The Pop History Dig

“Remington’s West”
Hancock Ad:1959

A John Hancock Life Insurance Co. ad on the art of Frederic Remington appeared in “Life” magazine Sept. 21, 1959.
A John Hancock Life Insurance Co. ad on the art of Frederic Remington appeared in “Life” magazine Sept. 21, 1959.
     During the 1940s and 1950s, the John Hancock Life Insurance Company of Boston, Massachusetts, ran a series of low-keyed print advertisements that touted historic figures from the nation’s past.  These ads typically ran in full-page spreads in large-size weekly magazines of that era, such as Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post.  The ads were not primarily focused on touting or promoting the company’s life insurance policies, but simply laid out a short story about some significant person, place, or occurrence of national interest.  Some of the ads did mention the company’s offerings, but often at the end of the ad or in an unobtrusive way.

     The Hancock company ran scores of such ads, sometimes venerating notable scientists, inventors, politicians, business leaders, military men, or historic events.  In other similar ads, the company paid homage to unsung heros, or those who did the daily labors or provided key services, such as the Maine lobster men, an un- known “back bench” Congressman, or the family doctor.  To be sure, the Hancock Co. was basking in a positive light for telling these tales, especially those of the more popular figures.  Still, all in all, these were classy pieces of advertising; often done with a handsome original color illustration using known and unknown artists.  They appeared only once or a few times at most in the magazines of the day.  Consequently, original copies of these ads today are regarded as collector’s items, often showing up at auction houses or on E-bay.

     The John Hancock ad above, for example, tells the story of Frederic Remington, the famous artist of the American West.  This ad appeared, for example, in the September 21, 1959 issue of Life magazine, its cover shown later below.  The box below includes the full text of John Hancock’s Frederic Remington ad.  Following that is a little more history on Frederic Remington,  a short profile of the John Hancock company, and some reaction to the company’s  “historical figures” advertising campaign.


“He gave us the wild Old West for Keeps…”
John Hancock Ad
1959

 

     “There are plenty of people who’ll tell you the Old West is deader than a wooden Indian.  But they’re forgetting about a red-faced rock of a man named Frederic Remington.

     Fred showed up in the West one day looking for fame and fortune.  And wherever he looked, the West spread riches before his eyes.  Her untamed land.  Her rowdy people.  Her dust and gunsmoke and sweat.  Fred liked what he saw…. …Looked like pretty soon, there wouldn’t be any West. Fred figured he’d better do something quick. So he started right there…

     Then he happened to look over his shoulder.  Thunderation!  There was the railroad coming after him.  And there were men, in mail-order clothes, putting up fences, so they wouldn’t need cowboys anymore.  Looked like pretty soon, there wouldn’t be any West.

Life, Sept 21, 1959.
Life, Sept 21, 1959.
     Fred figured he’d better do something quick.  So he started right there.  Cowpokes, rustlers, pioneers badmen…anybody Fred could get near enough to, without getting shot full of lead or scalped, he’d paint a picture of.

     He’d spread a pack of Comanches across a canvass, so mean-looking and so real you’d want to turn and run for it.  Then he’d take a horse and transfer him to paper, still bucking and kicking fit to kill.

     Fred didn’t miss an inch.  Through states that hadn’t even been named yet he went, getting it all down, before it was too late.

     The pictures hang in museums now, but the story they tell about the wide open, rip-roaring man’s kind of place belongs to all of us.  That’s the way Fred wanted it.”

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance
Boston, Massachusetts

[across bottom of the ad page, in lower point italic, ran the Hancock pitch]

Ask Your John Hancock Agent about our Signature Series – the most advanced life insurance contracts for every need.


Frederic Remington

Frederic Remington’s “The Great Beast Came Crashing to The Ground,” shows hunter shooting a buffalo.
Frederic Remington’s “The Great Beast Came Crashing to The Ground,” shows hunter shooting a buffalo.
     Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was an American painter, illustrator, sculptor, and writer whose art focused on the old American West, and specifically late 19th century American cowboys, American Indians, and the U.S. Cavalry.  He was born in Canton, New York in October 1861.  Brought up during the time of the Civil War and its aftermath — his father served a Colonel iduring the war – Remington’s boyhood was spent in the great outdoors, horseback riding, boating, fishing, and hunting.  During his school days he could often be found sketching and doodling, a favorite subject being soldiers in military uniform.  Remington attended art school at Yale University, but found football and boxing more interesting there than the formal art training.  His first published illustration – for the Yale Courant – was a “bandaged football player.”  Remington left Yale in 1879 to help with his ailing father who died of tuberculosis a year later.

