What if I told you there was a company that made stuff exclusively for guys, invented promotional advertising, and had their product in the hands in one out of every three Americans in the early 1950’s? And that this company was run by a rapacious ex-con who rode with Pancho Villa and was connected to Bugsy Siegel and murder incorporated? Oh and did I mention, this company produced three of America’s finest illustrators who were all local guys from Minnesota?
My interest in Brown & Bigelow started as a collector. I collect sporting dog art and am fascinated by 20th century Americana. Trolling through various categories on Ebay I was consistently drawn to Brown & Bigelow (B&B) items. Prints of hunting dogs, Cowboys, and antique cars – products that had obviously been produced for consumption by men. There was something about the point of view, the aesthetic – that I was drawn to. There is quite a bit of it available online and I wondered if other people thought it was as cool as I did. When I started Men’s Americana I knew that Brown & Bigelow was something I wanted to write about. I didn’t know what an interesting story it was.
In my opinion the golden years for Brown & Bigelow are the post war years 1945 - 1975, a 30-year period when three artists from Minnesota produced some amazing work. Look at this amazing artwork and then read the fascinating story behind it.
The Amazing Post-War Artists of Brown & Bigelow
Gil Elvgren was arguably the best pinup artist the world has ever known. Between the 1945 when he went to work for Brown & Bigelow, to 1972 he produced over 500 paintings of American female perfection. Most of them were painted in the B&B format of 30’ x 24’ canvas painted in brilliant oil and then reproduced as calendars and matchbook covers. Today the original paintings are highly collectable and sell in the $150,000+ range at auction. His models included Myrna Loy, Donna Reed, and Kim Novak – Some of the 20th century’s most beautiful actresses.
Elvgren’s ideal was the girl next door. His women had personalities - real girls in real situations. He was quoted as saying that his perfect model would have a “ 15 year old face on a 21 year old body”. These woman with their nipped-in waists, D-cup breasts, long legs, big blue eyes, with pouting red lips both catered to, informed, and enflamed the desires of American men in the post war years and I might add, created some of the impossible stereotypes that American woman still struggle with today.
Elvgren was born in Saint Paul in 1914 and studied at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and later the American Academy of Art in Chicago.
A photo of Elvgren’s model in a pose and the final painting
If Elvgren could be described as the man who loved women, Breyers could be described as the man who ‘got’ country folks- the Norman Rockwell of the Midwest and West. His best known creation is Hilda, the lusty, country, plus–size pinup. If Elvgren objectified post-war perfection, Breyers created a curvy everyman’s gal who did not seem so unattainable to the guy who hung her calendar in his barn or garage.
Born in remote part of Michigan’s upper peninsula in 1911, Breyer’s family moved to Virginia Minnesota, a mining town near Fond du Lac when he was 12. Virginia was a very rural place and growing up Breyers learned first-hand about hard work. He worked in a sawmill, dug ditches, and gained an appreciation for hard working people of the plains. In the summers he went to a cousin’s ranch in Arizona and worked side by side with real cowboys. These scenes of his youth provided a life-time of material for his art and a passion for portraying the personality and humor of real cowboys and country girls doing real country things. Unlike Elvgren, who studied at two of the Midwest’s finest art academies, Breyers was basically self taught. He would take out how to draw books from the library and enrolled in a correspondence course. Breyers tried other occupations but always was drawn back to drawing. In 1939 when he was 28 he received a commission to paint a mural documenting the history of mining in the Mesabi iron range. He took the $3,000 payment and set off for New York to ‘astound the art World’(his tongue & cheek quote). It was a golden age for illustrators and he entered the fray of commercial magazine, newspaper, and book illustration. When he wasn’t working, he would haunt the New York galleries & museums studying the work of the masters and perfecting his technique. With World War 2 Breyers entered the Army Air Force in 1943 and further honed his skills painting girlie art on the sides of bombers. Breyers was a natural cartoonist and while in the service created his first syndicated strip called ‘Cokey’ which ran in the air force newspaper. His best known character ‘Hilda’ was actually created when he was working in New York. After the war he approached Brown and Bigelow with his plump pinup and got a deal to publish a calendar. The company expected it to be a one off thing, but it turned out to be a hit and ended up running for the next 36 years. The combination of Breyers earthy sense of humor, the country Americana charm, and Hilda’s complete comfort in her body made the whole thing less lurid and more innocent.
