Thursday, May 6, 2010

Bedtime Story Personal Letters

Note: This will be the last regular post I make to the Thornton W. Burgess Research League. My sabbatical is over and I need to begin to shape this material into suitably scholarly form. I thought I would leave you with something to chew on for a while.

In September, 1915, Thornton Burgess began writing a weekly column designed to appear on Sundays in newspapers running his bedtime story feature and hosting a Bedtime Story Club. (The Boston Daily Globe, which apparently didn't have a club, ran reprints of Mother West Wind stories instead). These were called "personal letters"--Burgess addressed his readers directly and attempted to guide club activities. In many ways this column prefigures the Radio Nature League, not just in the kinds of concerns addressed (feed the birds, make bird houses) but in the way Burgess tries to create a personal connection with his audience.

Google News Archive offers access to these personal letters via its Milwaukee Journal collection. Not all of them are indexed, but I was able to browse through a few months worth to give you links to the first 25 or so of these columns.

You may remember that the Bedtime Story club concept was an invention of the Kansas City Star and was then picked up by other papers, most notably the New York Globe. The Milwaukee Journal first announced the club on May 20, 1915.

To read the copy, click on the image below.

Children were instructed to clip a coupon from the following Sunday's paper to become a member (and receive a cool badge). It wasn't necessary to formally sign a pledge to be kind to animals; club membership was enough.

Here's the coupon

The club was advertised again the following week. Three thousand had signed up; the Journal wanted tens of thousands.

As far as I can tell, the club's main business for the first few months was a story contest. That changed, however, when Thornton W. Burgess himself became the effective club leader.

Here's the opening column, dated September 26, 1915.

Burgess charges the membership to be "kind to Mother Nature's children" and "protect them from their enemies", adding that he wants to make the club a "tremendous power for good." He also invites readers to imagine that he has a personal relationship with each one of them.

Below I've listed a number of personal letters, stretching into March 1916. Have fun!
October 3, 1915
October 10, 1915

October 17, 1915

October 24, 1915
October 31, 1915
November 7, 1915
November 14, 1915
November 21, 1915
November 28, 1915
December 5, 1915
December 12, 1915
December 19, 1915
December 26, 1915
January 2, 1916
January 9, 1916
January 16, 1916 Scroll Up
January 23, 1916
January 30, 1916
February 6, 1916
February 13, 1916
February 20, 1916 Scroll up
February 27, 1916
March 5, 1916
March 12, 1916

From here on the Google indexing and scanning gets very spotty. The column, however, would continue for a little while longer.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Pauline stories, or, how to get readers to read the ads

As early as 1903, Good Housekeeping was running advertising-related puzzles. Readers could win cash prizes and advertiser merchandise by solving the puzzles and finding the associated Good Housekeeping ads. Beginning in 1906, Good Housekeeping ran a series of advertising puzzle stories. The stories featured Pauline, as narrated by her husband, James, in a variety of domestic situations. Thornton Burgess wrote the stories.

Here's an example from June 1906

Look through the ads before and after the Pauline story. Got the answer?
No, it's not "Hand-I-Hold Babe Mits."
(By the way, as in all advertising from this era, there will be much to offend the contemporary reader).

Here is the answer, pretty simple in my opinion.

Here's the ad itself

The Pauline stories work in two ways. First, in an era of increasing advertising clutter (yes, this was a problem even 100 years ago), the contest was a way to focus attention on magazine ads. Second, this was essentially branded entertainment. While the stories are not strikingly original, they are well-written and lightly humorous. Good solid slice-of-life long copy ads, really.

This was an era in which the relationships between media, advertisers, and readers were still being worked out. In the same (June 1906) issue, you can see the editors of Good Housekeeping promoting their principle of "reciprocity."

Indeed, in addition to the Pauline story in the June 1906 issue, there was another advertising puzzle (these were all devised by Burgess, apparently). Here are the rules:

Here is the puzzle itself.

For several years, Good Housekeeping had previously run a "rebus contest" that basically operated the same way. Note the clause that requires readers to write about their knowledge of or experiences with Good Housekeeping advertised products in order to win. I do not have the answer (the bound library volumes of Good Housekeeping that Google scanned have most of their advertising pages removed).

So let's play the Pauline story game. I'll embed a story below and it's your job to find the right ad. I'll provide the answer tomorrow.