Frederic Remington’s 1892 watercolor shows buffalo hunter spitting shot balls into a rifle rather than dismounting to use a ramrod.
Frederic Remington’s 1892 watercolor shows buffalo hunter spitting shot balls into a rifle rather than dismounting to use a ramrod.
     At age nineteen, Remington made his first trip into the old West of the 1880s where he saw the vast prairies, the buffalo herds, unfenced cattle country, and some the last major confrontations between the U.S. Cavalry and native Americans.  In subsequent years, he made many trips to the West and Great Plains.  He worked as cowboy, ranch hand, lumberjack, hunted grizzly bears in New Mexico, and became a gold miner in Apache country in Arizona.  He also tried other ventures, including sheep ranching in Kansas and part owner of a Kansas City saloon.  Other government and business ventures lasted only a few months in some cases.  But along with his travels and experiences, he continued to draw.  He sent illustrations back East to newspapers and magazines, among them, Outing Magazine, Harper’s Weekly and Scribners.  Reming- ton’s work hit the market at a good time, as tales of the West were very popular in Eastern cities.  Publishers used everything he sent.

Frederic Remington’s “The Smoke Signal,” 1905, oil on canvas. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX.
Frederic Remington’s “The Smoke Signal,” 1905, oil on canvas. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX.
     Remington’s first full-page magazine cover under his own name appeared in Harper’s Weekly in January 1886.  He was 25.  With financial backing from an uncle, he was able to pursue his art career and support his wife.  Commissions came as well.  In 1886, he was sent to Arizona by Harper’s Weekly to cover the government’s war against Geronimo.  A trip to Canada in 1887, produced illustrations of the Blackfoot, the Crow Nation, and the Canadian Mounties.  In 1888, two of his paintings were used on U. S. Postal stamps.  He also supplied illustrations for a book by Teddy Roosevelt that was first serialized in Century Magazine.  More than 70 of his illustrations were used in Frances Parkman’s novel, Oregon Trail.  Remington’s first one-man art show came in 1890 with twenty-one paintings and was very well received.  About that time, becoming more of an established artist, he and his wife moved to New Rochelle, New York where he had a large studio. 

Frederic Remington's "The Bronco Buster," 1895, now a famous piece of art.
Frederic Remington's "The Bronco Buster," 1895, now a famous piece of art.
     Through the 1890s, Remington took frequent trips around the U.S., Mexico, and abroad to gather ideas for articles and illustrations, but his military and cowboy subjects always sold the best.

     In 1895, he became enamored of sculpting, and without formal training immersed himself in the process.  Remington had been fascinated by the motion of horses and used one of the early roll-film box cameras to take numerous photos of horses, among other subjects, to study them.  He painted and sculpted the animals often, some at full gallop, usually placing them with human figures.  In his sculpting, he produced a clay piece he called “the broncho buster,” with rider holding on to the wild horse as it reared up on its hind legs – not an easy subject for a beginning sculptor, in any case.  Within several months of this undertaking, he had a plaster cast made, then bronze copies, which were later sold at Tiffany’s, earning him a decent return.  However, some critics disparaged his work, calling it “illustrated sculpture.”  History was kinder, as Rem- ington’s “Bronco Buster” would become a famous piece of Western “cowboy” sculpture.

A Frederic Remington cover for the Saturday Evening Post, 1901.
A Frederic Remington cover for the Saturday Evening Post, 1901.
     During the Spanish American War in 1898, Remington was sent to Cuba as an artist-correspondent to provide illustrations for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.  He witnessed the assault on San Juan Hill by American forces, including those led by Roosevelt.  Remington also made other travels abroad to North Africa, Mexico, Russia, Germany and England.

     By 1901, Collier’s magazine was buying Remington’s illustrations on a steady basis and his work also appeared in other magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post, a sample of which appears at right.  He also published a couple of novels in the early 1900s and had one made into a stage play.  Around 1904, however, he decided he would quit writing and illustration to focus on sculpture and painting.  In 1905, he received a commission for “The Cowboy” sculpture from the Fairmont Park Art Association, in Philadelphia.  That work stands today in East Fairmont Park.

Frederic Remington’s “The Cowboy,” a large 1908 statue that stands today in Philadelphia, PA’s Fairmont Park.
Frederic Remington’s “The Cowboy,” a large 1908 statue that stands today in Philadelphia, PA’s Fairmont Park.
     The financial panic of 1907 caused a slow down in the sales of Remington’s works, and he and his wife later moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, where he died suddenly in December 1909 from a ruptured appendix.  He was only 48 years-old at the time and still in the prime of his career.  During his short lifetime, Remington produced some 3,000 paintings, not all of which survived, as he burned some when vowing to quit illustration.  He also created about 25 bronze sculptures, the most famous being “The Bronco Buster,” and the largest, “The Cowboy” in Philadelphia.  Today, Remington stands out as one of the most successful Western illustrators from the “Golden Age” of illustration in the late 1880s-early 1900s period.  He is also often cited at the inventor of “cowboy” sculpture.


John Hancock, Inc.