In Breyers, Charlie Ward finally had an artist in his stable that knew the world he had lived in and loved – the mining camps, saddle tramps and western scenes of real working cowboys. When he wasn’t painting Hilda, Breyers created authentic western scenes for Brown & Bigelow’s playing cards & calendars. It helped that Breyers had set up his studio in Sonoita Arizona (near Tucson) in 1958 and was surrounded by the ranches, deserts, and cowboys that he loved. His easel usually had his well worn Stetson perched on the top while he painted his western art.
In 1974 Breyers published ‘The Bunkhouse Boys From The Lazy Daisy Ranch’ a graphic novel about a cast of imaginary cowboy characters. His wife Dee helped him write it and I have seen copies available on eBay and Etsy. After that Dick Breyers become more well known as a leading western artist and became the center of a group of expat illustrators from New York and elsewhere (“The Tucson 7”) sort of a cowboy salon. He continued to paint until his death in 2012 a month shy of his 101st birthday.
Breyer’s book ‘The Bunkhouse Boys from the Lazy Daisy Ranch’ published in 1974
Stanford “Stan” Fenelle
Photo of a young Stanford Fenelle. Photos of him are rare
Fans of Brown & Bigelow know Stan Fenelle as the guy that painted the hunting dogs in the field. In the 50’s, 60’s, & 70’s Brown & Bigelow sold millions of ‘Form craft’ reproductions of his hunting scenes as calendars and framed prints. The proprietary process involved reproducing the art on vacu-formed plastic with certain key elements such as the dogs embossed out in three dimensions for a more lifelike effect. It sounds like something with the potential to look extremely tacky, but in fact the sculpture and brush work of Fenelle’s painting is so good, and the quality of the printing was so ahead of it’s time that the result is fantastic. I aspire to own one, and there are quite few to be found on eBay & Etsy.
Like Elvgren and Breyers, Fenelle was passionate about his subject. He bred & showed his own hunting dogs, was an avid sportsman, and judged dog shows and field trials. In Fenelle’s painting there is a lifelike quality to the dogs that is arguably unsurpassed and it is all created with loose painterly brushwork. Like Elvgren, he was a product of the Minneapolis School of Art, which seems to have been a fantastic art school in the early 20th century. During the thirties during the depression Fenelle worked for the WPA documenting rural Minnesota. He went to work for Brown & Bigelow in 1944 and continued to paint for them for over 30 years. Born and raised in South Minneapolis he lived in the same house from his boyhood in 1915 until his death at the age of 86 in 1995!
Fine example of one of Fenelle’s form-craft prints
Copy accompanying a Fenelle calendar
The back of a form-craft print showing the vacu-form
Some examples of Fenelle’s WPA work documenting the Minnesota countryside
The Incredible Story of Brown & Bigelow & Charlie Ward
If you go to Brown & Bigelow’s corporate website (the company is still alive and well) you will find a short boring history of the company and no mention of Charles Allen Ward – the man who improbably went from felonious cellmate of the founder Herbert Huse Bigelow, to a 31-year reign as president during which he shaped the company in his own unique image in its most successful post-war years. This is not surprising if you know anything about Midwestern propriety because Charles Ward was not quite respectable. To understand where Ward came from is to understand the B&B brand that millions of Americans came to know and love, and the artists he hired and promoted.
