look like Popeye, though.

It's unlikely we'll see another animated hero who smokes a pipe. I don't know if my youthful admiration for Popeye advanced the curiosity that first made me a pipe smoker, but I remember being fascinated by those smoking instruments, never having seen such bizarre and magical uses for them before Popeye demonstrated how a real, spinach eating he-man would smoke. I do know that if by some cosmological circumstance I should wake one day as an animated character, he's the first person I'll look for. Popeye still has a lot to teach.

Category:   Pipe Line
Tagged in:   Famous Pipe Smokers History Pipe Culture


    • nosferatu on October 3, 2020
    • Once again, a wonderful read. Thank you!Though I still await a read on Carl Sandburg :-P

    • Dan on October 3, 2020
    • Love Popeye! He was one of two influencers for me as a child to covet the tobacco pipe. I grew up with the cartoons and was 7 yrs old when the movie hit the big screen with Robin Williams (perfect for the role); I remember making a pipe as soon as I got home from the movie: cardboard toilet paper roll cut to the right height for the bowl, a rolled stem made with a piece of tablet paper and scotch tape shoved through the little hole I made in the bowl. I had my first hand made pipe at 7, and loved that movie for bringing the Popeye cartoons to life. Thank you for the stroll down memory lane.

    • Robert Lanni on October 4, 2020
    • This article is hilarious! Loved reading it! My mother used PopEye to push spinach on me at table. Hahaha... a classic cartoon lovingly written about. I planned the same submarine escapade in 5th grade with two 55 gallon drums, but never got past the pencil drawing on construction paper! We still laugh about the idea almost 50 years later. Thanks for a great read!Rob Lanni

    • Phil Wiggins on October 4, 2020
    • Happy!!! Funny!!!

    • Paul Schmolke on October 4, 2020
    • As you might expect, Youtube has quite a few Popeye episodes available, may be worth checking out of you have favorites. A true all American character that I’ve seen on screen since about 1949 when I was a very young boy. I didn’t know any of the history until this morning but thanks to well written pieces I now do. By the way, what sort of pipe did he smoke?

    • james gaily on October 4, 2020
    • Popeye is awsum.watched as a kid Still eat spinach because of him.!!!!

    • rustedrailpipes on October 4, 2020
    • I loved watching the Sunday Morning cartoons in California as a kid. They always had Popeye as one of the main ones everyweek. My favorites were the old black and white ones. Great memories.

    • Jim McCoy on October 4, 2020
    • Interesting history! BUT.... no mention of Popeye's sidekick, the hamburger-loving Wimpy?? He was my hero! :-)

    • Ken voorhees on October 4, 2020
    • Im old enough to remember when mr potato head came with a plastic pipe

    • Mateo Rossio on October 4, 2020
    • Muy buenos artículos. Los felicito. Sigan así.

    • Tim Frey on October 4, 2020
    • That was great Chuck ! LOL! Who would think the best read on the internet is from a tobacco site? Please keep posting!

    • Jack Koonce on October 4, 2020
    • What a great article Keep up the great work!!!

    • Mark on October 5, 2020
    • Never knew about the 1978-1983 anti-smoking Popeye, and I’m glad I didn’t. It would have pissed me off. I think he couldn’t have been the real Popeye. He must have been an imposter! (And what about Santa Claus? Also a pipe smoker.)

    • weazoe on October 7, 2020
    • This is absolutely my favorite pipe smoker of all time!"Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits". That's my pipe philosophy and I learned it from Popeye!

    • Jon DeCles on October 12, 2020
    • Chuck, I love your writing.Sadly, I never got into Popeye because the grownup tried to use him to get me to eat spinach, which in those days we only got in cans: nearly unpalatable! Still, I got hold of a can from the kitchen, opened it, ate it, just like Popeye did, right out of the can: and no muscles appeared! I was bitterly disappointed and lost my respect for the sailor man.Fortunately, that youthful disappointment did not stop me from smoking a pipe: and now I even have some muscles, but no thanks to spinach. (Which, fresh and green, is wonderful.)

    • Sam R Vior on October 13, 2020
    • As much as I enjoyed the article, there at least two or three other so called origins of the fictional character... I have just shared with you one and probably can add the second later on. My input is to be considered informative and intriguing rather than debating the truth or false status, of each version.

    • Dennis bienvenue on October 18, 2020
    • All those stories bring back memories,read tom sawyer, watched popeye ,and smoked corn silk in pipes we borrowed gry uncle

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