5 Beloved Traditions Invented to Make You Buy Stuff

CBS
CBS

By Rebecca Zerzan

Here's how some beloved traditions came about, including diamond engagement rings and the ubiquitous green-bean casserole.

1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

The origin of Rudolph has nothing to do with Jesus or Santa. He sprang from the mind of Robert May, a copywriter for Chicago's Montgomery Ward department store. May wrote and illustrated the poem (that later became the song) for the store's holiday coloring book in 1939. But Rudolph's fate was threatened when store execs realized that the animal's big, glowing honker might put off consumers, because red noses were often associated with alcoholics. Luckily for May, shoppers embraced the story wholeheartedly. A whopping 2.4 million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were given out at the store that Christmas.

2. Green-Bean Casserole

America's favorite casserole dates back to 1955, when a chef named Dorcas Reilly created it for a cookbook designed to promote Campbell's products. By 2003, more than 20 million families (about one in four households) reportedly served the dish at Thanksgiving.

3. Diamond Engagement Rings

Prior to the 20th century, engagement rings were strictly luxury items, and they rarely contained diamonds. But in 1939, the De Beers diamond company changed all of that when it hired ad agency N.W. Ayer & Son. The industry had taken a nosedive in the 1870s, after massive diamond deposits were discovered in South Africa. But the ad agency came to the rescue by introducing the diamond engagement ring and quietly spreading the trend through fashion magazines. The rings didn't become de rigueur for marriage proposals until 1948, when the company launched the crafty "A Diamond is Forever" campaign. By sentimentalizing the gems, De Beers ensured that people wouldn't resell them, allowing the company to retain control of the market. In 1999, De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer confessed, "Diamonds are intrinsically worthless, except for the deep psychological need they fill."

In addition to diamond engagement rings, De Beers also promoted surprise proposals. The company learned that when women were involved in the selection process, they picked cheaper rings. By encouraging surprise proposals, De Beers shifted the purchasing power to men, the less-cautious spenders.

4. Valentine's Day Candy

Greeting-card companies didn't invent valentines. Candy suppliers, on the other hand, were very much behind the idea of giving out Valentine's Day candy. In fact, the tradition almost seems born out of jealousy. In 1892, Confectioners Journal advocated persuading customers that candy was better than "cheap, grotesque" valentines. The floodgates were opened, and by 2004, consumers were buying more than 35 million heart-shape boxes of candy each year.

5. Wedding Registries

In the 1900s, it was customary for only close family members to give wedding presents. But gradually, newlyweds came to expect gifts from friends, as well. Detecting a trend, department stores started to direct engaged customers to their home furnishings and kitchenware departments, encouraging them to think of their weddings as a time to acquire the tools for domestic life. In 1924, the Marshall Field & Company department store in Chicago created the first wedding registry, and the "tradition" took off. Today, up to 96 percent of American couples register their weddings.

10 Surprising Facts About Malcolm X

Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was profoundly influential during the middle of the 20th century. From his birth on May 19, 1925 to February 21, 1965, the day he was assassinated at a New York City rally, he rose to the national scene as a leading voice advocating for black self-determinism, self-defense, and pan-Africanism. His fiery rhetoric is often spoken of in tandem with (really, in contrast to) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent movement, but X was far more complex than his historical image as a firebrand suggests.

1. Malcolm X’s parents were harassed into moving by racists more than once.

Malcolm’s parents, Louise and Earl, were devotees of pan-Africanist and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founder Marcus Garvey. A Baptist preacher, Earl was a leader in their local UNIA chapter in Omaha, Nebraska, and Louise acted as secretary, tasked with inter-chapter communication. Their activities caught the ire of Ku Klux Klan members, whose threats sent the family packing for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to Lansing, Michigan, by the time Malcolm was a year old. There, it was the white supremacist group Black Legion that regularly harassed the Littles. Their family home burned when Malcolm was 4 (his father blamed the Black Legion), and his father was killed in what was ruled a streetcar accident when Malcolm was 6 years old (his mother also blamed the Black Legion).

2. Malcolm X grew up in foster homes.

When Malcolm was 13, his mother entered Kalamazoo State Hospital following a nervous breakdown, sending Malcolm and his seven siblings to various foster families, boarding houses, and state-run institutions. He entered a detention home in Mason, Michigan, after being expelled for putting a thumbtack on a teacher’s chair. While there, he noted that the white couple who ran it and white politicians who visited treated him kindly, but not like he was a fellow human being.

