Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Teenie Weenies and their Silver Trimotor Adventure

It's not everyday that the world of vintage children's books, Sunday comics and aviation history collide, but today, the 101st anniversary of the debut of the Teenie Weenies, is one such day.

The Teenie Weenies are all-but-forgotten in busy 21st century America, where Facebook memes have replaced Sunday morning newspaper comics as childhood entertainment fare. But 75 years ago, they were household names, everyone knew the characters, and children all over America looked forward to the next Sunday morning comic adventure of these miniature people who lived in a town built out of old food containers safely hidden under a rose bush in the garden.

Created in 1914 (they made their publishing debut on June 14th of that year in the Chicago Tribune) by children's writer and illustrator William Donahey, the adventures of the Teenie Weenies populated kids' books, school readers and of course the Sunday comics until Donahey's passing in 1970. In 1924, though, the Tribune discontinued the comic series for a time, and with Donahey still needing to make a living, and with their popularity and the nature of their architecture, it was a natural progression for him to license the characters for commercial promotions and advertising.
One of the companies to quickly take advantage of the opportunity was Reid, Murdoch and Company, owners of the Monarch Foods brand. Many of the "buildings" in the Teenie Weenies' town were recycled food containers, so it was a perfect branding opportunity for Monarch Foods - if a bunch of delightful, family-friendly miniature people are going to make a soup can their new home, why shouldn't it be a Monarch soup can?

Meanwhile, Monarch's ad men, ever in the quest of building brand recognition and popularity, realized that the best way to build brand recognition was to find a way to bring the people to you, and in the process expose them to the wonders of your product line. The trick, then, was to attract the people in droves. And what better way than with an airplane? A year earlier, Lindbergh had electrified America with his trans-Atlantic flight, and his subsequent national tour had drawn throngs of people out to the local airfield (or merely farmer's field) to see his plane. Likewise, shows like the Inman Brothers' Flying Circus attracted huge crowds of people. The airplane was the perfect magnet to draw the people in to hear how wonderful Monarch's food line was.

So Reid, Murdoch & Co. picked up the 48th Ford 4-AT Tri-Motor (NC-7863) off of the assembly line, and named it the Independence, in a nod to all the independent grocery stores in the midwest that Monarch distributed to. Instead of the normal plush passenger interior, they built a custom "showroom" where their canned and packaged foods were neatly lined up for display (presumably they were secured in place for flight ops!). When the plane would arrive in a town, a wooden platform would be set up next to the fuselage so that the curious could peer in through the cabin windows at the food.

With the popularity of the comic and the success of Monarch's magazine advertisement campaign, it was a natural extension to make sure that a couple of live Teenie Weenie characters went along on some of the flights as ambassadors. Two characters, the General (who was the leader of the tiny village, and thus the natural spokesman to sell the public on the wonders of Monarch's foods) and the Police Officer (the symbol of trust and protection), were played by two children in costume, and were also featured in a number of Monarch publicity photos with the Ford, including our old 8x10 press print. The children sometimes actually traveled with the Ford as it visited towns large and small. Given the dates when this took place, it's possible that these two little boys are still around, although they'd likely be in their 80s. If anyone knows anything about who they were and their story, please share via the comments section below!

The advertising gimmick didn't survive the Great Depression, though, and in 1931 Reid, Murdoch & Co. sold the Ford to a gentleman named Vernon Jones, who based it in San Diego. On April 28, 1935, the plane was wrecked in Gadsden, Alabama, and parts were salvaged and used on other Tri-motors.

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