As Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I research objects within The Henry Ford’s collections that tell entrepreneurial stories. Most recently, I delved into the Label Collection’s food labels – a collection of beautiful labels from canned food and West Coast fruit crates. While examining this collection, I was drawn to the eye-catching and artistic designs and took note of the lithographers’ signatures. A recurring name was the Schmidt Lithograph Company. Further research in our collections database revealed other items designed by this lithography firm, including seed packets and a recipe booklet. These objects help tell the story of Max Schmidt and the evolution of his successful company.
Crate Label, “Victor Vineyard Tokay Grapes,” circa 1920, designed by Schmidt Lithograph Company THF293997
Max Schmidt was born in Germany in 1850. At the age of fourteen – not wanting to enter his family’s traditional medical practice – Schmidt set sail around the world for six years as a cabin boy, arriving in San Francisco in 1871. Speaking little to no English, Schmidt took odd jobs until he found himself working for engraving and lithography companies. These new jobs in California gave him the opportunity to hone his artistic skills.
In 1874, Schmidt ventured into a partnership with Frederick Beuhler, creating pictorial cuts for local newspapers. A “cut” refers to an image or illustration that can be reproduced through mass printing. Traditionally, this would have been done using woodcuts, but Schmidt and Beuhler utilized the new etching technique known as zincography. This process, which involved using a stylus to cut lines into a zinc metal plate, was more efficient and allowed their company to quickly become the printing plate supplier for all the San Francisco newspapers.
Crate Label, “River Lad Brand Asparagus,” 1940-1950, designed by Schmidt Lithograph Company THF294037
In 1876, Schmidt went into business on his own, creating M. Schmidt & Company, which produced stock certificates and colored labels utilizing the process of stone lithography. This involved drawing images on soft stone, like limestone, and transferring the image from the stone to paper using a printing press. Several years later in 1883, the company was incorporated as Schmidt Label & Lithographic Company.
Crate Label, “Edna Alma Rancho Brand Grapes,” 1883-1899THF294345
Close-up view of the lithographer signature on the Edna Alma Rancho label THF294349
Lithographic firms often included a signature on their designs so that people would know who created them. Today, these signatures can help us date the labels in our collection. In this case, because we know the name “Schmidt Label & Lithographic Company” was used from 1883--1899, we know the label was created within that date range.
With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, more produce than ever before was being shipped across the country to eastern markets. Competition among growers and packing companies increased the necessity for labels, which aided in product and brand identification. In the 1870s and 1880s, the lithography industry in California swelled to meet the demand for labels. Los Angeles and San Francisco – where Schmidt’s company emerged as an industry leader – became major hubs for lithography.
Can Label, “Lynx Brand Puget Sound Salmon,” 1880-1900 THF109742
Just as his business was flourishing, Max Schmidt experienced a series of setbacks that could have very easily been the end of his lithography business. An unfortunate string of fires destroyed his factory in 1884 and again in 1886. Despite his misfortune, Max Schmidt – and his company’s reputation – persevered to continue producing high-quality commercial lithographs, including labels for fruit crates, canned fruits and vegetables, and canned salmon from the Pacific Northwest.
The turn of the century saw a trend towards consolidation of the lithography industry. Out of the dozens of lithograph companies that had opened to meet the demand for labels and other commercial lithographs, several larger companies emerged as the leaders. By this time, Schmidt’s company was one of the most well-known in the industry. Following the consolidation trend, Schmidt acquired San Francisco-based Dickman-Jones and the label department from H. S. Crocker to form the Mutual Label & Lithographic Company in 1899. Throughout the early 1900s, the Los Angeles-based firms of Western Lithograph Company and Los Angeles Lithographic Company were also associated with Mutual, which quickly became a powerhouse in the industry.
Title page for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair Edition recipe booklet for “How to Eat Canned Salmon,” designed by Mutual Label & Lithographic Company THF294360
The 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire that hit San Francisco was devastating to the San Francisco lithography industry. Many companies lost all label designs, production equipment, and business records. Schmidt’s company was completely destroyed, but his previous financial success allowed him to quickly rebuild where other lithographers were not so lucky. When the new building opened in 1907, the Mutual name was replaced with Schmidt Lithograph Company, which remained the name of the business for the next six decades.
Stock Crate Label for an Unknown Brand of Asparagus, 1906-1966 THF293101
A common product for lithography companies was the stock label, like this one produced by the Schmidt Lithograph Company. These labels were void of brand identification so that it could be customized for any company. This was often a cost-efficient option for growers and packing houses.
Throughout the 1900s, the Schmidt Lithograph Company experienced tremendous success. Schmidt was a showman with a kind disposition, leading to great working relationships with the firm’s clients and employees. His success enabled the company to expand, establishing offices and factories in Florida, Texas, Honolulu, Utah, and along the West Coast. When Max Schmidt died in 1936, his company was still one of the most successful lithography businesses in the country. In 1966, Schmidt Lithograph Company was purchased by the Stecher-Traung to create the powerful firm, Stecher-Traung-Schmidt, which remained in business until 1994.
