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Norman Rockwell’s ‘Cana-tea-an’ Campaign

By Tanya Duffy and John Leroux

Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2020

Housewife at Tea Break, 1959. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was one of the twentieth century’s most prolific artists, celebrated for his impeccably detailed illustrations of everyday American life. He is best known for his painted covers for The Saturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963. From his studio and home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Rockwell honed his ability to capture ordinary moments and infuse them with warmth, charm, and humanism.

Lesser-known within Rockwell’s oeuvre are the advertising campaign commissions he received during his lengthy career. His paintings were frequently reproduced in full-page magazine ads for major brands, including Coca-Cola, Crest toothpaste, Skippy peanut butter, Jell-O, and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, among others. He also worked for a Canadian brand, creating a series of ads in the late 1950s for Red Rose Tea.

Still a leading tea brand, Red Rose Tea was established in 1894 in the port city of Saint John, New Brunswick. Its popularity spread quickly throughout the Maritimes and Canada. A corporate and material innovator, Red Rose helped revolutionize the Canadian tea trade. It was one of the first companies in Canada to sell packaged tea in place of turn-of-the-century bulk tea in grocer’s bins. The company also helped sway the tastes of Canadian tea drinkers to blends of Ceylon and Indian varieties, away from Chinese and Japanese teas. In 1932 the company joined global tea brokers Brooke Bond based in London, UK. By the mid-twentieth century, Red Rose Tea was still prepared and packaged on Dock Street in Saint John, joined by plants in Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. It was sold throughout Canada, many parts of the United States, and the West Indies. As one of the most beloved beverage brands in the country and with the means to support quality promotion, it made sense that Red Rose Tea would hire one of the world’s most beloved illustrators for its new ad campaign: Norman Rockwell.

Woman Relaxing with Tea After Shopping, 1958. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Toronto’s McConnell, Eastman & Company advertising agency (MEC), who handled the Red Rose Tea print campaigns, approached Rockwell in early 1958. They commissioned the artist to do six distinct scenes and paid him $3000 US for each painted artwork (an equivalent of $26,500 CAD each in today’s dollars). The turnarounds were tight for Rockwell. Correspondence from April 23, 1958 gave him a hand-in date of the first week of July in order to make their publication deadline for the first ad. Hugh McConkey, the creative director of MEC, was very specific about the subjects and implied narratives of the scenes. For the first commissioned Red Rose illustration (which became the subsequently mentioned Woman Relaxing with Tea After Shopping), he told Rockwell:

We would like to have the first painting be that of the young woman of somewhere between 30 and 35 who has just returned from her shopping expedition, plopped herself down into a chair beside the kitchen table, possibly has one or both shoes gratefully off, maybe her hat is still on—the shopping bags are still piled on the table with their groceries inside them out of sight—and she has opened only one package, that of the Red Rose Tea. Possibly she has already poured herself a cupful from the tea pot and has that gently pleased look. . . . Something like that anyway.

Rockwell responded by letter several days later, stating that they “came to a meeting of the minds:”

I see the “pooped” young lady just as you see her, with the Red Rose package possibly in her lap and a cup of tea in her hand—getting great satisfaction out of the wonderful beverage. By the way I am a confirmed Red Rose Tea drinker myself now, due to your generosity.

For each of the six scenes, Rockwell would send MEC black-and-white posed photographs of the models and assembled settings—all with a box of Red Rose Tea placed prominently—and McConkey marked off which he preferred. The artist-advertising duo worked closely on the most minute details, right down to the worn texture on the shoes of Woman Relaxing with Tea After Shopping. In a June 2, 1958 letter to Rockwell, McConkey said “I hope you’re going to retain the suggestions of wear on the bottom of the shoe which she has sloughed off. A nice touch!” Another saw McConkey suggesting the addition of a teapot next to the woman, so that the viewers wouldn’t assume that she might have put a Red Rose teabag directly in her cup of hot water, apparently a tea no-no at the time. He did give the artist flexibility by writing “It doesn’t really matter as much how we do it as that we do it.” When the first artwork was delivered to the agency in mid-July, McConkey sent Rockwell a short telegram stating simply: “Delighted. Pleased. Excited. Thanks and don’t stop.”

By late August 1958, a Red Rose Tea press release lauded Rockwell’s first Canadian contract, and stridently boasted its Canadian-ness:

Norman Rockwell, considered by many to be the world’s foremost commercial artist, is for the first time using his brush on a strictly-Canadian canvas. . . . The contract is unique in that it marks the first time Mr. Rockwell will be illustrating a product of Canadian origin—Red Rose tea. Although Rockwell illustrations have been seen in Canada before, they have all been part of advertising campaigns originating in the United States. . . . Although all of his characters have universal traits, Mr. Rockwell will be keeping the Canadian personality in mind for the forthcoming Red Rose tea series. . . . the first advertisement in the series will appear in local and national magazines in the latter part of September. “It will depict an everyday situation with which Canadian women can easily identify themselves.” . . . the celebrated artist was given a sample of Red Rose tea long before work on the illustrations was commenced. “Mr. Rockwell is aware of his influence on the buying habits of the general public. He feels obliged to test the quality of a product before illustrating an advertisement which endorses it.”

