Friday, December 24, 2010

THE CULINARY HISTORY DETECTIVE: Triscuits, Cookies and the UNEEDA Biscuit Boy

In the world of advertising, the Uneeda " Biscuit Boy" became the symbol for the very first national advertising campaign EVER for ANY product. The single most famous advertising trademark in the world at the beginning of the century, he was the icon for the National Biscuit Company since 1901.
We recently listed the scruffy yet sweet souvenir letter opener at right on ETSY and decided to do a little research.

We go to the beginning…………

It can be said that NBC (as the National Biscuit Company was then called)began as early as 1792 with the opening of Pearson & Sons Bakery, specializing in what they called “pilot bread”,  a sturdy, durable biscuit that sailors took with them on long voyages.

In 1801, a company called “Josiah Bent Bakery began selling what they called “crackers,” named for the crunchy sound this new discovery made when someone bit into them.

By the turn-of-the-century, bakers sold unbranded crackers packed loosely in large barrels and sent them to grocery stores.  A mother would often send her child to the grocers with a paper bag to fill up to consume later. Alas, nothing protected the goodies from moisture so they would often end up being stale or soggy.

In 1889, entrepreneur William Moore decided he could improve the efficiency of all the existing bakeries by uniting Pearson, Bent, and six others, merging them into one large company to be called the “New York Biscuit Company”.

In another part of the country in1890, a Chicago business man named Adolphus Green acquired forty Midwest bakeries in the Midwest to form the “American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company” and in 1898, Green and Moore decided to combine their two companies.

This  mega-merger ultimately combined 114 bakeries across the United States.  Lawyer Adolphus Green was named president of this new company, and under his direction the company grew to become the biggest manufacturer of cookies in the United States.  

Right at the outset Green decided the National Biscuit Company needed a new idea to grab the public’s attention. When his employees created the Uneeda biscuit,  new flakier and lighter cracker than any of their competitors’ versions, Green wanted to find a way to seal the new product in order to extend its freshness to be free of moisture.

In 1898 Green was the first to use the newly-created, very first, pre-packaged biscuit invention called the In-Er Seal” -  a combination of inter-folded layers of wax paper and cardboard to seal in the freshness of the product. The innovation literally revolutionized the cracker and biscuit business!

The slogan was “ Lest you forget, we say it yet, Uneeda Biscuit”.

Green decided that new packaging wasn’t quite enough - he wanted to go even further! He had the foresight to become of the first companies of the time to think of creating an actual advertising campaign and hired Philadelphia advertising agency N.W. Ayer and Son to promote the product. 

The agency created an illustration of a wholesome little boy holding a box of Uneeda Biscuits, wearing a rain slicker, rain hat and rain boots to demonstrate the moisture-proof nature of the package. The UNEEDA Boy thus became one of the first early American trademarks .

At the beginning of the 20th century the company focused on the expansion of its line of cookies and in 1902, created the famous Barnum's Animal Crackers. Ten years later Lorna Doones and Oreos were created, the latter quickly becoming the world’s best-selling cookie. 

When Green passed away in 1917, the new president, Roy E. Tomilson had to deal with World War I’s rationing of products using sugar and wheat flour. This meant that cookies weren’t as sweet as they used to be and the crackers now had to be made with corn meal and rye. Advertisements of the time depicted Uncle Sam holding the NBC products with the patriotic caption of “made as he says.” 

In the 1920s, NBC expanding its product line to include breakfast cereal, ice cream cones, and pretzels. The Great Depression slowed the company down but they managed to introduce new dog biscuits and Ritz Crackers as the new prestige item.

the original oil painting
In 1941, the word Nabisco officially replaced the letters NBC, undoubtedly to reduce confusion with the recently established National Broadcasting Company, popularly also referred to as NBC. 

During World War II,  Nabisco again had to deal with the rationing of flour, sugar, butter, and oil and had to alter and substitute ingredients. Interestingly, they were also commissioned to develop an emergency field ration (K-Rations) for American troops and even supplied the military’s canine corps with dog biscuits.