A young Herbert Bigelow
Herbert Huse Bigelow was an industrious Vermont Yankee calendar salesman working in the Midwest. In 1896 he teamed up with a printer named Hiram Brown to realize his dream of having his own calendar company. Brown invested $3,000 & Bigelow $1,500. It was a one-man operation with Bigelow doing the selling and the printing. They set up operations in a second floor print shop in Saint Paul Minnesota.Bigelow was a man of frugal taste and hard working habits and soon the young firm became a force to be reckoned with in the calendar world of the 1890’s. The first branch sales office opened in Boston in 1902, and by 1899 they had to move to larger space. By 1904 the company employed 400 people. There was only one problem, in 1913 Congress passed the 16th Amendment creating a federal income tax and Bigelow didn’t agree with it. The new income tax law was being widely ignored and in the early 1920’s after the teapot dome scandal in Washington the federal government chose to prosecute a few selected businessmen from each geographic area of the country. One of these was Herbert Bigelow. He expected to be fined but instead was sentenced to 3 years in Leavenworth federal penitentiary.
Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary
This is where the story gets weird. Waiting for Bigelow in prison was a man named Charles Allen Ward who seemed to be able to exert great influence over other people. Ward was serving a ten-year sentence and had earned a reputation as someone who was good with his fists and that you wanted to stay on the right side of. When hearing of the impending arrival of the millionaire tax-evader he managed get assigned as Bigelow’s cellmate where he became his companion and protector for the next two years.
Brown & Bigelow's headquarters - The House of Quality
Charlie Ward’s life reads like fantastical fiction but appears to be true. Born on the Seattle waterfront in 1886 and raised by a single mother, he grew up running errands in saloons which included shining patrons shoes, beating up penny ante gamblers who wouldn’t pay their debts, and arranging liaisons with prostitutes for sea captains. When he was 14 his mother married a seaman named Ward who gave him his name and whom he fought with constantly. At 17 in 1903 he hopped a freight train and didn’t look back. He rode the rails with hobos and made his way to the sparsely populated American southwest where in the words of one historian “there wasn’t a wire fence from the Gulf of Mexico to as far west as a man could ride.”
Charles Allen Ward
Ward’s life in southwest and Mexican border territories included being a Saloon bouncer, gambler, a prospector for gold, and a ‘high grader’ which meant stealing ore that someone else had mined. ‘High grading’ was rampant in the ‘National’ tent city near Winnemucca where Ward had come to prospect. After Ward had accumulated enough gold, he moved on to Tonopah where rich men came to get divorces and beautiful woman went to prospect for husbands. In all of these places the principle pastime was gambling and Ward claimed to have doubled the $5,000 he had left the National with at the roulette wheel. From there it was on to El Paso where there was money to made supplying Pancho Villa’s Mexican Revolution. If all of this sounds to you like something Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, or The Grateful Dead sang about, you’re not wrong.
Songwriter Townes Van Zandt - Writer of 'Pancho & Lefty'
Ward and a buddy ‘Jim’ headed to El Paso to get in on the profiteering business supplying Pancho Villa’s revolutionary army. Their ticket in was volunteering to turn two Ford station wagons into ‘armored’ cars (Jim knew something about steel fabrication). When it came to negotiating compensation with Villa Ward asked to paid with the hides from the cows butchered to feed the men. He salted them down and sold 800 per month to leather dealers in el Paso for $6 each. Years later when ward was running B&B he introduced western themed ‘Mission Leather’ items which harkened back to his days selling hides. Ward rode with Villa for three years as a soldier of fortune until Jim was shot by a Federale sniper driving one of the ‘armored’ cars and Ward decided he had pushed his luck far enough. He did not wait around to discuss the quality of the armor with Villa. He took off for the border on a fast horse.
In 1916 at the age of thirty, Ward could look back on a life of spare circumstances and close calls. He felt like going on a spree, and that is what he did. For the next several years he raised hell all over the southwest. At that time the west was starting to get settled and Ward and his ilk were described as “desperados, highwaymen, and border riff-raff” and they inevitably ran afoul of reformers and the law. In an interview given in 1938 to The Saturday Evening Post Ward talked about his criminal past;“They tailed me everywhere” he is quoted as saying “I was kind of flattered but if a load of Opium or cocaine was smuggled across the border Charlie Ward came under suspicion”. Federal agents finally caught up with him at a party in a hotel room in Denver in 1918 where he was caught with cocaine. He claimed they planted it, and it must have been a weak case because it took two years to prosecute, and he was sent to prison for possession, rather than trafficking. He received a 10 year sentence to Leavenworth just the same.
