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In the ’50s, using a cartoon bear to advertise beer was totally fine

Controversy exists about who first “created” the Hamm’s bear.

White paper placemat with scalloped edges advertising Hamm's Beer, ca. 1950s.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

If you were a child in Minnesota during the 1950s and 1960s, one of your early memories may be watching a black-and-white cartoon bear in the Hamm’s Beer television commercials. The Hamm’s bear became one of several iconic characters linked to well-known Minnesota products and legends. The popular and award-winning Hamm’s commercials, part of the Land of Sky Blue Waters advertising campaign, featured the clumsy and appealing bear, a catchy jingle, and a drumbeat.

Theodore H. Hamm, a butcher in Germany, emigrated to the United States at the age of twenty-eight. In 1856 he moved from Chicago to St. Paul; in 1865 he acquired the Excelsior Brewery when a friend could not repay the brewery mortgage that Hamm held. Located on Phalen Creek in St. Paul, the brewery expanded through the years and was renamed the Theodore H. Hamm Brewing Company in 1896.

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Early advertising for the Hamm Brewery included an eagle on items such as metal beer trays, signs, glassware, calendars, and bottle labels. Early graphic art included children, women, and families and claimed that drinking beer could improve health. In the 1930s, following the repeal of Prohibition, newspaper advertisements described the beer as smooth, mellow, and refreshing.

In 1945, Campbell-Mithun of Minneapolis became the advertising agency for the Hamm’s company. To extend the beer’s appeal outside of Minnesota and to promote where the beer was brewed, the Land of Sky Blue Waters advertising campaign was created. It featured lakes and waves, the moon and stars, and the north woods, but no humans or animals. A jingle was added with a distinctive drumbeat and the lyrics, “From the land of sky-blue waters, from the land of pines, lofty balsams, comes the beer refreshing, Hamm’s, the beer refreshing. Hamm’s!” The phrase “land of sky-blue waters” is a loose translation of Mni Sota Makoce, a name for the homeland of the Dakota people; the jingle’s lyrics were inspired by Longfellow’s poem “Song of Hiawatha.”

Controversy exists about who first “created” the bear. Most agree that the character was born in 1952 at Freddie’s restaurant in Minneapolis at a meeting with Cleo Hovel, creative director for Campbell-Mithun, and Howard Swift, an animator who worked for the California TV production company Swift-Chaplin. Hovel usually gets the credit for drawing the bear on a napkin in response to the idea to add an animal character to the Sky Blue Waters campaign. Throughout the decades, however, many others were involved and credited with drawing the bear and creating the Hamm’s commercials.

An early memorable television commercial featured a birling (log-rolling) bear trying to balance on a log cut down by a beaver. Through the years, the bear, often with forest friends, was the star in many commercials. He was a sportsman and bowled, played hockey and baseball, golfed, skied, fished, and camped. He also was a magician and played the accordion. The commercials were so popular that newspapers printed the television broadcast schedule so fans could watch them.

Like other ad campaigns of the 1950s, parts of the Hamm’s campaign that featured the bear drew on racial stereotypes — in this case, of Native Americans. Some TV commercials featured a caricature of a Native man. Most, however, evoked a generic Native “atmosphere” only through the jingle and its vocals.

The bear appeared on a wide variety of Hamm’s promotional products, including calendars, playing cards, placemats, napkins, coasters, and salt and pepper shakers. Red Wing Potteries, a Minnesota company, produced a Hamm’s bear bank. Sports memorabilia was popular, with the bear appearing on baseball, football, and hockey team schedules.

In 1969, Heublein, then the owner of Hamm’s, ended the Campbell-Mithun advertising contract. With that, the classic bear commercials ended because Heublein wanted to focus on the brewing process and not an animated bear or other wild animals. The cartoon bear returned in the early 1970s to revive the Hamm’s brand, then disappeared. In 1973, a live, male Kodiak bear named Sasha, with his trainer, appeared in Hamm’s advertising. In the same year, a new bear, Theodore H. Bear or T. H. Bear, was introduced but was short-lived.

In 2000, Miller Brewing Company — an owner of Hamm’s after Heublein — discontinued using the bear in advertising. Although the bear never drank a beer in a commercial, a controversy had developed about the use of animals and cartoons to sell adult products and their impact on children.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.