CLOSE
Original image
The Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Roy Chapman Andrews: A Real Life Indiana Jones

Original image
The Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Since the '80s, one name has been synonymous with adventure: Indiana Jones. The iconic film character has been envied and emulated by children, adults, and other fictional characters alike. With his hat and his whip, his brain and his brawn, and that amazing theme music, who hasn’t dreamed of being like Indy, roaming the world and hunting down treasure? One man, Roy Chapman Andrews, was very nearly the real thing. Though his adventures didn’t involve faces melting or hearts being torn out, they were still perilous and often produced artifacts of great significance.

An Adventurous Childhood

Roy Chapman Andrews Society

Roy Chapman Andrews was born in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1884. As a child, he was an avid explorer of local forests and waterways. In his autobiography, Under a Lucky Star, Andrews describes himself as “like a rabbit, happy only when [he] could run out of doors.” When he turned 9, Andrews received a little single-barrel shotgun, and as he grew up, he became a skilled marksman. He later taught himself taxidermy and used that skill to earn money for his education at Beloit College.

Andrews had known since he was a young boy that he wanted to be an explorer, and he realized that there would be risks in pursuing adventure—but he could not have imagined the peril that he would face on a routine hunting trip while he was still in college. When he was 21, Andrews was duck hunting on Wisconsin’s Rock River with Montague White, a member of Beloit College’s English department. It was March, so both the weather and the waters were cold. The river had also been rising steadily for days and held strong, dangerous currents. On what tragically became the last day of their hunting trip, Andrews and White’s boat was upset and they were thrown overboard, into the frigid river. Andrews was swept away by the current and struggled to swim towards shore. He managed to reach a submerged tree, and finally solid ground, but his friend was not so lucky. White, plagued by muscle cramps, had not made it to the bank, despite being a strong swimmer. This incident made a lasting impact on Andrews and seemed to set a precedent for his future, both in his additional brushes with death and in his attention to safety and detail in his fieldwork.

After graduating from college in 1906, Andrews hopped on a train to New York City to pursue another thing he had wanted since he was a boy: a job at the American Museum of Natural History. When Andrews reached the museum, however, he was told that there were no jobs available. Refusing to be discouraged, Andrews volunteered to scrub the museum’s floors. He was hired to clean and perform basic assistant duties in the taxidermy department, as well as to help the director of the museum with odd jobs when asked. Andrews quickly moved up the ranks and, despite several “better offers” throughout his early career, stayed on with the museum. He was soon doing the type of adventurous fieldwork he had dreamed about.

Andrews’ Early Career and Narrow Escapes

Archive.org

Andrews’ first major interest in the field was marine mammals—specifically whales. This fascination began when, after only being at the museum for seven months, he and colleague Jim Clark were assigned to retrieve the skeleton of a dead whale from a Long Island beach. The director instructed Clark and Andrews to retrieve every bone, but never believed they could do it because of how quickly the bones of beached whales sink into the sand. But Andrews and Clark returned to the museum with the entire whale skeleton; they had guarded it from a storm and retrieved it from the sand in freezing conditions (this whale's bones are still in the museum's department of mammalogy). Inspired by this retrieval, Andrews took part in many expeditions in Alaska, Indonesia, China, Japan and Korea, where he observed and collected marine mammal specimens. As Andrews’ career progressed, his subjects of study expanded and he continued to travel the world in search of animals and their remains.

Like the fictional Dr. Jones, Andrews found he had many brushes with death as he traveled the world. In this quote from his book On the Trail of Ancient Man, Andrews reflects on several of his nearly lethal experiences from his early career:

“In [my first] fifteen years [of field work] I can remember just ten times when I had really narrow escapes from death. Two were from drowning in typhoons, one was when our boat was charged by a wounded whale, once my wife and I were nearly eaten by wild dogs, once we were in great danger from fanatical lama priests, two were close calls when I fell over cliffs, once was nearly caught by a huge python, and twice I might have been killed by bandits.”

A Desert of Discovery

Andrews is best known for the numerous expeditions he led in the Gobi Desert during the 1920s. These expeditions began with the desire to survey the Central Asian plateau in its entirety, including collecting fossils, living animals, and rock and vegetation samples. Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the museum, put his full support behind Andrews, as he hoped the explorer and his team might find evidence that supported his pet theory that Central Asia was the staging ground, or place of origin, of all Earth’s life.

Andrews embarked on his first expedition in the Gobi in 1922. On this trip, Andrews and colleagues from the museum uncovered several complete skeletons of small dinosaurs, as well as portions of larger dinosaurs. These were the first dinosaurs ever to be discovered north of the Himalaya mountains in Asia. They also recovered preserved insects and other animal remains, and secured the largest single collection of mammals to come from Central Asia, including several new species. The results from this expedition, according to Andrews, simply scratched the surface of what could be gained from the Gobi Desert.

