Biographical / Historical
Dr. John Breck is credited with developing one of the first liquid shampoos in the United States, in Springfield Massachusetts in 1908; Breck is also credited with introducing the first ph-balanced shampoo, in 1930. During the early years of the business, distribution remained localized in New England, and the product was sold exclusively to beauty salons until 1946. Advertising for the brand began in 1932, but appeared only in trade publications, such as Modern Beauty Shop.
Edward Breck, son of the founder, assumed management of the company in 1936. Breck became acquainted with Charles Sheldon, an illustrator and portrait painter who is believed to have studied in Paris under Alphonse Mucha, an artist noted for his contributions to Art Nouveau style. Sheldon had achieved some measure of fame for his paintings of movie stars for the cover of Photoplay magazine in the 1920s, and had also done idealized pastel portraits for the cover of Parents magazine. He created his first pastel portraits for Breck in 1936, launching what would become one of America's longest running ad campaigns. When the company began national advertising (and mass distribution) in 1946, the campaign featured Sheldon's 1937 painting of seventeen-year old Roma Whitney, a spirited blonde. Ms. Whitney's profile was registered as Breck's trademark in 1951. When he retired in 1957, Sheldon had created 107 oil paintings and pastels for the company. Sheldon was known to favor ordinary women over professional models, and in the early years of the campaign, the Breck Girls were Breck family members, neighbors or residents of the community in which he worked; company lore holds that nineteen Breck Girls were employees of the advertising agency he founded in 1940. A Breck advertising manager later described Sheldon's illustrations as, "illusions, depicting the quality and beauty of true womanhood using real women as models." The paintings and pastels form a coherent, if derivative, body of work which celebrates an idealized vision of American girlhood and womanhood, an ideal in which fair skin, beauty and purity are co-equal.
Ralph William Williams was hired to continue the Breck Girls campaign after Sheldon's retirement. Between 1957 and his death in 1976, Williams modified the Breck Girl look somewhat through the use of brighter colors and a somewhat heightened sense of movement and individuality. The advertising manager during his tenure recalled that Aat first Williams continued in Sheldon' manner, but in later years, as women became more independent, he would take care to integrate each girl' particular personality; he studied each girl and learned her special qualities. During these years, Breck Girls were identified through the company's sponsorship of America's Junior Miss contests. Williams work includes pastels of celebrities Cybil Shepard (1968 Junior Miss from Tennessee), Cheryl Tiegs (1968), Jaclyn Smith (1971, 1973), Kim Basinger (1972, 1974) and Brooke Shields (1974) very early in their careers.
By the 1960s, at the height of its success, Breck held about a twenty percent share of the shampoo market and enjoyed a reputation for quality and elegance. Ownership of the company changed several times (American Cyanamid in 1963; Dial Corporation in 1990). The corresponding fluctuations in management of the company and in advertising expenditures tended to undermine the coherence of the national advertising campaign. In addition, despite William's modifications, the image had become dated. Attempts to update the image misfired, further limiting the brand's coherence and effectiveness. Finally, increased competition and an absence of brand loyalty among consumers through the 1970s and 1980s helped push Breck from its number one position into the bargain bin. The Breck Girl campaign was discontinued around 1978, although there have been at least two minor revivals, first in 1992 with the Breck Girls Hall of Fame, and again in 1995 when a search was begun to identify three new Breck Women. Scope and Content: The 188 pieces of original advertising art (62 oil paintings on board, 2 pencil sketches on paper, and 124 pastels on paper) and related photographs, correspondence and business files in this collection document the development and evolution of the Breck Girl, a highly successful and long-lived advertising campaign whose hallmark was its vision of idealized American womanhood. The collection is a perfect fit with other 20th century Archives Center collections documenting the efforts of American business to reach the female consumer market. The Estelle Ellis Collection (advertising and promotions for Seventeen, Charm, Glamour and House & Garden and many other clients) the Cover Girl Collection (make-up), the Maidenform Collection (brassieres), and the Tupperware Collections offer a prodigious body of evidence for understanding the role women were expected to play as consumers in the 20th century.
These advertising images also offer fertile ground for research into the evolution of popular images of American girlhood and womanhood. The research uses of the collection derive primarily from its value as an extensive visual catalog of the ideal types of American women and girls, arising and coalescing during a period in which 19th century ideals of womanhood were being revisited (the depression, the war years, the immediate post-war period) and continuing, with slight modifications and revisions, through several decades during which those historical ideals were being challenged and revised.