Sometimes history and pop culture collide.
A bronze bust of a man likely went unnoticed by most people when it was sold by Garth’s Auctions during the company’s Ohio Valley sale on May 18, 2013. The sculpture depicted a distinguished-looking gent with a high hairline and a full moustache. You probably wouldn’t recognize the guy, but you’ve certainly heard of him.
As a kid, it’s almost a given you knew the name — Oscar Mayer.
Made by the Roman Bronze Works of New York, the bust was mounted on a marble plinth. In all, it measured 20 inches high.
According to Garth’s, the piece came out of the boardroom at Oscar Mayer’s headquarters in Chicago. After the company sold to General Foods in 1981, the firm’s office relocated to Wisconsin. One of the movers involved in the transition was given the bust.
For most people, Oscar Mayer was the name of a hotdog, not an entrepreneur. That’s where the history comes in.
Born in Germany in 1859, Mayer emigrated to the United States, where he and his brother Gottfried opened a small butcher shop in Chicago in 1883. Among their specialties were bratwurst, liverwurst and weisswurst, the latter being a white sausage popular in German neighborhoods.
By 1900 the company had grown to 43 employees and offered citywide delivery. Things got bigger from there.
As the firm grew out of its big-city breeches and wore the pants of a major player on the American meat market, advertising played an increasingly important role. That’s where the pop culture comes in.
While sausages and hams were in demand with the company’s customers at the turn of the 19th century, it wasn’t long before bacon and wieners were also popular products. With that, a marketing icon was created. Enter the Wienermobile.
Shaped like a hotdog in a bun, the Wienermobile was the 1936 brainchild of Oscar Mayer’s nephew, Carl G. Mayer. It was the first of 10 vehicles eventually produced. At least one example has remained on the road since then, except during World War II, when gas rationing put the oversized frankfurter out of service.
It should be noted, the driver of a Wienermobile is known as a Hotdogger. The job is reserved for recent college graduates who sign on for a year’s duty of guiding the mechanical marvel around the nation and abroad.
The Wienermobile spawned generations of collectibles, including countless Wienerwhistles — toy whistles shaped like the vehicle. Related collectibles have ranged from Hot Wheels to plush beanbag toys to pinback buttons.
When it comes to advertising, however, the Wienermobile doesn’t carry all of the company’s weight. Several television commercials have become classics in their own right.
Early success came through a 1965 animated TV spot showing a young girl leading a group of children singing, “Oh, I’d love to be an Oscar Mayer wiener…”
Of equal acclaim was a 1974 commercial of 4-year-old Andy Lambros sitting on a dock, a fishing rod in one hand, a sandwich in the other, as he sang, “My bologna has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R. My bologna has a second name, it’s M-A-Y-E-R. Oh, I love to eat it every day, and if you ask my why I’ll say, ’cause Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A.”
For several generations of Americans, that advertisement became the face of the company. Which brings this story back to Oscar Mayer himself and the bronze bust offered by Garth’s. Outdone by a preschooler with a catchy tune, the replica of the founder of the company never had a chance. In a marketplace where plastic figural whistles can garner more excitement than a piece of antique art, the bust wasn’t expected to set any auction records. Nonetheless, it sold toward the upper end of its presale estimate, realizing $588.
At least a few bidders must have recognized the face and/or knew the history behind that piece of art. And, it’s highly likely any potential buyer could spell the name of the guy. They might have even learned it from a fresh-faced kid on TV.