With his curiosity piqued, Andrews wanted to dig deep beneath the surface he and his team had scratched, so he proposed and led several more expeditions into the desert. His second expedition, in 1923, provided some of the most groundbreaking finds of Andrews’ career. Arguably the most scientifically significant of these finds was the skull of a small mammal, no bigger than a rat, that had lived alongside the dinosaurs; very few skulls of mammals from this time had been discovered before this one. The skull was found by Walter Granger, the chief paleontologist of Andrews’ team, embedded in sandstone from the Cretaceous period. Not knowing what sort of creature the skull belonged to, Granger labeled it “unidentified reptile” and sent it to the museum so it could be removed from the stone, identified, and perhaps analyzed further. When word came back in 1925, during Andrews’ third expedition, that the skull did not belong to a reptile but instead to one of the earliest known mammals, the team was thrilled. After hearing this news, Andrews and many members of his expedition were resolved to find more remains of these tiny creatures. During this expedition, the team found seven additional mammal skulls, as well as parts of mammal skeletons.

Probably the most famous find to come out of one of Andrews’ expeditions also came in 1923. It was only the second day after making camp that George Olsen, a paleontology assistant, made the find. He rushed into camp reporting that he had found fossil eggs, but was met with quite a bit of skepticism and teasing. Andrews and the others were, of course, still curious to see what Olsen had found, so went to investigate after they finished their lunch. Lo and behold, Olsen had found eggs—dinosaur eggs! There were three eggs exposed, broken out of the neighboring sandstone ledge, and other full eggs and fragments that could be seen embedded in the rock. This was a momentous find because, at that time, scientists weren’t actually sure how dinosaurs reproduced. It was assumed that dinosaurs laid eggs, as they were reptiles, but it had never been confirmed until Andrews’ team found the eggs.

Scientific American

A total of 25 eggs were retrieved during this expedition and the team thought that the location of these finds probably indicated that the spot was a popular breeding ground. What’s more, it wasn’t just eggs that Olsen found; upon further investigation of the first egg site, the skeleton of a small dinosaur was discovered above the nest. It was posited, at first, that this dinosaur was trying to steal the eggs from their nest for a meal, so it was dubbed Oviraptor (egg seizer). Based on later finds of this same dinosaur, however, scientists now believe it was much more likely that the eggs belonged to that dinosaur and it was protecting them.

Andrews found that the public was so facinated by the eggs that they didn't care about the other discoveries made on the expedition. While the constant focus on these eggs irritated Andrews, he found a way to use this to his advantage. He needed more money to mount further expeditions, and while he found support from several rich backers, it just wasn't enough. To spread the word that the small contributions the public could afford would be appreciated, Andrews and the director of the museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn, decided to auction off one of the dinosaur eggs they had recovered. All the publicity for this auction included pleas for funding; Andrews is quoted in a New York Times article saying, “We have felt there is no good reason why we should not sell one of these eggs. We have twenty-five of them . . . There is no desire on our part to make any money for the museum, but only to help defray the expenses of the Asiatic expedition.” In the end, Andrews collected $50,000 in public donations in addition to the winning bid of $5000 for the egg, which was won by Mr. Austin Colgate and given to Colgate University as a gift.

Austin Colgate (right) gives Roy Chapman Andrews a check for the dinosaur egg. Photo courtesy of Colgate University's Geology Department.

And a Desert of Danger

The staggering finds made by Andrews and his team were not the only excitement to be had on these Gobi expeditions, however. In Under a Lucky Star, Andrews recounts many dangerous encounters the desert provided. In one instance, Andrews was on his way back from a supply run when he encountered some bandits. He was driving down a steep slope when he saw, at the bottom, four men with rifles on horseback. Knowing he couldn’t turn around on the rocky slope, Andrews decided his best course of action was to head straight for the bandits with some speed. He remembers that as soon as he hit the accelerator, the horses “went mad with fright.” The bandits tried to reach for their rifles, but found that all their effort was needed just to stay on their horses. While three of the ponies ran off into the desert, the fourth, scared stiff, was left behind. Andrews drove right up next to it and, though he easily could have killed the bandit, took a couple of shots at the hat the bandit wore and chased him away. Andrews writes that the hat, which “bobbed up and down . . . was too great a temptation to be resisted.”

Another incident in the desert had Andrews and his team nervous to sleep in their own camp at night—but not because of bandits. The team had their camp set up on high ground and, on one particularly cold night, a great number of incredibly poisonous pit vipers slithered up the slope seeking warmth. The first to notice this invasion was Norman Lovell, a motor engineer, who saw one of the serpents crossing a patch of moonlight in his tent. Lovell was about to get out of bed to kill the snake when he thought to look around before putting his bare feet on the ground. He noticed two snakes coiled around the posts of his bed and the original emerging from under a gasoline box near the head of his cot.