Rockwell’s Red Rose Tea illustrations are somewhat atypical of his usual mid- to late-career magazine cover style of rich colour palettes and fully detailed surroundings filling the rectangular picture plane. His advertising artworks were simpler, often including single or small groups of figures on a clean white background. This sparser layout did two things: it allowed him to complete the panels faster as the intricacies of rendering loads of objects and surfaces surrounding the models was eliminated, and it enabled the inclusion of promotional headlines and copy type around the scene. The Red Rose panels feature a single character on a white background, four of them enjoying a cup of tea, while the other two clearly have tea on their minds. Working from composed black-and-white photographs, Rockwell depicted his subjects in a highly realistic style, capturing a private moment in which the product is not the focus so much as the emotion it evokes.

Every one of these Red Rose Tea images features a pronounced compositional angle. They lead the eye vertically or diagonally across the page, leaving ample space for the art director to strategically place the copy, logo, and other ad elements. Each figure seems to emerge from the image’s white background, their clothing or surrounding elements floating over the page. In Woman Relaxing with Tea After Shopping (1958), the subject stretches out in a rocking chair, sporting a long beige jacket next to shopping bags of a similar tone. The colours blend into the surrounding atmosphere allowing the colourful Red Rose box on her lap to stand out. Doctor Relaxing With Tea (1958) sees Rockwell leaving details around the figure either meticulously done or almost unfinished. The doctor’s bag and silver tea service are virtually photorealistic, but the chair and side table are rendered with loose, simple lines; their lack of colour does not detract from the main focus of the enjoyment of the tea. Of note is Rockwell’s choice to replace the old-fashioned dark footrest in the study photo with a cutting-edge 1957 white Tulip side table designed by architect and furniture designer Eero Saarinen. Keeping with this sensibility, McConkey saw it as important that the doctor was portrayed as a young man: “so that we can maintain our balance between men and women and at the same time achieve our objective of showing younger people drinking this wonderful product.”

Each illustration artfully incorporates Red Rose brand colours, the paintings becoming subtly branded pieces of art. The vibrant green and red hues from the packaging appear as formal elements in each painting. A man’s tie, a housewife’s apron, a teacup. They visually unite the paintings as a series and connect them to the product. Housewife at Tea Break (1959) shows a woman from the waist up, dressed in a white blouse and headwrap, gossiping expressively over the phone. Unfinished in the lower right corner, the image’s foreground and background merging, it is the pops of colour in her bright green apron and red-rimmed teacup that grab the viewer’s attention.

The product placement in each image is understated but deliberate. In Young Husband Checking Grocery List (1958), The Red Rose Tea box pokes out of the top of a shopping bag, just visible enough to be recognizable. The original storyline was for the husband to be seen as henpecked and waiting to “face the potential fury or disappointment of his unseen wife.” Upon receiving the black-and-white test photo, McConkey wrote “we all like him, sympathise with him and know that he is going to be a memorable character.” In Pregnant Woman Drinking Tea (1959), the tea box appears in the far bottom of the image, the Red Rose logo rendered upside down on the open lid. The woman is clothed in red and green to match. A bit of humour is thrown in as she opens a cardboard moving box to get the teacup she needs to enjoy her first cup of Red Rose in the house. The final illustration in the series, Perspiring Man (1959), was an outlier. It was a close-up of a sweaty, thirty-something male who has finished working in the heat and dreams of a glass of Red Rose iced tea.

The ads were placed in magazines Canada-wide, with early correspondence indicating a desire to use them on streetcar advertising cards as well. Single postcards of the individual scenes were placed in the retail tea boxes as collectables. The Red Rose Tea company was “delighted” with the results of the campaign, both for its artistic appeal and measurable sales results. However, by late 1959 they chose to focus on radio ads and the burgeoning television market. So came to an end the Norman Rockwell Red Rose Tea campaign.

Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for Red Rose Tea are exceptional works of art, but with a functional purpose. Through their composition and skill they strike an effective balance between artistic considerations and the practical concerns needed for commercial advertising. As he said of his pictures:

My life work—and my pleasure— is to tell stories to other people through pictures. Other artists and illustrators may strive for beauty or color or just to please themselves. I do not. I try to use each line, tone, color and arrangement; each person, facial expression, gesture and object in my picture for one supreme purpose—to tell a story, and to tell it as directly, understandably and interestingly as I possibly can.

Rockwell immersed the viewer in these scenes depicting the simple pleasure of enjoying a cup of tea. His use of colour, composition, and homespun drama created a cohesive and easily identifiable series of images that are still recognizable today.

Tanya Duffy is lead designer and creative director at “The Details,” a Fredericton-based graphic design firm.

John Leroux is Manager of Collections and Exhibitions at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton and a recent PhD graduate from the History program at the University of New Brunswick.


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