3. Malcolm X dropped out of school after discouragement from his teacher.

Malcolm was a strong student who aspired to one day become a lawyer, but he dropped out after eighth grade when a teacher told him that his dream job was “no realistic goal for a n*****.” He both diminished and recognized the power of the encounter as an adult, noting that he wouldn’t be accepted as a black man regardless of how smart or talented he was. At the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, he’d famously say, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

4. Malcolm X worked with Redd Foxx at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack.

Before Malcolm became a national civil rights speaker and John Sanford became a nationally beloved comedian, they were known respectively as Detroit Red and Chicago Red because of their red hair. In 1943, they worked as dishwashers at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem and committed petty crimes together. Sanford, whose stage name was Redd Foxx, went on to become one of the first black performers to play to white audiences in Las Vegas, put out several hit comedy albums, and become an icon, starring in the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son.

5. Malcolm X converted to the Nation Of Islam while he was in jail.

In 1946, Malcolm’s larcenies caught up with him, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison (he served seven before earning parole). While incarcerated, his brother Reginald urged him to convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI), and Malcolm soon started studying and then corresponding with its founder Elijah Muhammad, who preached black self-reliance. He visited Muhammad in Chicago after getting out of prison in 1952, and quickly rose through the ranks of the organization as an assistant minister with his impressive oratory and ability to attract new members. The NOI went from 500 members in 1952 to 30,000 in a little over a decade.

6. The X in Malcolm X’s adopted name symbolizes a surname he’d never know.

Like many black Americans, Malcolm’s roots were obscured by the slave trade that stripped him of his true ancestral last name. In 1950, he started signing his name as Malcolm X, viewing the surname “Little” as another tool of oppression. In his autobiography he wrote, “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”

7. The FBI created a file for Malcolm X after he wrote to President Truman.

While still in prison, Malcolm wrote a letter to President Harry Truman denouncing the Korean War and declaring himself a Communist. The FBI created a file on him for his Communist affiliation but would later surveil him because of his affiliation and ascendancy within NOI. They continued to track him and record his phone conversations until his assassination, listening in on death threats made against him.

8. Malcolm X inspired Muhammad Ali to join Noi.

On February 25, 1964, the boxer known as Cassius Clay bested Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. The next day, he proclaimed at a press conference he’d be henceforth known as Cassius X, and a few months later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This was the coming out of a spiritual change that had already taken place, guided by Malcolm after the two met in 1962 and cultivated a friendship. Ali was impressed by Malcolm’s speech at a NOI event and the latter became a mentor figure for the up-and-coming fighter.

9. Malcolm X was once opposed to integration.

As Ali’s star was rising as a sports star and NOI member, Malcolm already had one foot out the door of the organization. But during his time in NOI, Malcolm promoted the concept of separation from white society and opposed the mainstream Civil Rights movement for its emphasis on integration. In a speech to the NAACP at Michigan State University in 1963, Malcolm said, “The white community, though it’s all white, is never called a segregated community. It’s a separate community. In the white community, the white controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it’s a segregated community. Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders ... Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy. You control your own politics.”

10. Malcolm X’s Hajj profoundly transformed him.

Malcolm butted heads with NOI leadership multiple times by 1964 and was viewed by NOI members as a threat to Elijah Muhammad’s leadership because of his celebrity. In March, he publicly left the organization to found Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity before converting to Sunni Islam and making Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). A state guest of Saudi Prince Faisal, the experience of praying, living, and eating with fellow Muslims of all skin colors shifted his thinking completely. Going forward, he viewed Islam as a means of overcoming racial disunity.

8 Surprising Facts About Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman in 1981.
Andy Kaufman in 1981.
Joan Adlen, Getty Images

For fans of the late comedian Andy Kaufman (1949-1984), the debate over whether Kaufman was more interested in antagonizing audiences or making them laugh still rages. During a career that saw him appear on stage and on television (Taxi), the performer often blurred the lines between his real persona and the characters he inhabited.

For more on Kaufman, keep reading. Thank you very much.

1. Andy Kaufman got a letter from his doctor that kept him from being drafted.

Born in New York City on January 17, 1949, Kaufman was raised in Great Neck, Long Island and displayed an interest in performing from an early age, entertaining children at their birthday parties when Kaufman himself was only 8 years old. After graduating from high school in 1967, Kaufman though he might be drafted for military service but didn’t wind up serving. His doctor wrote a letter explaining that Kaufman seemed to have no basic grasp of reality, let alone the Vietnam conflict. Joining the Army, the doctor wrote, might cause Kaufman to completely lose his mind. The letter, which likely contained a good measure of hyperbole, earned him a permanent 4-F deferment from service. He went on to attend Grahm Junior College in Boston.

