The Strange Early Names of 11 Common Products

Andrew Burton, Getty Images
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Branding is everything. It’s why we refer to most tissues as Kleenex even though we might be picking up a box of Puffs, and why we call a duplicate of something a Xerox even if it hasn’t come out of that company's copy machines.

Those two products may have gotten their name right on the first try, but not all companies are so lucky. Take a look at 11 popular brands that started out with far less effective labels.

1. KOOL-AID // FRUIT SMACK

iStock.com/stephanie phillips

In the 20th century, Edwin Perkins owned a successful family mail-order business. As with the Tupperware™ and Avon models, Perkins enlisted regional sales representatives to peddle his products, which ranged from home goods to food flavorings. One popular item was Fruit Smack, a highly concentrated juice that came in 4-ounce corked bottles and could be mixed with a pitcher of water. Owing to shipping hassles—the glass bottle would sometimes break or leak—Perkins came up with a powdered version. With the change from liquid to solid came a name change: Kool-Ade was introduced in six flavors (raspberry, cherry, grape, lemon, orange, and root beer) in 1928. The current spelling was introduced in 1934.

2. WATER BED // PLEASURE PIT

WaterbedOutlet, YouTube

It’s easy to understand how a more luxurious bed was conceived at the height of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. San Francisco State University graduate student Charlie Hall created the water bed—a fluid-filled membrane that replaced a foam mattress—in a design class in 1968. Contrary to popular assumption, though, Hall wasn’t much of a hippie. He just wanted to make a more comfortable bed. The name he chose, however, was tawdry. Hall called it the "Pleasure Pit," but the subsequent knock-offs came to be known as "water beds." Even the more innocuous name was still paired with lurid advertising. One salesman told clients that the gyrating motion of the bed “creates the impression a third, warm body is participating.”

3. CHEERIOS // CHEERIOATS

iStock.com/RonOrmanJr

This breakfast table staple was introduced in 1941, after food science innovator Lester Borchardt developed a way to puff up oats into the familiar “O” shape. For the first four years, the cereal was called Cheerioats to emphasize its whole-grain origins, and manufacturer General Mills even shipped the toasted oats to servicemen using the slogan “He’s feeling his CheeriOats.” But Quaker Oats wasn’t having it. They believed they had the corner on “oats” in the processed-food market. Rather than engage in a lengthy legal struggle, General Mills shortened the name to Cheerios in 1945.

4. VASELINE // WONDER JELLY

iStock.com/urbanbuzz

While visiting Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, chemist Robert Chesebrough became intrigued by the fact that the petroleum oil drillers there smeared the jelly-like residue of the drilling process over their burned or irritated skin. Sensing he had the next great home care product, he spent years developing a patented purification process to sell the petroleum goop commercially. In 1870, the product debuted under the name Wonder Jelly. Chesebrough travelled around New York demonstrating the product’s effectiveness by burning his skin with an open flame or acid and then soothing it with his concoction. While this undoubtedly made a name for Chesebrough, it may not have had the same effect on his creation. He changed the name to Vaseline (reportedly combining the German word for water, wasser, and the Greek word for oil, oleon), and registered it in 1872.

5. PAC-MAN // PUCK-MAN

iStock.com/ilbusca

At the height of coin-operated arcade machine mania in 1980, Japanese video game manufacturer Namco dropped a bombshell release. Their Pac-Man, which let players control a sentient yellow circle that gobbled up power pellets and ghosts, was a national phenomenon. But in Japan, it was known by another name: Creator Toru Iwatani dubbed the game Puckman (or Puck-Man). Accounts vary as to why he chose this name, but it may have had something to do with his protagonist's puck-shaped appearance, or a reference to the Japanese word paku, meaning "chomp." When Namco prepared the game for an American release, however, marketers worried that some teenagers might change the P in Puck-Man to an F. They wisely opted for Pac-Man instead.