Lovell was not the only one to encounter vipers. Many others found snakes hiding in their shoes and caps and among their rifles. Fortunately, the cold temperature made the snakes sluggish and slow to strike; the men killed 47 snakes in their camp that night. Everyone came out of the incident unbitten and unscathed, but certainly much more wary. Andrews even recalls how he was frightened and how he screamed when he, sometime later, stepped on something soft and round; to his embarrassment and fortune, it was only a coiled rope. This experience certainly made Andrews share Indiana Jones’ dislike of snakes.

Andrews Gives Up the Gobi

Wikimedia Commons

Andrews thought there was still much to be learned in the Gobi Desert, but political situations in Mongolia and China forced him to suspend expeditions after 1930. Andrews found that his team was severely restricted in the work they were allowed do and the data they could record, not to mention the drastically increased levels of physical danger they faced from bandits and others hostile towards outsiders.

While this phase of Andrews’ career was over, though, another was getting ready to begin. In 1934, Andrews became the director of the American Museum of Natural History and held this post until January 1, 1942, when he decided to turn the museum over to a younger generation of scientists. After retirement, Andrews and his wife Yvette moved to California. He spent much of the rest of his life writing about his many adventures and died of a heart attack in 1960.

Is Andrews the Inspiration for Indiana Jones?

It is widely believed that Andrews was the inspiration for the ingenious adventurer Dr. Henry Jones Jr. While George Lucas never cited Andrews, or anyone else, as a specific real-life model for Jones’ character, it is known that he took a lot of his inspiration for the series from movie serials of the '40s and '50s that he had seen and enjoyed as a child. It is likely that these movie serials Lucas was fond of took inspiration, in turn, from the scientists and explorers of Andrews’ time. Due to his work and discoveries in the Gobi Desert, Andrews is one of the best-known of this crowd and an influential figure in promoting scientific study. However indirect the inspiration may be, there are no doubts in many people’s minds that Andrews was a model for the famous whip-wielding professor. Andrews even consistently wore a ranger hat on his expeditions; Indy fans know that Dr. Jones, too, would never be caught leaving his hat behind.

Andrews’ Legacy

Being the Indiana Jones of his time, however, is not Andrews’ only legacy. The Roy Chapman Andrews Society was formed in 1999 in Andrews’ hometown of Beloit to honor the explorer and his influential work. According to the society’s website, the founders were “intent on building more awareness of one of the 20th Century’s most famous explorers,” as well as promoting the small town of Beloit. In honor of Andrews’ life and achievements, the society presents the Distinguished Explorer Award (DEA) every year to an explorer or scientist who has made or contributed to making scientific discoveries of world-wide significance. This year’s award was presented to Dr. John Grotzinger for his work as the lead scientist of the Mars Curiosity expedition.

Sources: The Roy Chapman Andrews Society; Unmuseum.org;  Beloit University.

Original image
iStock
arrow
History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
Original image
iStock

Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

Original image
David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
arrow
Food
The Little-Known History of Fruit Roll-Ups
Original image
David Kessler, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The thin sheets of “fruit treats” known as Fruit Roll-Ups have been a staple of supermarkets since 1983, when General Mills introduced the snack to satisfy the sweet tooth of kids everywhere. But as Thrillist writer Gabriella Gershenson recently discovered, the Fruit Roll-Up has an origin that goes much further back—all the way to the turn of the 20th century.

The small community of Syrian immigrants in New York City in the early 1900s didn’t have the packaging or marketing power of General Mills, but they had the novel idea of offering an apricot-sourced “fruit leather” they called amardeen. A grocery proprietor named George Shalhoub would import an apricot paste from Syria that came in massive sheets. At the request of customers, employees would snip off a slice and offer the floppy treat that was named after cowhide because it was so hard to chew.

Although Shalhoub’s business relocated to Brooklyn in the 1940s, the embryonic fruit sheet continued to thrive. George’s grandson, Louis, decided to sell crushed, dried apricots in individually packaged servings. The business later became known as Joray, which sold the first commercial fruit roll-up in 1960. When a trade publication detailed the family’s process in the early 1970s, it opened the floodgates for other companies to begin making the distinctive treat. Sunkist was an early player, but when General Mills put their considerable advertising power behind their Fruit Roll-Ups, they became synonymous with the sticky snack.

Joray is still in business, offering kosher roll-ups that rely more heavily on fruit than the more processed commercial version. But the companies have one important thing in common: They both have the sense not to refer to their product as “fruit leather.”

[h/t Thrillist]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios