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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 1
Despite not actually existing, unicorns are everywhere. Usually depicted as large horse-like animals with a single, spiraling horn, unicorns adorn onesies, sneakers, and slippers. You can dress up in a unicorn costume, light a “unicorn puke” candle, or wear glittery, pastel-colored unicorn makeup. YouTube has thousands of videos dedicated to DIY unicorn horns and cakes. Unicorn pool floats are an Instagram niche unto themselves.
While they have become the unofficial mascot of whimsy and individualism, unicorns were once regarded as fearsome beasts, and they show up in legends and myths all across Asia and Europe. Why, after millennia of unicorn lore, does it feel like they’re having a real moment? Saddle up and let’s ride through this sparkly, rainbow-hued fever dream.
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 2
90,000 scudi: Price of a powdered “unicorn horn” that was sold to the Pope in the 16th century
9: References to unicorns in the Old Testament of the King James bible
$1 billion: Valuation needed for a startup to be considered a “unicorn”
31 million: Views of a How To Make a Unicorn Cake on YouTube
$5,695: Price of a Judith Leiber Couture unicorn crystal clutch bag
76: Grams of sugar in a Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 3
First used in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, in the tech world the term “unicorn” refers to a privately held startup that is valued at over $1B—a designation only 0.07% of startups ever achieve. A decacorn refers to a company worth $10B; a hectocorn is one valued at $100B.
According to CB Insights, there are 463 unicorn startups worldwide, though the current economic uncertainty makes that subject to sudden change. As of April 2020, the top decacorn is ByteDance, a Chinese AI firm (and corporate parent to TikTok), valued at $75B. Others include Airbnb, SpaceX, DoorDash, JUUL Labs, and Instacart. In June 2018, scooter company Bird became the first startup to reach unicorn status in under one year from inception.
But as more startups gain the revered unicorn title, is it still meaningful? As Quartz reporter Alison Griswold writes, “the US tech industry has averaged 35 new unicorns a year for the last five years, more than eight times the rate from when Lee coined the term.” Unicorns are supposed to be rare and elusive—not something you see a few times every month. “[L]et’s call these companies by another name,” Griswold suggests. “How about deer, because they are so common, or prairie dogs, because they keep popping up? If you want something mythical, why not the centaur, which at least lives in a herd?”
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 4
“There are wild elephants and plenty of unicorns, which are scarcely smaller than elephants…They are very ugly brutes to look at.”
—Italian explorer Marco Polo, likely describing a Sumatran rhinoceros according to the American Museum of Natural History
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 6
Unicorns were once associated with royalty and power. From the kirin, a unicorn-like creature ridden by the ancient Korean King Tongmyong, to the narwhal tusks masquerading as unicorn horns that adorned medieval European castles, they were rare and awe-inspiring, and unicorn artifacts and decorative objects were expensive.
Today they’re much… cuter than all that, often rendered with giant, long-lashed eyes, splashed with glitter and rainbows. In 2009, Jim Windolf bemoaned the overly cute state of the American aesthetic in an essay in Vanity Fair. He connected a desire for cuteness with a deep sense of unease about the world. “In a decade that has slapped us with a recession in the wake of 9/11 and an unending war waged in two theaters, Americans are producing a popular culture that seems to be saying, Please like us,” he writes.
Vox writer Alex Abad-Santos connects the unicorn-shaped desire for the soothing nostalgia of shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, to the intensely visual nature of trends fueled by social media. “The brighter and louder the trend was, the more likely we are to remember it and feel that nostalgic pang,” he writes. “Not only that, but the more eye-catching something is, the more likely it is to spread on online.”
Unicorns, though, are not simply comforting and nostalgic, argues Alice Fisher. They have long reflected duality—fierce unicorns were tamed by the purity of young virgins; the prim Victorians produced unicorn porn. “It is interesting that an animal once so traditionally male is now not only a campaigner of gay rights but often portrayed as female,” Fisher writes in The Guardian. “Its gender fluidity seems emblematic of our times—and under the glitter, the modern unicorn isn’t asexual.” So, they’re cute, comfortingly nostalgic, but low-key sexy, gender-fluid symbols that play well on social media—no wonder unicorns are having a moment.
