January 22, 1915, is the birth date of S.J. Popeil, inventor of the Veg-O-Matic and Chop-O-Matic, among many other time-saving devices. His genius was not just a tinkerer’s soul, which inspired him to constantly create simple but useful and reliable tools, but in pioneering a style of sales via demonstration that when partnered with the reach of television made it possible to sell unlimited units.
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Samuel J. Popeil (pronounced “po-PEEL”) grew up in Asbury Park, New Jersey, in an extended family of marketers, who generally hawked their wares along the boardwalk of that seaside town, as well as in department stores. S.J. began his career at age 17 working as a substitute pitchman for his uncle Nathan Morris, whose company made and sold items like the Morris Metric Slicer.
S.J. was a natural at demonstrating and selling the items, and so in 1939, together with his brother Raymond, they set up their own company, Popeil Brothers, moving it two years later to Chicago. By all accounts, business took precedence over family ties, and competition was fierce. When a product sold by Nathan Morris, the Roto-Chop, bore a strong resemblance to the Chop-O-Matic, for example, Samuel Popeil had no qualms suing his uncle for copyright infringement, which he did in 1958. That case ended after Morris collapsed during the trial with a heart attack – from which he rapidly recovered the following day, after his nephew agreed to settle.
Popeil’s most iconic products were the Veg-O-Matic, a proto-food processor without the motor that could slice, dice and chop, and the Pocket Fisherman, a fishing rod that folded up and fit in the pocket. In its first year alone, 1973, the Pocket Fisherman sold 2 million units. Demonstrating a kitchen chopper required one to haul around large quantities potatoes, for example, so it was logical that Popeil thought of showing customers a videotape of the process; from there to broadcasting the tape on late-night TV was not a great leap.
S.J. Popeil was also the father of Ron Popeil (born 1935), whose company Ronco exceeded even his father’s wildest dreams, with products that ranged from the Showtime Rotisserie to the Electric Food Dehydrator to the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler. Although Ron’s parents divorced when he was young, and he grew up shunted between foster homes and other family members, he did follow his father’s career path, and began by selling Popeil Brothers products in Chicago’s Maxwell Street open-air market. Supposedly the one benefit S.J. gave to his son was a willingness to extend him credit, but once Ron went into business by himself, his father cut off contact with him.
Ron became a regular fixture on TV screens in the U.S., with ads featuring the telltale line, “But wait, there’s more!”
In 1972, S.J.’s estranged second wife, Eloise, was found guilty of attempting to murder her husband. She and her boyfriend had offered two hitmen $25,000 if they would poison Samuel, or, as the boyfriend eventually testified, “just blow his head off and forget it.” Eloise testified at the trial that her husband had kept her under regular surveillance and was “insanely jealous” of her. She eventually spent six months in prison, after which S.J. and she remarried.
S.J. Popeil died July 15, 1984. He was survived by Eloise, Ron, daughter Lisa (a singer and voice coach), and another son.