6. Q-TIPS // BABY GAYS

iStock.com/Photology1971

After seeing his wife create a makeshift cotton swab by wrapping cotton balls around toothpicks to use on their baby, Leo Gerstenzang decided to mass-produce sterilized swabs. He formed the Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Company in 1923 and named his leading product Baby Gays, presumably for the joy they would bring to children who weren’t being treated like pin cushions by toothpick-wielding mothers. In 1926, Gerstenzang altered the name to Q-Tips Baby Gays, and eventually just Q-Tips. The Q stands for quality.

7. BIG MAC // ARISTOCRAT

Joe Raedle, Getty Images

The signature burger at McDonald’s was concocted by local franchisee Jim Delligatti, who arranged the two beef patties drenched in a secret sauce in Pittsburgh in 1967. While Delligatti developed a tasty burger, the early names for it—the Aristocrat and the Blue Ribbon Burger—proved unpopular among corporate brass. An advertising executive named Esther Rose came up with “Big Mac” on the way to a product meeting; a colleague rejected it, believing the menu’s McDouble meant they couldn’t use another “Mac” burger product, but was overruled. The Big Mac rolled out nationally in 1968. It’s remained a fixture of their menu ever since. (Rose, incidentally, received no royalties for naming the burger, but the company did give her a nice plaque.)

8. COTTON CANDY // FAIRY FLOSS

iStock.com/diatrezor

The staple of carnivals everywhere, sugar-saturated cotton candy was developed by the unlikeliest of creators—a dentist. William Morrison conspired with confectioner John C. Wharton to develop and patent an electronic machine that spun the fiber-textured candy in 1897. (Melted sugar is forced through tiny holes using centrifugal force, solidifying into narrow strands.) Morrison and Wharton shopped their confection at world fairs under the name “fairy floss.” It was another somewhat irresponsible dentist, Josef Lascaux, who gave it the name cotton candy in the 1920s (although it reportedly retains the "fairy" moniker in Australia).

9. EGGO WAFFLES // FROFFLES

Andrew Burton, Getty Images

The Dorsa brothers—Frank, Anthony, and Sam—were an enterprising bunch. After coming up with a popular mayonnaise recipe in 1932—which they dubbed Eggo Mayonnaise after their egg-heavy ingredient list—the siblings turned their attention to waffle batter. When that became prohibitive to ship due to fear of spoilage, they created a dry mix, then decided to capitalize on the burgeoning frozen-food market by offering pre-cooked waffles they called Froffles (frozen waffles) beginning in 1953. The name didn’t stick, though: Consumers preferred the Eggo label, and so the brothers changed the name in 1955. In 1972, new Eggo owners Kellogg cemented the brand with the “Leggo my Eggo” ad campaign. “Unhand my Froffles” didn’t have the same ring to it.

10. FRISBEE // PLUTO PLATTER

iStock.com/eyecrave

When the Wham-O novelty toy company introduced a flying plastic disc in the 1950s intended for tossing, it was dubbed the Pluto Platter in order to capitalize on the nation’s flying saucer hysteria. The name came from inventor Walter Frederick Morrison, who originally considered calling it the Whirlo-Way and the Flyin-Saucer. Within months, Wham-O decided to rename it the Frisbee, though there’s some debate over what exactly inspired the new title. One story has students of a New England college tossing pie tins around from the Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut; Wham-O president Richard Knerr said the name came from a comic strip called "Mr. Frisbie."

Either way, Morrison—who reaped royalties from Frisbee sales—thought the new moniker was a terrible choice. “I thought it was insane,” he told The New York Times in 2007.

11. SCRABBLE // CRISS CROSS WORDS

iStock.com/Juanmonino

The ubiquitous word game was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts, who was out of work during the Great Depression in 1933 and used his copious free time to work on his letter tiles. Through the product’s lengthy developmental stage in the 1930s and 1940s, Butts referred to it as Lexiko, It, and Criss Cross Words. It wasn’t until Butts teamed up with entrepreneur James Brunot that the two came up with the name Scrabble, which means to collect or hold on to something. They trademarked the title in 1948. By the early 1950s, the game was so popular that Butts and Brunot couldn't meet the demand even though they were producing 6000 sets a week.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.