Close-up view of the lithographer signature on the Santa Brand Fruits label THF294347
Lithographer signatures can tell us where a design came from. Schmidt was a major player in the lithography industry with factories across the country. The signature on this label tells us that it was created in Schmidt’s Los Angeles factory.
Dodson Seed Store “Nasturtium” Seed Packet, 1966-1983 THF294259 Lithographers produced designs for a number of items including seed packets. The signature on the bottom of this seed packet notes that its design was created by the firm of Stecher-Traung-Schmidt.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford.
Astonishing Tales, vol. 1 no. 29, 1975, featuring Guardians of the Galaxy - a reprint of their first appearance (1969) in Marvel Super-Heroes vol. 1 no. 18. THF305338
It started the summer I turned 14, when some neighbor kids told us they were moving and wanted to find a good home for their sizable stash of D.C. comic books. My four brothers and I had a hard time turning that down! The next thing we knew, several boxes of comic books arrived on our doorstep—opening a magical door into a world previously unknown to me.
Up until that time, I’d only read younger kids’ comic books—like Archie, Richie Rich, and Little Lotta. But these were different, these D.C. comics that recounted the exploits of such larger-than-life superheroes as Superman, The Flash, and my personal favorites—the teenage Legion of Super-Heroes.
Adventure Comics, featuring Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, vol. 1 no. 343, April 1966. THF 305335
My Mom was rather horrified when she learned of our new “acquisition.” She pictured us wasting our summer away reading these comic books rather than doing things that were—as she called it—more “constructive.” I must admit that I did spend many hours that summer immersed in the pages of those comic books. But in no way would I call it wasting my time. Through those comic books, I learned about how stories can be told through a series of pictures, how pictures can illuminate ideas and feelings, and how all of this can fuel a young reader’s imagination.
First issue of Spider-Man I purchased, vol. 1 no. 88, September 1970 (author’s collection).
One evening a few years later, my comic book world shifted. My best friend introduced me to the backstory of Spider-Man—a completely different kind of comic book superhero created by Marvel, a completely different kind of comic book company. Spider-Man had problems. And flaws. And continual feelings of self-doubt. Here was a superhero who was reluctant, questioning, always feeling like a failure even when he just happened to save the world. On top of that, he was a teenager—just like me! Who couldn’t relate to that? I was forever done with Superman. So long, D.C.! Hello, Marvel!
Spider-Man, vol. 1 no. 96, May 1971 – an unprecedented issue at the time. It did not display the Comics Code Authority stamp of approval like virtually all comic books at the time because it involved a drug-related story (author’s collection).
I soon branched out to other Marvel comic books. I became especially enamored with the stories of Dr. Strange, whose mystical world fascinated me and whose page after page of colorful psychedelic graphics captivated me even without the stories. I also went through a Silver Surfer period, appreciating his feeling of alienation from all human beings who inhabited Planet Earth. I tried many additional titles, but Spider-Man remained my perennial favorite.
Dr. Strange, vol. 1 no. 171, August 1968, displaying typically striking graphics on the cover (author’s collection).
As I entered college, my passion for comic books came along with me. I rode my new 10-speed bicycle down miles of back roads to visit used comic book stores and attend the occasional comic book show. I joined a comic book enthusiasts’ group with fellow students, where we traded likes, dislikes, and back issues. I made inventories, kept needs lists, bought enthusiasts’ magazines, and traced the lineage of my favorite titles by searching for back issues. This was all in the days before the Internet, eBay, and Comic Cons, and most communication was accomplished through the mail.
Silver Surfer, vol. 1 no. 1, August 1968 (author’s collection).
When I began my job as a curator here at The Henry Ford in 1977, my interest in comic books finally waned. Maybe I didn’t need that brand of escapism or that kind of outlet for my imagination anymore. Maybe I was too busy to take the time to delve into the stories. Comic books themselves changed. I remember feeling frustrated by Marvel’s trend, during the late 1970s, with story cross-overs throughout the entire network of their comic book titles to encourage more comic-book buying. Who had the patience and perseverance for that? Or the money, as the price of comic books soared at that time, from 15 cents in the late 1960s to 40 cents by 1980? This is also about the time that Spider-Man went mainstream, with a newspaper comic strip (starting 1977) and a Saturday morning cartoon (premiering 1981), both aimed at kids much younger than me. It seemed weird that, suddenly, I shared a common bond with my little five-year-old nephew—although he acted suitably impressed when I pulled out some of my old Spider-Man comic books for him, which by then seemed like ancient relics.
I might have let go of my comic book passion for good, but some project at the museum would always pull me back. For example, during my writing of the museum book Leisure and Entertainment in America (1988), I acquired a group of early comic books for the museum’s collection.
