Monday, September 9, 2013

Keeping Track of Days

QUESTION: I recently came across an old Coca Cola wall calendar from 1913. It’s in reasonably good shape. Can you tell me anything about how wall calendars got their start?

ANSWER: You may have a prize collectible. Coca Cola memorabilia always sells for good prices if the items are in good condition. In 1913, the Coca Cola Company printed a million of these calendars. Unfortunately, most people threw them away since they had only one picture on them.

During the latter part of the 19th-century, trade cards, the forerunners of business cards, often included a small printed calendar. In 1869, the detachable calendar pad appeared. The pad made it possible to use a calendar picture for more than one year. To most residents of farmhouses, country cottages, and log cabins, these beautifully printed calendars were the only art they knew.

Insurance companies were the biggest producers of early calendars, giving them away to every premium holder. Some of the big insurance firms made use of their company logo for their calendar's artwork, but most chose pictures of dogs, children, or elegant ladies.

Other businesses soon capitalized on the booming demand for wall-art calendars. The Coca-Cola Company, which began distributing calendars in 1891, had printed one million by 1913 and more than two million by 1924. In the 1890s, the Grand Union Tea Company, the Singer Company, and Armour Meat Company had their calendars hanging in shops and markets from coast to coast.

Soon, small business owners began to have their names and addresses printed on stock calendars. Printers of stock calendars offered voluminous catalogs of artwork from which the customer could choose, and the demand for calendar artwork kept many an illustrator from finding another line of business. So many feed mills, lumberyards, grocery stores, and other small businesses distributed calendars in the early 20th century that it is possible to assemble a fairly complete inventory of retailers from that era by listing the sponsors of old calendars.

New techniques in the printing industry called for intricate embossing and die-cutting, and the calendar became a lavish palette of complex colors and textures.

Printers employed many famous illustrators, including Palmer Cox, Edward Penfield, and Louis Rhead, to produce artwork for their calendars. Cox, a noted magazine illustrator of the time, created a community of impish cartoon elves he called the Brownies in 1883. His mischievous little Brownies were a favorite subject for calendars prior to the turn of the century.

The Minnesota-based firm of Brown and Bigelow, the world's biggest manufacturer of calendars, commissioned Maxfield Parrish and later Norman Rockwell. From 1925 through 1975the Boys Scouts of America authorized Brown and Bigelow to reproduce Rockwell illustrations for the official Boy Scout calendar.

By the 1930s, calendar advertising had become less effective than radio and mass circulation magazine ads. But the tradition lived on with calendars from automobile service stations and garages—important new features of family life. However, the calendars they commissioned were often less elaborate. In the 1940s and 1950s, neighborhood drug stores and heating oil companies continued to print wall-art calendars that featured detachable monthly date pads and simple illustrations.

Although calendars from well-known firms cost up to $100, you can purchase ones from the less famous names for $35-$65. You can often find calendars printed after 1920 for less than $30.

Today, calendars appear everywhere. You may still get a calendar annually from your insurance agent, but many people now use their cell phones to keep track of what day it is. If you still want to hang a calendar on the wall, you can get some nifty ones at dollar stores across the country.

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