In today’s more sophisticated and educated beer culture, it certainly feels like this may be the best time for American beer that has ever existed. If you know where to look you can find more styles of beer than anywhere else in the world. For many people, craft beer is responsible for raising the status of American beer to heights thought impossible thirty years ago.
Over sixty years ago, a trade group of breweries—The United States Brewers Foundation (USBF)—launched an advertising campaign with the aim of changing the public’s perception of beer. The USBF wanted beer to be seen in a more positive light, as an integral part of the American way of life and, as their now famous tagline states, as “America’s beverage of moderation.”
From 1945 to 1956, the USBF produced at least 136 ads using the same thematic elements, with 120 of them numbered as part of the “Home Life in America” series. Well-known artists and illustrators of the day were commissioned to paint idyllic works showing an idealized post-war America enjoying their new prosperity in a variety of settings, but with beer, naturally, at the center of it all. The scenes are reminiscent of something Norman Rockwell would have painted, with everyone well dressed and prosperous; smiling families and friends enjoying themselves in a variety of common settings, climates and seasons throughout a typical year. The ads are strikingly beautiful, and are some of the best examples of commercial illustration from the time period.
What led the brewers of the post-World War II era to promote beer in this way, and as a cohesive group, is a fascinating story that stretches back to the century before, when another war gripped our nation, the Civil War or War Between the States, depending on your orientation.
Is Beer Bad?
Beer, of course, is not universally beloved and there are factions of society who believe alcohol is intrinsically bad. Some think alcohol should be taxed more highly than it already is and others would simply prefer another Prohibition. Since civilization began—arguably due to the discovery of fermentation—there have likely always been teetotalers. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that an organized temperance movement began and sought to remove alcohol from all of society.
When these temperance movements began in the early 1800s, their initial target was primarily liquor—that is, distilled spirits or hard alcohol. At that time, whisky, rum and the like far outsold beer and liquor was considered the main cause of the societal problems the prohibitionists blamed on alcohol. When the Civil War began, Congress levied an excise tax on beer to raise money for the war effort and those taxes continued to be a major source of federal revenue even after the war ended.
By the late nineteenth century, beer had overtaken spirits in popularity and temperance organizations targeted beer as forcefully as liquor. But brewers at the time refused to take the threat seriously. That was because they believed their willingness and cooperation in being taxed meant that politicians would not give in to the demands of the prohibitionists. They thought that the government would never shut down the gravy train—which had become a sizeable percentage of the federal budget—that beer taxes brought into the federal coffers.
But as Chicago beer historian Bob Skilnik points out. “The thing that gave Congress the balls to enact Prohibition was helped immensely by the ratification of the Personal Income Tax Amendment [the 16th] in 1913. Without it, we would have never seen National Prohibition.” When they finally realized that Prohibition really could be enacted, the industry tried to launch a campaign portraying beer as a healthy beverage of moderation, but it was too little, too late. The brewers were also so busy squabbling with one another at that time that cooperation was almost non-existent and their response ended up being fairly meager and ineffective.
Finding a Voice
After the repeal of Prohibition, the infighting picked up where it left off, just as if it had never stopped. One reason for this was the same people were running the U.S. Brewers Association after repeal as at the start of Prohibition. The 13 intervening years had done little to heal their competitive spirit. But by the advent of World War II, the old guard was gone, replaced by younger, more forward-thinking men and the east coast/rest of the country division that had been a major obstacle to cooperation had also been resolved so that the industry could finally speak with one voice.
When the government sought to boost morale both at home and abroad, they looked to companies making “American” products to provide support. Brewing companies went out of their way to cooperate in order to re-ingratiate themselves with both the government and their customers. They devised an advertising campaign called “Morale is a lot of little things—Write that V-Mail Letter Today,” encouraging Americans to write to the millions of U.S. soldiers stationed abroad in the war. The U.S. Army, Navy and Marines all gave the brewing industry a commendation for that program. Other morale-building ad copy was used. A typical example: “Morale is a lot of little things. A cool, refreshing glass of beer—a moment of relaxation—in trying times like these—they, too, help to keep morale up.”
The year before World War II ended, 1944, the United State Brewers Association and the United Breweries Industrial Foundation merged, creating the United States Brewers Foundation (USBF). During the final year of the war, the USBF created an advertising campaign to promote beer as “America’s Beverage of Moderation.” As Skilnik argues, “the brewing industry was more cooperative after Repeal simply because of the fear that Prohibition could come back, not necessarily to project a pure aura of patriotism, although I’m sure there was some of this involved. The brewers also realized that their biggest competitor was the liquor industry so something had to be done to woo people off the hard stuff and back to beer.”
