SAN DIEGO — An art exhibit with a breakfast cereal as its theme? Sounds strange, but that's exactly what the San Diego Historical Society is up to.
On view at the society's headquarters in Balboa Park are 40 original paintings that chronicle a revolutionary advertising campaign Nabisco Brands used to promote its popular hot cereal, Cream of Wheat. The oil, watercolor and pastel paintings--created by some of this country's most important illustrators--were the basis for ads that ran from 1906 through the 1940s.
The exhibit, entitled the "Cream of Wheat Advertising Art Collection," will run until March 13 in the Historical Society headquarters at Casa de Balboa.
It is a collection assembled almost by chance. Eight years ago, Nabisco's archivist, David Stivers, rediscovered a legacy of some 700 paintings and illustrations used to promote Cream of Wheat for four decades after the turn of the century. The forgotten artwork had been packed away in metal lockers at Cream of Wheat's former headquarters in Minneapolis, and Stivers stumbled across it. He also found records detailing the creator or each piece, the date on which the art was produced, its purchase price and the periodicals in which the advertisement appeared.
"Most companies destroyed artwork after it was used," said Deborah Casho, curator of the Museum of San Diego History, or "would return the art to an ad agency. So it's really rare that Cream of Wheat saved everything and had all the work documented."
The paintings, used for advertising that ran in magazines and on posters, signs and billboards, reflect nostalgic Americana, depicting family life and childhood pleasures. The Cream of Wheat logo, a black chef stirring a pot of the hot cereal, was pasted onto many of the paintings to lend a common element to each of the advertisements.
According to Casho, Cream of Wheat was a pioneer in the use of campaign advertising and slogans. The use of art in advertising opened up a new field for illustrators and artists, she said.
"Every Mapes was one of the original owners of Cream of Wheat," Casho said. "He had a big interest in art and commissioned some of the most popular illustrators of the time to create paintings, which were later used for ads. Artists got anywhere from $300 to $1,000 for their work. That was really good money in those days."
Some of the works profiled in the exhibit were done by such artists as J.C. Leyendecker, who illustrated over 300 covers for the Saturday Evening Post; James M. Flagg, creator of the Uncle Sam recruiting poster and Jessie Willcox Smith, who illustrated such classics as "Heidi" and "Little Women."
The exhibit also includes several paintings from advertising campaigns for other Nabisco products. National Biscuit Co., as Nabisco was then called, bought the Cream of Wheat company in the early 1960s.
Casho said the entire collection of Cream of Wheat art is worth several million dollars. Nabisco officials are now restoring many of the earliest pieces and considering the possibility of a permanent exhibition of the works.
"The Nabisco Brands Advertising Art collection is of great value as a history of the golden age of illustration," Stivers wrote. "It is also a portrait of America during the early 20th Century."
Reaction to the unusual show has been positive, Casho said, noting that the works evoke a bygone era for visitors.
"For many, these paintings are a way of reliving the past," Casho said. "As far as the artists, these are some of the best. Many of these illustrators studied with the fine artists of those times in the same art academies. Most of them are dead now so this is a good way to see their original work."