2. Andy Kaufman’s stand-up act was very, very bizarre.

Kaufman got his start in the early 1970s performing at comedy clubs in New York and Los Angeles. Unlike most comics of the time, Kaufman didn’t write a conventionally-structured act. Instead, he would take on the role of performance artist, confusing audiences with stunts like reading from The Great Gatsby and threatening to start over if they complained. He would also drag a sleeping bag on stage and climb into it or do his laundry with a portable dryer. These appearances were sufficiently provocative that Kaufman sometimes hired off-duty police officers to break up fights in the crowd or intercept people trying to attack him.

3. Andy Kaufman once opened for Barry Manilow.

Before Kaufman got television exposure, it was easy for bookers to assume he was a polished and conventional performer. As a result, Kaufman got a number of gigs in the early 1970s opening for established musical acts like the Temptations and Barry Manilow. Appearing onstage in 1972 before the Temptations came out, Kaufman wept and then shot himself in the head with a cap gun. Similarly bizarre behavior was also displayed before a Manilow concert, with irate members of the audience having to be calmed down by Manilow himself.

4. Andy Kaufman was once voted off of Saturday Night Live.

Kaufman succeeded in drawing attention to himself on stage, which led to being invited to perform on Saturday Night Live beginning in 1975. During these appearances, Kaufman would take material from his act, including his lip-syncing of the theme to the Mighty Mouse animated series. Such stunts drew a mixed reception from viewers. From 1975 to 1982, Kaufman made a total of 14 appearances on the show. Then, producers decided to offer viewers the chance to “vote” Kaufman off by calling in to cast their ballot. On the November 20, 1982 broadcast, 195,544 callers asked that the show not permit him to come back on. They outnumbered the 169,186 viewers who called in support of him. While the bit was intended to be humorous, Kaufman honored the results and never appeared on Saturday Night Live again.

5. Andy Kaufman once took his entire audience out for milk and cookies.

Kaufman eventually took his show to Carnegie Hall in 1979, where he was greeted by 2800 people who had come to appreciate his eccentric approach to performing. At the show's conclusion, he invited the entire audience to board buses waiting outside the building. Kaufman took them to the New York School of Printing in Manhattan, where he served the nearly 3000 attendees milk and cookies. He later gave them a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

6. Andy Kaufman thought about franchising Tony Clifton.

One of Kaufman’s great ruses on the public was dressing as the abrasive lounge singer Tony Clifton, complete with prosthetic chin and torso padding, all while insisting Clifton was an entirely different person. Kaufman sometimes enlisted associates, including his brother Michael and his writing partner Bob Zmuda, to put on the make-up. In 2013, Michael told Vice that Kaufman’s plan was to have Clifton become a roving character. “Andy had been talking about franchising Tony Clifton before he died,” Michael Kaufman said. “He was going to have one in every state.”

7. Andy Kaufman insisted on an Andy Kaufman stand-in for Taxi.

When Kaufman agreed to appear on Taxi (1978-1983) as Latka Gravas, a version of the “Foreign Man” character he had been performing on stage, he had a peculiar request: He wanted to be expected on set for only two of the five shooting days for each episode. While Kaufman didn’t seem to want to do it at all, the paycheck allowed him to pursue his more experimental brand of comedy. Producers agreed. In 2018, co-star Carol Kane, who played Kaufman's love interest, told The Hollywood Reporter that the cast “would work with a fake Andy who wore a sign around his neck that said ‘Latka.’”

Kaufman also showed up to shoot an episode as his alter ego Tony Clifton, insisting that he was not Kaufman. Star Judd Hirsch got so angry that he had Clifton thrown off the set.

8. Andy Kaufman broke character for Orson Welles.

While there were certainly times Kaufman spoke from the heart, it was rare to see him break any one of his myriad characters in front of an audience. That happened—fleetingly—when Kaufman appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in 1982 on a night it was being guest-hosted by legendary film director Orson Welles. Sporting a neck brace from his stint in professional wrestling, Kaufman didn’t keep up appearances for long. After Welles told him he was “fascinated” by his characters, talk turned to Kaufman’s “Foreign Man,” his Elvis Presley imitation, and his “third character,” Tony Clifton. “Well, he wasn’t a character,” Kaufman said, correcting himself. “There’s a lot of debate over whether it’s a character or a real guy, and that’s Tony Clifton, but that’s a whole other story.”

“That’s metaphysics,” Welles replied.

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