Henry M. Stevens, the director of the J. Walter Thompson Co. (now JWT, one of the most famous ad agencies in history), worked personally with the advertising committee for the USBF and created both the “Beer Belongs” campaign and the “Home Life in America” series. He remarked during the advertising committee’s presentation to the USBF’s 1946 convention that during the war “another broad trend in public thinking developed. With each year of the war there came a vast and growing appreciation of our country itself, of what it stands for, of everything American.”
This thinking had led to the first year of the “Beer Belongs” series of ads in prominent American magazines. Nine ads were produced in 1945 by eight different fine artists. The series was published in magazines, reprinted in books, and over 100,000 requests from consumers were received for reprints of the ads.
Encouraged by the success of that first year, the USBF decided on a more ambitious campaign. It was still “Beer Belongs,” but beginning in January of 1946, it also became the “Home Life in America” series, with each ad being numbered. The first ad, “Uncle From the West,” by Stevan Dohanos, ran in Time magazine March 7, 1946. It later was published in Life, Colliers, U.S. News and several others. It reached an estimated 14 million people, a little over 13 percent of the adult population.
Four years later, at the USBF convention in San Francisco, the advertising committee again reported on the success of the ad campaign in a presentation entitled “The Position of Beer in American Life.” Comparing beer consumption from 1940 to 1950, they noted it had increased by two-thirds and in 1950 nearly two-thirds of American families bought beer to drink in the home, while in 1940 that figure was less than half.
Beer Is Wholesome
The goal of making beer synonymous with home life was chosen precisely to combat the incessant attacks by prohibitionist groups, who continued to target the beer industry during and after the war, but it wasn’t the only reason. Of course, refrigerators helped, too. Skilnik suggests that the industry’s choice of the home as a target “had less to do with fighting off prohibitionists and more to do with refrigerators in the home, the containerizing of beer and even the return of GIs after WWII. Veterans came home, got married, took advantage of the GI Bill, built homes and/or moved to the suburbs, started the post-war Boom Years and began to make up for years lost… at home with a beer or two.” This, he explains, “is why there was also an explosion of cookbooks from breweries during the ‘40s through the ‘60s, maybe even the 1970s. The new market was the home beer drinker, not the regulars at the corner tavern.”
“Obviously as beer becomes more traditional in more and more homes as belonging to pleasant living, good fellowship and sensible moderation, its position becomes increasingly invincible to attack,” Henry Stevens explained during his presentation. To illustrate how popular the “Beer Belongs” slogan had become, Stevens reported that he’d recently seen a soft drink ad with the copy “Coca Cola belongs!”
USBF President Carl Badenhausen, from Ballantine’s, explained that proactively advertising the positive aspects of the industry was predicated on combating the major problems facing the industry, which he declared to be: 1) “The ever-present threat of prohibition,” and 2) “The need for getting a wider social acceptance of beer and ale.”
The new series of ads, the “Home Life in America” series lasted until 1956 and a total of 120 different numbered ads were produced. They were numbered from 1 to 119, but there were two different number twos. Except for the first and last years of the campaign, roughly a dozen ads were produced each year to correspond with the monthly magazine schedule. The ads also followed the seasons so you have beach scenes during the summer and Thanksgiving each November.
The first year, the artists employed were considered more “fine artists” rather than illustrators. Beginning in 1946, all of the artists were illustrators, though they were among the best known of their day. On the initial list, even Norman Rockwell was listed among the artists contracted, though he never contributed to the series.
Several other artists who’d done covers for the Saturday Evening Post did work on the series, however, including Douglass Crockwell, who did many covers for the magazine that made Rockwell a household name. He often signed his works with only his first name to avoid confusion with his more famous contemporary. Crockwell did a total of 67 ads for the USBF, far more than any other artist. Illustrators Stevan Dohanos, John Falter and Mead Schaeffer also created numerous covers for the Post and other prominent magazines. For the “Beer Belongs” series, Falter did eight, Dohanos seven, and Schaeffer just one, meaning Saturday Evening Post cover artists accounted for nearly 70 percent of the entire series.
Another popular artist, John Gannam, who created 19 of the ads, was best known for his watercolors. Decades before, Gannam was one of a handful of artist that “brought American illustration to international preeminence in the 1930s” and in 1981 was elected to the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.
But perhaps the most well-known artist who worked on the “Beer Belongs” campaign, especially today, is Haddon Sundblom. Sundblom was one of the most famous commercial artists of the last century and created the Quaker Oats man still in use today, among much else. But his most famous contribution was his image of Santa Claus that he created in 1931 for Coca-Cola. Before that time, St. Nicholas could be tall or short, fat or thin and wearing any number of colors and outfits. For 33 years, Sundblom painted ads featuring a jolly Santa Claus wearing red and white (not coincidentally Coke’s colors) which were so popular that his version became established as the image of Santa Claus, even today. Sundblom worked on a dozen of the ads in the “Home Life in America” series.