The ads start here

UPDATE: Here's the answer

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Colgate Incident

Illustration for "Great fun on a slippery slide" (May 17, 1915).
 In the Thornton Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, there is a folder marked "Colgate Incident." I don't know if Burgess tells this story elsewhere (I don't see a reference in his autobiography) or ever refers to it this way. [UPDATE: the incident is central to a 1929 People's Home Journal profile, titled "Why is Thornton W. Burgess]. Nevertheless, it is an amusing story.

Sometime during 1923, Burgess happened to see an advertisement for Colgate Ribbon Toothpaste featuring an illustration of an otter sliding down a river bank. Burgess wrote a letter to Colgate asking why the otter was sliding with its front legs erect. Had anyone ever seen an otter slide like this? The authorities he had consulted made it doubtful. [Note: I wonder if he was worried that Harrison Cady's 1915 illustration--above--had spread false information.]

Burgess received his reply and soon received an invitation to write stories for a series of six Colgate ads (for a significant amount of money). Colgate's agency at the time was Thresher Service Advertising in New York.

The six stories have Peter Rabbit, in his finest Burgess Bird Book for Children form, visiting a series of animal friends and learning how important their teeth are to them. Animals featured included Paddy the Beaver, Billy Mink (needs sharp teeth to catch fish), Reddy Fox (needs sharp teeth to challenge Old Man Coyote), Happy Jack Squirrel, and Prickly Porky. In one story Peter himself is caught in a trap and needs to gnaw his way out. Clearly teeth are important--maybe "the most important thing anyone can have."

What is remarkable about these ads is how masterfully the stories make the persuasive point (you must care for your teeth; Colgate is the best way to do it) while preserving the integrity of the truthful animal story. It is in fact, completely true that these animals wouldn't survive if they lacked sound teeth.

The HGARC offers other examples of Burgess characters and advertising: "The Baby Turtle that Startles Peter Rabbit" written for the Animate Toy Company in 1920; "Wah Wah Taysee" written for Mohawk Ozonate Beverages; "Peter Rabbit Puts on Airs," licensed for use in an advertising booklet for Frozen Mints chewing gum. Unlike the Colgate Incident, however, the archive only provides the manuscripts, not the background information.

Finally, though this is more Harrison Cady than Burgess per se, a famous (among collectors, anyway) ad for Fisk Redtop Tires.

Next: Pauline stories, or, how to get readers to read ads

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Happy Jack's Thrift Club

Thornton Burgess lays out the story of Happy Jack's Thrift Club in his autobiography as well as in a March 1923 profile in The Rotarian (Burgess was a long-standing member of the Rotary Club). I've used the Rotarian account below:

During the war when the thrift and war-savings stamps were introduced, I was appealed to by a local committee for aid in interesting the school children in buying these stamps. They had not taken hold well in the schools of my city. Patriotism and thrift were the only appeals. Thrift is a dry subject at best even to the adult mind. I wrote a series of stories of Happy Jack Squirrel, the thriftiest of animals, and how he formed a thrift club in the Green Forest to which only such of his neighbors as laid up food for future use and thus were thrifty could belong. Peter Rabbit, happy-go-lucky and thriftless, wanted to become a member, and in his misdirected endeavors to be thrifty made plain even to the smallest child the difference between thrift and thriftlessness.

Five Happy Jack thrift stories appeared in the Springfield Republican in March 1918. The first story, widely reprinted, can be read below:

You can see how masterfully Burgess frames the natural behavior of the gray squirrel in moral and persuasive terms. In subsequent episodes, Peter Rabbit attempts to join the club, which includes most of his quaddy friends, and when he fails (Happy Jack breaks the truth to him: "You're lazy") Peter initially thinks to set up his own "thriftless" club but eventually becomes an "associate member" by helping other animals with their collections. The last story in the series makes the sell: "Happy Jack helps Uncle Sam."

Burgess's stories were a hit.

Happy Jack Thrift Clubs immediately sprang up in every school. There were Happy Jack parades, plays and other activities. The relation of thrift to patriotism was so obvious that no child could miss it. The success of the plan was immediate. The idea was taken up by the state committee and later spread to other states.

Burgess's skillful use of the natural behavior of animals to communicate about human morality would also be of service in advertising.

Next: The Colgate Incident