Scanning Around With Gene: The Breck Girls
I was at my local Dollar Store the other day stocking up on cheap wrapping paper and picture frames when I happened on the sundries aisle and saw Breck shampoo and cream rinse. What a sad end to a once proud brand, I thought. In its day, Breck was one of the great American brands and was known not just for its quality, but for its distinctive advertising campaigns.
At the heart of Breck's advertising, from 1936 to 1978 was a painting of a "Breck Girl," an attractive woman with very pretty hair. Today's images are all from Breck ads that appeared in various women's magazines or are from the Smithsonian collection. Click on any image for a larger version. Here is the first Breck girl, Olga Armstrong, from 1936.
Dr. John Breck is credited with inventing one of the first liquid shampoos back in 1908. The shampoo was initially sold in beauty shops and advertising appeared in trade publications. These Breck girls are from 1963.
Edward Breck, the son of the founder, took over management of the company in 1936 and hired Charles Sheldon to do illustrations for the company's advertising. Sheldon, who studied in Paris, was known for his paintings of Hollywood celebrities for Photoplay magazine. The Breck girls below are from 1964, 1962, and 1966.
By the time he retired in 1957, Sheldon had painted 107 oil paintings and pastels for Breck, and the company had become famous for its distinctive advertising style. Many of the early Breck girls were company employees, Breck family members, and local women who weren't models.
Most of today's images are from the second Breck girl illustrator, Ralph William Williams, who did the Breck girl portraits from 1957 until his death in 1976. These images are from 1974 and 1975.
The Breck company sponsored the America's Junior Miss contest, and many of Williams' illustrations were of contestants and winners of that competition.
Some future celebrities and super-models started as Breck girls, including Cheryl Tiegs, Jaclyn Smith, Cybill Shepherd, Kim Basinger, and Brooke Shields. At its heyday in the 1960s, Breck held a 20% share of the shampoo market and was considered one of America's quality brands. Images below are from 1967 and 1976.
The Breck brand changed owners several times, and when Williams died in 1976, the Breck girls pretty much died with him, despite a few attempts to bring the advertising concept back with both illustration and photography.
Eventually the Breck brand was purchased by the Dollar Store chain and is now a house brand for them.
If you're a fan of the TV show Mad Men, you can appreciate how a concept like the Breck girls may have worked throughout the 1960s. But the concept was pretty dated by the 1970s, and the illustrations became less effective as a sales tool.
I didn't buy any Breck shampoo while visiting the Dollar Store. I figured for a buck it couldn't be the same Breck I had grown up with. But it did make me think back to all those back-cover advertisements I remember from magazines as a kid.
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