Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ways of Seeing: "His Master's Voice"

Few advertising images were more recognizable during the 20th Century than the picture of a small dog sitting in front of a vintage record player, called a Victrola. It was entitled “His Master’s Voice.” As has been noted with such familiar merchandising icons, the tendency over time is to parody them widely. So it has been with “His Master’s Voice.”

Some parts of the story behind the image are well known. The dog was a stray found in Bristol, England, in 1884. He was named “Nipper,” because of his tendency to bite unwary visitors on the backs of their legs. Nipper was adopted by a British artist named Francis Barraud, shown here, who noticed the dog curious about his gramophone, apparently trying to figure out where the voice was coming from.

Three years after Nipper died Barraud, working from memory, put the scene on canvas, completing it in 1899. The artist tried to exhibit the painting at the Royal Academy but was turned down. He had similar luck peddling it to British magazines. Barraud then went commercial, offering it to the Edison Bell Company. They also rejected it. Perhaps as a last resort, he visited a newly formed gramophone company with a photograph of the painting. The ownership liked it and offered to buy it if Barraud would substitute their machine for the Edison.

Barraud agreed, repainted it, and only a few months later the Berliner Company had patented the image in the United States for its gramophone. Eventually the trademark was passed on to the Victor Talking Machine Co., maker of the Victrola. That firm extended the trademark throughout Central and South America, Japan and the Far East. In the U.S. the Nipper logo appeared on the Victor machines, letterheads, record catalogs, record labels and all company literature. Even after Victor’s merger with RCA in 1929, “His Master’s Voice” persisted in company merchandising until well after World War II. It must be counted as one of the world’s most successful and lasting merchandising images.

Few could resist a parody on “His Master’s Voice,” including Walt Disney. His studio drew Pluto, always an engaging cartoon figure, eagerly listening to the gramophone. Political cartoonists also found it provided a handy image for depicting political figures taking orders from afar. The first cartoon shown here from 1941 is of Marshall Petain, the Nazi figurehead of Vichy, France, who had surrender much of his country to the Nazi regime in Germany, indicated by the swastikas on the phonograph. Lester Pearson was the prime minister of Canada from 1963 to 1967. Here he is caricatured listening intently to the voice of the United States, at least in the view of the Canadian unions who sponsored the cartoon.

My favorite spoofs of the Nipper logo are connected to the whiskey trade. “Old Tucker
Whiskey” was a lead brand of the Brown-Foreman Company in the pre-Prohibition era. This Louisville, Kentucky, outfit was formed by George Brown and George Foreman in 1891 and has survived to the present day. It chose the image as the back of a pre-Prohibition celluloid pocket mirror. Note that the gramophone has been replaced by a whiskey jug and the horn by a funnel. The bulldog “Suspects His Master.”

The post card following has a similar motif, a dog -- this one looking a lot more like Nipper -- sits in front of a whiskey container, smelling a funnel. This is “His Master’s Vice,” a play on the slogan by the forces of Temperance. Another postcard in this genre depicts a puppy sitting in front of a funnel. The jug has disappeared but the canine still recognizes “His Master’s Breath.” The final example is a mini-jug with an underglaze illustration of a large dog sniffing a whiskey jug. Again the pooch is said to be smelling “His Master’s Breath.”

In gathering images for this article, I found at least a dozen or more parodies of the Nipper logo, some dating from early in the last Century, some more recently created. The proliferation is testimony to the permanence of the original Barraud image. The artist himself died at the age of 69 in August, 1924. He painted some 24 copies of his most famous work, all of which found a ready market. Perhaps in a unwise move, however, Barraud sold the reproduction rights to the Nipper image for 100 British pounds.

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