Sadly, 100 years later in 2009 Nabisco discontinued the Uneeda biscuit because they were losing profits.

 I KNOW what you are thinking......where did the image of the little boy COME from?

At left,  this small original oil painting on board by a commercial artist named  Fredric Stanley sold for $ 8,812.50 in 2007. He was a cover artist for the Saturday Evening Post and is said to have been a mentor of Norman Rockwell. It was believed to have been the ONLY painting ever commissioned for the original ad campaign.

If you look closely at the painting,  the biscuit box is actually a removable die-cut mock-up of the actual box. This allowed the advertising department to insert any of the company’s products in the Uneeda Boy’s arms for future ads.

What is not well-known is that the image of the "Uneeda Boy" was actually based on a real person named Gordon Stille, who was the five-year old nephew of an advertising agency executive working on the campaign at the time.  

 In 1900, he was photographed wearing the raincoat, hat and boots holding the biscuits,  for which he received $100, a considerable amount at the time! That photograph was then used to create the famous Uneeda boy symbol.

When came time to re-extend the expired copywrite in 1948, the law stated that the company needed the consent of a living person if the image of a still living person were to be registered as a trademark. 

By now, Mr. Stille was a grown man in poor health. He felt that the company had cheated him and he had not been adequately compensated for the use of his imagine so long ago. He refused to sign a consent form and a legal battle ensued. Alas, Mt. Stille passed away without the issue ever being resolved.

But, WAIT!!!! Let us not forget about the history of another of  The National Biscuit Company’s popular acquisitions, TRISCUITS!

In the early 1890’s, Denver native Henry D. Perky noticed a diner eating a bowl of boiled whole wheat broken up with a spoon, which the diner explained  gave him strength and was easy to digest. Perky felt most people wouldn’t want to go to the trouble of breaking up the wheat themselves and discovered that by both shredding the cooked wheat and toasting it, the flavor and texture became more palatable.

Perky took this idea to his machinist friend Willliam Ford in Watertown, NY., who developed a machine process that drew the cooked wheat into shreds, formed the shreds into loaves and baked them in coal ovens.

Perky’s original intention was to sell the machine rather than the biscuits, and he returned to Denver selling  biscuits from horse-drawn wagons to popularize the concept, forming “The Cereal Machine Company”.

Alas, the biscuits became more popular than the machines, so Perky moved back East to open his first bakeries in Boston and Wooster in 1895, retaining the original nameThe Cereal Machine Company” but also adding the name “The Shredded Wheat Company”.

 In 1898 Perky got a patent for  a “new and original design for wafers, a cracker-like biscuit.

In 1901, Perky was drawn to the idea of a new inexpensive form of power as well as the draw of the popular tourist attraction and he moved his company to Niagara Falls, NY. where the company became known as “The Natural Food Conservatory. and the new factory was actually called "The Palace of Light," , white-tiled and well-lit.

In 1901, he received two more patents for a “
cracker of filamentous or shredded wheat” featuring a waffle-like texture. He named the wafer TRISCUIT and production began in 1903 in Niagara Falls, NY. The packaging claimed “ Baked by Electricity”. For the next 21 years the wafer measured 4” x 2 ¼” and when the ovens were modernized and improved, the cracker became 2” square.

In 1908 the company became known once again as “
The Shredded Wheat Company” and more factories were built in 1911 in Niagara Falls, Ontario (The Canadian Shredded Wheat Company) and 1915  in California (The Pacific Coast Shredded Wheat Company)  and finally in 1926, a factory in England, outside London.

In December 1928, the company was sold to
The National Biscuit Company which in 1933 put its name on the packaging as “National Biscuit Shredded Wheat" instead of the original  “Home of Shredded Wheat” . In 1941 it changed to “Nabisco Shredded Wheat”

In 1954, that last original plant,  the "Palace of Light" was shut down.