The House of Quality decorated for Christmas
When Herbert Bigelow arrived at Leavenworth in 1923 to serve his sentence for tax evasion and terrified of the prospect of going from millionaire to convict, Charlie Ward was waiting for him. Ward quickly made a deal with Bigelow that he would provide him with protection in exchange for future employment when he got out. Ward confided to a fellow convict about Bigelow that “He’s a miserable piece of humanity but I’m going to help him.”Over the two year period that they shared a cell, Ward made it his business to learn every detail about Bigelow’s successful calendar business. Details about operations and employees, their strengths and weaknesses. Ward worked his prison connections to become a back channel conduit of information from Bigelow to his management, and in doing so became familiar all details of the business.
Herbert Bigelow & Charles Ward on Bigelow’s 2,000 acre dairy farm in Hudson MN in the 1920’s. Hudson is 15 miles east of St. Paul
In April of 1924 when Calvin Coolidge pardoned Bigelow after he had served 8 months of a 3 year sentence, figuring he had learned his lesson, Ward must have felt confident that he could look forward to employment from Bigelow when he was due to be released one month later. In fact Bigelow tried to welsh on the deal, he offered Ward $25,000 to go away. But Ward wouldn’t have it and insisted on their deal. Bigelow was a gentleman and when Ward showed up the next morning at 7:30 for work, Bigelow put him to work feeding a rubber machine at $25 per week. Ward quickly realized that Bigelow had given him the dirtiest job in the company thinking he would quit, but he obviously underestimated who he was dealing with. Ward the gambler decided to play the hand he had been dealt. He made a promise to himself that he would push weaker men aside and one day sit at Bigelow’s desk running the whole show.
Ward in his Stetson
From that moment on, Ward approached his career they way Pancho Villa approached a battle – without mercy. In a month Ward was foreman of the rubber line. A few weeks later the superintendent of the novelty division was stricken with appendicitis and Ward was assigned to substitute for him. When the man returned to work he was the ex- superintendent. “I saw that if I didn’t get rid of the men above me one at a time, they would get rid of me eventually, so I used facts, figures, and argument to convince Mr. Bigelow that I was the better man for the job”. Ward was quoted in a 1938 Saturday Evening Post interview. A big factor in Ward’s rise was his creation of loyalists throughout the company – dozens of ex-cons who held jobs at every level. When he got into his first position of authority Ward put out word to his prison contacts that any man who wasn’t afraid to work could get a job at B&B. Many didn’t make the cut (ward would fire anyone at a moment’s notice) but those that did were extremely loyal and anyone who tried to block Ward’s rise had to contend with them. There were several time during his ascent when the company board tried to get rid of him. Each time they were thwarted.
Charles Ward with his crocodile smile
Another weird thing about this story is that Ward and Bigelow became inseparable. Ward moved in and lived with Bigelow in 1928. An article in the Minneapolis journal quoted Ward “I worked with Mr. Bigelow, ate with him, lived with him on his farm out near Hudson, of course I kept rooms at the Atlantic Club, but most of the time we spent on the farm”. As time passed Bigelow seemed content to let Ward make all the major decisions. He made Ward EVP and General Manager in 1932. In 9 years Ward had gone from laborer to running the company. Bigelow’s story ends in a strange way too; in 1933 when he was 63 years old Bigelow drowned on a fishing trip in upper Minnesota. Ward was among the fishing party although apparently not directly involved. In his will, Bigelow left Ward $1,000,000 and his 2,000-acre Hudson estate - strange.