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 7
15,000 BC: The first drawing of a one-horned “unicorn” dates back to the ancient Lascaux Caves in France, though it is likely a two-horned animal drawn in profile.
400 BC: Greek physician and historian Ctesias is the first person to write about a “one-horned animal.”
1500: A cycle of six tapestries called The Lady and the Unicorn, woven from silk and wool, are made at the behest of a French patron and likely woven in the Netherlands, which was home to the best weavers of medieval Europe.
1590: Pope Gregory XIV receives medicinal “unicorn horn” (an African white rhinoceros horn) on his deathbed, which proves ineffective.
1660s: The Throne Chair of Denmark, inspired by King Solomon’s throne from the Bible, is made using unicorn horn—which is actually narwhal tusk.
1920: Archeologists in South Asia unearth artifacts from the Indus Valley civilization with etchings clearly representing unicorns.
1952: Unicorn references in the Old Testament of the King James Bible are changed to “wild ox” in the Revised Standard Version.
1979: Lisa Frank Incorporated is founded and a sparkly age of rainbow unicorn magic begins.
1982: The Last Unicorn, an animated film starring Mia Farrow, is released.
2012: North Korea’s government news agency confirms the existence of the “lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong.”
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 8
If you think “unicorn” and picture a flying horse soaring across the sky, that’s actually Pegasus, an immortal winged horse from Greek mythology. Unicorns cannot fly.
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 9
One-horned horses may or may not be real, but these unicorn lookalikes are anything but make-believe.
🌊 Narwhal: Narwhals, the unicorns of the sea! The horn of a narwhal is not a horn, but a tooth that helps narwhals detect changes in water pressure, temperature, and salinity. Those spiral-shaped teeth have been passed off as unicorn horns, though.
🌄 Rhinoceros: Rhinos were one of the first animals to often be confused with a unicorn—the rhino’s one giant horn protruding from its forehead is used to forage for food, protect calves, and defend their territory.
🐟 Unicornfish: The 24-inch (61-cm) unicornfish has a protruding forehead spike between the eyes and can change its color; both may be used as a “conspicuous signal in courtship.”
🐛 Unicorn praying mantis: There are several species of unicorn praying mantis that have a horn-like protrusion between their antennae. The horns are actually two different pieces that overlap as the mantis matures, giving it the appearance of one horn. The most common species of unicorn mantis is found in southern Texas.
🍤 Unicorn shrimp: Also known as the “narwhal shrimp,” the unicorn shrimp is named after its horn-like “rostrum” between its eyes that is covered in tiny, closely-set teeth. The rostrum is used to help the shrimp fend off attackers and provide stability when the shrimp swims backwards.
🐕 Bonus: Rae, the unicorn golden retriever, who has just one ear sticking out of the top of her head. Rae has garnered over 200,000 Instagram followers and over 4 million views on TikTok.
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 10
In 1971, Bill Rabe, director of PR for Lake Superior State University, created a club called the Unicorn Hunters. It became well known for quirky stunts like burning a snowman on the first day of spring, World Sauntering Day, and an annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness. Most of all though, the club was known for issuing unicorn questing licenses during unicorn questing season. While not as active as it once was when Rabe was on campus, the Unicorn Hunters still issue licenses. Michigan’s own 9 & 10 News reports.
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Quartz Obsession — Unicorns — Card 11
In medieval European art, the unicorn was a symbol of purity, and of Christ. Actual unicorn parts were also believed to be powerful medicine. In the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen, a German nun, recommended powdered unicorn liver mixed with egg yolk to prevent leprosy. Demand from European royals for unicorn horns, which were usually actually narwhal teeth, was so high that they were worth several times their weight in gold. Queen Elizabeth I of England drank from a £10,000 unicorn horn, believing that if poison touched the cup, it would explode. Her successor, King James I, was skeptical after serving poison in the unicorn horn to a servant who died—even after receiving powdered unicorn horn as an antidote.
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