At the close of 2010, the Uffner Vintage staff wants  to take the opportunity of wishing all our faithful readers a very happy , healthy and a very peaceful New Year!  ( Helen is Santa, of course!)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

COINCIDENCES: The Tale of a Journey of a 1950's Pair of Earrings!

the "double-decker" earrings we sold to Laura
In the “believe it or not” category, picture this: 

We list a pair of amazing hand-painted 1950’s porcelain earrings for sale that has even has its original manufacturer’s sticker on the back. 
Immediately, we get an email from someone in California who is floating on a cloud because she collects these apparent rare examples of “Milvern Originals” earrings.

And WHY does she collect them? Because her mother was one of the original artists who painted them back in the 1950’s! ! What are the chances?

She wrote :
 “Hello!! I woke up this morning to no water because the pipes froze overnight. But these earrings instantly warmed ME up! My mother created this design when she worked for Milvern Originals of Beverly Hills back in the 1950s. They produced very few because Vern, the boss, said they were too labor intensive to be selling for $1. Yes, $1. Can you believe that?? I have collected over 300 pairs of Milvern earrings, but only 3 pairs of these "double-deckers". You don't know how happy I am to get them.

Interesting, we could find absolutely no research on this short-lived company on the web aside from a brief mention: “There is very little information available about this company and their pieces are very difficult to come by”.  

Happily,  the designer’s daughter Laura shared what little she learned after questioning her mother.

Apparently, the Milvern Originals jewelry company was founded by Mildred and Vern Schervem in 1954 in Beverly Hills.

Vern Schervem rented out part of his building to a manufacturer of plastic bubble bath bottles that were shaped like cartoon characters,. They occasionally show up in antique stores but though they also have the Milvern name on them, they were not connected to the jewelry business.

a pendant and earring set
The company made earrings, cufflinks and pins and rarely, a pendant. No two sets of earrings were ever alike, even if it was just an added decorative dot of gold.

Since hand-painting was costly, towards the end of the “Malvern Original” reign the company started using a repetitive feather gold edge in lieu of the costlier hand-painted patterns.

There were “single” piece earrings and “double-pieced” rarer earrings, with two porcelain pieces attached on top of each other (which was what we sold to Laura). In her vast collection, Laura only had 2 doubles, so she was delighted to buy ours to add to the others!
above and below, examples of the double earrings Laura had already in her collection - notice how those and the ones she bought from us are so similar!

The pieces were made by pouring the slip into molds.  Without exception, the molds were always slightly concave -  no matter what the shape, they were never flat. Sometimes the piece was turned over so the finished  jewelry piece was convex.  Pressurized air was used to get the pieces out of the molds. 
another earring and pendant set

Since they were still somewhat soft when they came out of their molds, Laura’s Mom claimed that they threw many pieces away because they didn’t always retain their shapes.

They were dried, and after a powdered color was sprinkled on the top they were fired.  The painters on staff then painted unique designs on each piece after they came out of the kiln.
the back of the earring

The most popular shape, by far, was round with the edges "pinched up" to resemble a square or triangle (like the pictured pair we sold).  There were squares, rectangles, quarter moons (these were rarer), painter's palettes, leaves, teardrops, dishes, diamonds (like the second part of ours), amongst others.

All the clips, pins, screwbacks, or cufflink attachments were then glued on, a little Milvern sticker was put on the back and the pieces were put on cards.

It was Laura’s Mom who took the idea of making cufflinks to Vern, but the boss answered that no man would wear such feminine cufflinks!

So…….her mom took a pair of earrings, painted beer mugs on them, took them to the bar next door where the co-workers congregated and asked if anyone thought people would buy them if they were cufflinks! Oh, yeah!

They turned out to be such a big hit that they put those into production, and  it turned out that business women were even greatly attracted to them!

Laura has about 25 sets of cufflinks in her collection, but they were not nearly as popular as the other pieces. 

Her Mom had kept only 3 pairs of her handiwork all those years ago and Laura initially thought these were the only ones that survived, but about 20 years ago they started surfacing every now and then in antique stores and online sites. Laura’s theory is that the women who bought them on the 50’s are now sadly passing away and their offspring are selling their possessions.

Should you come across any to sell, Laura would love to hear from you to add to her collection and honor her Mom's work! You can email her at