‘Mission Leather’ items inspired by Charlie Ward’s experience selling hides from Pancho Villa’s army
After Bigelow’s death, Ward consolidated his power. King and lord of all he surveyed at The House of Quality, B&B’s St. Paul headquarters, the company staffed with legions of ex-cons at every level ferociously loyal to the man who had given them a second chance. Publically Ward spun his rags to riches story and prison hiring program into a story of redemption and good works. At Christmas B&B would host a dinner for the orphans of St. Paul. Over 500 children would be invited to The House of Quality which would be illuminated in lights. Ward supervised the menu, entertainment, and even carved the turkeys. For dessert there were dozens of pies and gallons of ice cream. As the last spoonfuls were devoured Santa Claus arrived with a gift for every child.Every year the loyal employees would pitch in and buy Ward a Christmas gift. In 1949 they commemorated his 25 years of service to the company with a custom Dodge Power- Wagon woody inscribed with a silver plaque on the dash. This monster proto SUV is one of the most bad-ass vehicles I have ever seen.
Ward checks out his 1949 Dodge Power-wagon Woody, a Christmas gift from his employee’s marking his 25th anniversary with Brown & Bigelow
Ward's Restored Power- Wagon
Here is a sketch of Ward in his prime from the Bruce Rubenstein’s terrific book; Greed, Rage, and Love – Murder in Minnesota – 6ft. tall, 200+lbs., and barrel-chested, bald with bushy black eyebrows , he had his teeth capped in gold and was perpetually tanned. Ward worked 12 hour days but also took frequent vacations to seaside nudist colonies where he enjoyed sunbathing in the nude. Socially he dressed in tailored western suits with a large diamond stick pin and ring, and usually holstered a loaded pearl handled revolver. Even as Ward transformed himself to respectable Midwestern business leader, he was never able to completely shake his reputation from his wild days. He loaned money to Bugsy Siegel of the Jewish crime syndicate - murder Incorporated, and was suspected as a behind the scenes player in the murder Inc. 1935 hit on Minneapolis reformer Walter Liggett.
In business Ward used his hard-guy past to his advantage. He cultivated the speech patterns of a b-movie gangster. “He used expressions like “’dese’, ‘dem’, and ‘dose’” wrote John Thornton a sales manager, in a memoir of his days under Ward. “He told us how to handle the competition: ‘cut dere troats, and bleed ‘em white’ he’d say”. But under the theatrics was an excellent calculating executive who saw the possibilities of promotional advertising before it was an established thing.
In 1920 B&B had had the foresight to trademark the name ‘Remembrance Advertising’ and under Ward the company really exploited the idea. If a business gave a customer a cool gift that they would display and use, and that item happened to have your company’s name on it, Then that customer would be more likely to ‘remember’ you the next time they needed your product. And the fact that they might look forward to the next cool gift didn’t hurt either.It’s a simple idea but a powerful one. Under Ward Brown & Bigelow flourished going from net losses of $250,000 in 1933 when Bigelow died and the great depression started to hit hard, to 55 million in annual sales in 1959 when Ward died at 73 having served 31 years as its president.
The legacy of his tenure at the company that is missing from the B&B website is that Ward created a company that had its finger on the pulse of the 20th century male-dominated world of B2B advertising. He created in his own image, a brand that while focused on a nostalgia for American roots, constantly innovated their products - pushing the boundaries of design and production.
My primary resource for telling Ward's story is Bruce Rubenstein's excellent book Greed, Rage, and Love Gone Wrong: Murder in Minnesota.
Collecting Brown & Bigelow
In the post-world war II years Brown & Bigelow produced several unique product innovations that can be found on auction sites for reasonable prices. In addition to the ‘Mission Leather’ and ‘Form-Craft’ hunting prints, collectors should look for:
‘High – Time’ Ceiling/projection clocks can be found in a range of wonderful mid-century masculine styles and project the time on the ceiling to enhance insomnia
‘Color-Etch’ and ‘Foil-Etch’ prints which were produced in several collections of classic American cars, and hunting and pastoral scenes printed on gold of silver foil. The effect is highly decorative
‘Golfcaster’ desk barometers have a 60’s aesthetic and golf motifs
Mid–century heavy glass ashtrays and cigarette lighters often with vintage corporate logos or monograms. These items range from 1930’s modern to 1970’s corporate and really have that Mad Men feel