The John Hancock company logo as seen in 2010.
The John Hancock company logo as seen in 2010.
     The John Hancock Insurance Co., the sponsor of the 1959 Frederic Remington ad which began this piece, is itself something of a historic firm, with origins dating to Boston, Massachusetts in the 1860s.  The Hancock name derives from the famous American patriot and first signer of the Declaration of Independence, noted for his large “John Hancock” on that document – a term since used generically to describe anyone’s signature.  The Boston-based John Hancock Co. operated as its own company for many years, though growing and moving through a series of changes.   By 1976, John Hancock was one of the largest corporations in America, occupying that year the gleaming 62-story John Hancock Tower in Boston designed by I.M. Pei.  By the late 1970s, the company was collecting more than $2 billion a year from its policyholders.  In 1978, Hancock was the nation’s fifth largest life insurance company.  However, by 1990 they had slipped to ninth place, about to be passed by Northwestern Mutual.  In 2004, the Hancock company was acquired for $10 billion by Canada’s largest insurance company, Manulife Financial.  Today, John Hancock continues to sell insurance and other services under its logo as a Manulife subsidiary.

     John Hancock’s advertising and image-making, meanwhile, has its own interesting history.  In the 1860s, an early president of the company installed 1,000 tin signs at railroad depots and grocery stores touting the company’s business.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, John Hancock agents went door-to-door throughout America retailing their policies, collecting premiums and passing out booklets on American history.  And during 1940s-through-1950s period, its advertising “stories” — such as the one on Frederic Remington – could be found in mainstream magazines of those years.


Hancock’s Ad Series

Baseball great Babe Ruth was another of the famous figures featured in the John Hancock ad series.
Baseball great Babe Ruth was another of the famous figures featured in the John Hancock ad series.
     By all accounts, the John Hancock advertising series that featured historic figures was a big hit in America.  In the art and advertising worlds, too, the series had its admirers and supporters, praised by many.  Today the series, or parts of it, can sometimes be found in museums and art auction houses.  But even in its day, the John Hancock series brought positive reviews.  Here’s one commentary by Ben Stahl of the McCann-Erickson New York advertising house that appeared in a 1949 McCann-Erickson advertisement on the importance of art in advertising, offered under the title, “Does It Belong.”

“Next time somebody asks you, “Does fine art have a place in advertising?” – show them the John Hancock Life Insurance campaign.  Rarely in the history of advertising has a campaign more consistently held to the fine arts level.  Rarely has one achieved more favorable recognition for the advertiser.  These messages have been hung in schoolrooms, factories, and offices.  Reprint requests have run into hundreds of thousands.  Statesmen have commended them; citizens have been stirred by them.  They have won awards.  And they purchased readership at well below average cost for the insurance field.  We see a moral in all this.  It proves, we think, that everything which has the power to move people has a place in advertising’s kit of tools.  The art of the cartoon belongs; so does the art of the museum; and so does every form of artistic expression in between.  The craft of the art director lies in being able to pick, from his broad workbench of persuasion, the right tool for the job every time.”

     Stay tuned to this website for more stories on the John Hancock advertising series, the history of magazine publishing, and other stories about popular culture.  For additional story selections at this website, please go to the Home Page for thumbnail descriptions or the Archive for further choices.  Thanks for visiting.  – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 23 November 2010
Last Update: 23 November 2010
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Remington’s West, Hancock Ad:1959,”
PopHistoryDig.com, November 23, 2010.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

April 1889 “Harper’s Weekly” cover. “The Frontier Trooper's Thanatopsis,”from painting by Frederic Remington. Cavalry officer next to his horse, contemplating a skull.
April 1889 “Harper’s Weekly” cover. “The Frontier Trooper's Thanatopsis,”from painting by Frederic Remington. Cavalry officer next to his horse, contemplating a skull.

John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. Advertisement, “He gave us the wild Old West for Keeps…,” Life magazine, p.15.

“What is ‘Illustration’ and Why Does It Irritate the Intelligentsia So?,” AmArtArchives.com.

Ben Stahl and the art directors of McCann-Erickson, Inc., “Does it Belong?,” 1949 magazine advertisement.

“Biography for Frederic Remington,” Ask Art.com.

“Fredric Remington,” RemingtonArt.com.

“Frederic Remington,” Wikipedia.org.

Frederic Remington Art Samples, at: AskArt.com.

In 1991 the PBS series American Masters filmed a documentary of Remington’s life called Frederic Remington: The Truth of Other Days produced and directed by Tom Neff.

Peggy Samuels & Harold Samuels, Frederic Remington: A Biography, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.,

Frederic Remington, Buffalo Hunter Spitting a Bullet into a Gun, 1892, FredericRemington.org.

Frederic Remington (writer & illustrator), “A Scout with the Buffalo Soldiers,” (slightly abridged version) The Century, Vol. 37, No. 6, April 1889.

Brian Dippie, “Remington’s Kodak Moments,” TrueWestMagazine.com, September 1, 2007.

“John Hancock Insurance,” Wikipedia.org.

John Hancock Financial website.

“Western Images by Frederic Remington,” PhilaPrintShop.com.

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