Recent news that the original Gerber baby had passed away predictably piqued my curiosity. Within the hour I recalled a dozen company mascots based on real people whose images appeared in print advertisements: magazines, billboards, the products themselves. Not included were spokespeople, celebrity or otherwise, nor did I consider human or animated characters regularly associated with certain products: Mr. Whipple surreptitiously squeezing toilet tissue or the tiger roaring about his G-R-E-A-T breakfast cereal.
In 1928 a neighbor submitted a charcoal drawing of the eventual Gerber baby, the cherubic image still gracing the company’s products. The iconic sketch of five-month-old Ann Turner Cook won the national competition and soon became Gerber’s trademark. Ann grew up to become an English teacher who later wrote mystery novels. By the way, she fed her four children Gerber foods!
Little Miss Sunbeam’s image has appeared on bread wrappers since 1942. Her actual identity remains unclear, but that of the artist is undisputed. Children’s book illustrator Ellen Segner created the bread company’s marketing symbol. The artist, who also drew characters for the Dick-and-Jane books we read in school, submitted the painting of a little girl in a blue dress with blond curls piled on top of her head. Check the bread aisle at the supermarket – she’s still there.
Two other advertising symbols are family members still working for the company. Dave Thomas, former franchisee of a KFC restaurant, learned from the Colonel himself the importance of a face to represent the business. When Thomas opened his first Wendy’s restaurant in Columbus, he tapped his daughter to be that face, complete with freckles and pigtails. Wendy, who goes by her family nickname, continues today as a company spokesperson.
Little Debbie’s grandfather, O.D. McKee, who struggled through the Great Depression selling five-cent snack cakes from his car, in 1960 marketed the first family pack of the Oatmeal Crème Pies, still his bestseller. His children have remained with the company, choosing four-year-old granddaughter Debbie in her favorite straw hat as the company symbol. Grown-up Debbie is today a company vice-president and serves on the board of directors.
There are also some boys in my parade of mascots. For example, Californian Bob Wian opened the forerunner of his Big Boy Restaurant in 1936 as Bob’s Pantry. While trying to name a new burger, he greeted chubby six-year-old restaurant patron Richard Woodruff with “Hello, Big Boy!” The rest is history, including those iconic statues with the pompadour and checkered overalls. Eventually West Coast and East Coast versions of the restaurant diverged, with the Frisch’s division headquartered in Cincinnati – the Big Boy at Great American Ball Park wears a Reds uniform.
In 1907 the Dutch Boy brand of paint came into existence, based on a process developed by chemists in Holland. The stylized image of a Dutch boy with light-colored hair and a cap is oddly enough that of an Irish-American boy, Michael Brady, neighbor of artist Lawrence Earle. This subsidiary of Sherwin-Williams has its headquarters in Cleveland.
Then there is Buster Brown with his famous pageboy hairstyle and his dog Tige, introduced as comic strip characters in 1902. Two years later the Brown Shoe Company adopted him as mascot based on a boy named Granville Hamilton Fisher. Buster’s picture appeared in his namesake shoes: “I’m Buster Brown, and I live in a shoe. That’s my dog Tige, and he lives there, too.” I remember a 1950 kiddie show featuring an adventure serial, Gunga, the East India Boy. Buster Brown and Tige appeared in the commercials; Andy DeVine and Froggy with his Magic Twanger hosted.
Two symbols of national patriotism were loosely related to real-life Americans. Uncle Sam, adopted as a national symbol in 1950, may have resembled businessman Sam Wilson during the time of the War of 1812. His nickname was Uncle Sam; the icon of the same name appeared on posters encouraging support and enlistment for World War I. Similarly, Rosie the Riveter graced posters during World War II urging women to replace male factory workers heading overseas. Norman Rockwell created a 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover by bulking up his petite model: the brawny riveter was eating a sandwich next to her lunch pail sporting the name Rosie, her foot planted firmly on Hitler’s Mein Kampf manifesto. The image I most often recall, however, depicts Rosie in blue coveralls and a red-and-white bandana. Many names have been suggested as the original Rosie. My opinion: every woman who ran a household, raised children, AND worked all day in a factory is a Rosie worth our respect.
I am unfortunately nearing my word limit with nary a comment about Miss Blue Bonnet, the Sun-Maid Raisin girl, Hector Boiardi who changed his name to Chef BoyArDee, the little Coppertone girl and her puppy. But I have just enough room for my favorite company representatives: the Breck Girls.
On the back covers of my mother’s Woman’s Home Companion and Ladies’ Home Journal magazines each month appeared a pastel rendering of an impeccably beautiful woman modeling a stylish coiffure. They were the Breck Girls representing the luxury shampoo. Commissioned artist Charles Sheldon preferred “real women” rather than models sit for his portraits, although by the 1970s that practice had been discontinued. Although I have not seen a Breck ad since my girlhood days, the hair product is still available for the modern Breck Woman. No matter – it’s those Breck Girls I will always idolize.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.