In all, twenty artists worked on the works of art created for the series between 1945 and 1956. After the numbered series ended, at least seven more were produced in 1956, the final year, which are similar to the series, with the same art and copy, but are not numbered. Throughout the twelve years the ads ran, they were seen by millions and millions of people in the most popular periodicals of the day. In addition to Collier’s, Life, U.S. News and Time, eventually the “Home Life in America” series ads also ran in American Legion, Farm & Ranch, Fortune, Look, McCall’s, Sunset and Woman’s Home Companion.
An Unlikely Ally
During and after World War II, the still-active prohibitionists realized that the federal government was no longer a willing ally or accomplice. According to Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, for this reason they instead turned their attention to advertising, “and the prohibitionists targeted all media—print, radio and television—they didn’t want any alcohol advertising.” They realized they couldn’t stop alcohol “so they attacked it for any reason, looking for any angle. They wanted new regulation for alcohol on TV. As a result, the beer lobby became more important.”
But the brewing industry’s cooperation with the government during the war helped their cause, and they were finally able to present a unified front through a truly national and all-encompassing trade organization. The “Home Life in America” and the “Beer Belongs” campaigns were an unmitigated success, and helped turn the tide of public opinion in the brewing industry’s favor. As beer historian Skilnik reflects, “It was one of the longest-running and successful ad campaigns. It was subtle, no T&A, very mainstream America.” A survey in the 1950s found that only one in five people didn’t like beer advertising and more than half of those surveyed “volunteered favorable comments on the beer advertising they had seen.”
By around 1960, their efforts paid off as the prohibitionists were finally beaten. It would be twenty years before neo-prohibitionists groups began gaining any traction again. In 1961, the USBF members voted to revert to the original name, the United States Brewers Association, which had been in existence since 1862, making it the second-oldest trade organization in our nation’s history.
Surveying all of the ads as a whole, several patterns emerge that must have been conscious decisions about what to portray and how. Every ad is mixed gender and the majority of them have an equal number of women and men. Every person in the ads is Caucasian and no minorities are shown. Most of the people shown would appear to be at least middle-class or above, and suburban. Based on their homes, the size of them and especially the spacious properties outdoors suggest some of the vignettes depicted are even of the upper class. Very few ads are just two people, the majority of them capture occasions and events where friends and family gather together to celebrate or enjoy leisure time together. There is no conflict in any of the ads, only beautiful, well-heeled people smiling and enjoying them selves. As such, the ads are very typical of the era.
In addition to their artistic beauty and being time capsules of their decade, the ads themselves contained several elements that were either repeated or were variations on a theme that differed slightly. Every ad contained the important message that “Beer Belongs,” either in shortened form or the full “In this friendly, freedom-loving land of ours—beer belongs… enjoy it!” Beer is also characterized in each ad as “America’s Beverage of Moderation.”
The first 75 ads, and a few afterwards, each contained a food pairing for the beer, which if appropriate, was connected to the storyline depicted in the ad. So if the illustration showed a fishing scene, the food pairing would show beer with a dish that included fish as the main entrée. Others included beer’s primary ingredients with illustrations of each. Other taglines included “The way it ‘goes with everything,’” “Beer and ale—mealtime favorites,” and “When you’re taking it easy—what makes a glass of beer taste so good?” Longer versions expanded on that theme with unabashed zeal.
In this home-loving land of ours… in this America of kindliness, of friendship, of good-humored tolerance… perhaps no beverages are more ‘at home’ on more occasions than good American beer and ale.”
While other ads drove home themes of freedom and patriotism.
For beer and ale are the kind of beverages Americans like. They belong―to pleasant living, to good fellowship, to sensible moderation. And our right to enjoy them, this too belongs―to our own American heritage of personal freedom.”
It’s been over fifty years since the last “Beer Belongs” ad ran extolling the many positive attributes that beer brings to our lives, many of which we often take for granted. The themes they explored of personal choice, of friendship, fellowship and family, of drinking responsibly and in moderation, and as a wonderful pairing with a variety of foods are the same ideas trumpeted today by America’s craft brewers. They’re just as relevant today as they were then, and if the “Home Life in America” ads can teach us anything, it’s that we need to constantly remind ourselves that beer really does belong, and we should all enjoy it with family and friends. And while we’re enjoying that beer, we should also surround ourselves with beautiful art. Beer and art, now that’s home life in America!
For the first time, at least in the digital era, all of the “Beer Belongs” ads may be viewed online, including information about each of the works of art. Visit All About Beer Magazine’s website at http://www.allaboutbeer.com for a link to the “Beer Belongs” gallery.