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

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