Ronald Martin Popeil was born May 3, 1935, in the Bronx. When he was 3, his parents divorced and essentially abandoned him.
“I don’t like to talk about my family. It wasn’t very homey,” he said more than once.
Popeil and his older brother spent their early years at a boarding school in upstate New York. Relatives never visited, he later said.
His paternal grandparents claimed the brothers when Ron was about 7, and they lived with an aunt in Florida before moving to Chicago with their grandparents when Popeil was 13.
But his childhood remained unhappy. His grandparents fought constantly and his grandfather was mean, Popeil later said.
In Chicago, Popeil began discovering his family heritage while working weekends at Popeil Brothers, founded by his father and an uncle in 1939.
The father he barely knew was Samuel Popeil, a descendant of sidewalk hustlers and manufacturer of kitchenware. He also came up with such gadgets as the original Veg-O-Matic and Pocket Fisherman.
On Chicago’s gritty Maxwell Street, Popeil turned to selling his father’s inventions and found he had an affinity for it.
“Through sales I could escape from poverty and the miserable existence I had with my grandparents,” Popeil wrote in his autobiography. “I had lived for 16 years in a home without love, and now I had finally found a form of affection and a human connection through sales.”
As a teen out on his own, Popeil peddled wares in the flagship Woolworth’s downtown, doing as many as six demonstrations in an hour.