Tales from the Crypt, vol. 1 no. 43, September 1954 - an early 1950s horror comic book title whose shocking content alarmed parents and helped lead to the comic book industry’s self-censorship board, called the Comics Code Authority. THF141540
When we decided to include a section on how people imagined the future in the Your Place in Time: 20th Century America exhibit, I acquired a range of comic book titles that focused upon futuristic themes.
Spider-Man 2099, vol. 1 no. 1, November 1992 – a futuristic re-imagining of the original character (note steep $1.75 price by this time). THF305334
Back when I was a kid, many parents (including my own) worried about the harmful effects that reading comic books had on youth. In retrospect, I’d have to say that they were completely wrong. For me, comic books expanded my world immeasurably. They encouraged me to read, to write, to draw, to tap into my imagination. Maybe this started with those early Archie comic books. It certainly grew when that stash of D.C. comics landed on our front doorstep. But it blossomed and permanently formed who I am today when I entered the Marvel Universe.
Happy 80th birthday, Marvel!
Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Crate Label, “Far West Brand Pears,” circa 1930 THF293059
As Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship, I research objects within The Henry Ford’s collections that tell entrepreneurial stories. Most recently, I delved into the Label Collection, which includes labels from alcoholic beverages, cigar boxes, medicines, various food related items, and miscellaneous products. This blog post highlights the West Coast fruit crate labels and canned food labels.
Can Label, “Defender Brand Tomatoes,” 1913-1918 THF293393
In the late 1800s, the preferred method of printing used to make image-centric labels like these was lithography. This process involved the transfer of an inked image from stone or metal plates to paper via a printing press. Skilled artists drew their images on flattened, smooth pieces of stone – traditionally limestone – to then be inked and transferred. Later, flexible, photosensitive metal plates were used on rotary and offset presses, making the lithographic process more efficient. The artists who worked in this medium were called lithographers. Some of the growers, as well as some of the packing and distribution companies, had their own lithography departments to produce labels. The majority, however, hired lithography companies to create their label designs.
The introduction of color into the lithography process, known as chromolithography, transformed the advertising industry. Multi-colored lithographs involved several transfers of the same image from multiple stones, or plates, each with their own color ink in the desired layout. The more colors included in the image, the more transfers (and stones/plates) required to produce the desired result.
This label for Atlas Brand Blackberries is an example of single-color lithography and was produced through a single ink pass. The shading and variation seen in this image was created by the methods of stippling, linework, and applying different densities of the same color of ink to the page. The stippling method refers to the pattern of dots, which can be seen if you look closely at the fruit depicted on this label.
Can Label, “Holly Brand Peaches,” circa 1916 THF293047
To enhance the attractiveness of a label some lithographers incorporated metallic pigments and dimensional, embossed areas into their designs. Metallic pigments created the shiny golden appearance that can be seen along the edges of this label for Holly Brand Yellow Cling Peaches.
Fruit Crate Labels Before the 1860s, East and West Coast markets were essentially isolated. Because of differing climates, certain produce was only available to consumers living in the eastern United States during specific seasons while most produce in the West could be grown throughout the entire year. When the transcontinental railroad opened in 1869, eastern markets were opened to the West Coast produce industry for the first time. The railroad, along with the growing canning industry, allowed consumers to enjoy fruits and vegetables year-round – encouraging the establishment of more growers and packing companies in the West to meet the high demand. By the turn of the century and into the early twentieth-century, California fruit growers provided an abundance of fresh fruit to the national markets, transforming the American diet.
With greater competition among growers and packing houses, the crate label became an important marketing tool. At the time, grocers were the link between customers and the products. Grocers obtained their goods from wholesale markets, choosing their products by price and intuition. The label had to stand out and appeal to the grocer who would then buy several crates of the product and sell it in his store. If the grocer heard that customers liked a certain brand over previous ones he’d supplied, he could make sure to purchase that particular brand again, using the crate label for identification.
These fruit crate labels are often stunningly beautiful – more like mini-posters with broad color palettes, incredibly detailed images, and clever brand names. A common feature of label design was an image of where the fruits and vegetables were produced. Customers became enamored with the shining groves of oranges in the West and came to identify certain places with the best produce. Other labels feature popular motifs of the time and allow us to explore the trends in graphic design.
Crate Label, “Orchard Brand Pears,” circa 1920 THF293065
California wasn’t the only state on the West Coast to produce delicious fruit. Washington was known for its many varieties of apples as well as other fruits, including pears.
Crate Label, “Bocce Brand Zinfandel Grapes,” circa 1940 THF293043
C. Mondavi & Sons’ “Bocce” label played up the family’s Italian roots, aligning its product with the quality grapes grown in Italian vineyards. This successful business was established by Cesare Mondavi, a Minnesota grocer and saloon owner who often traveled to California to select and ship grapes back home to make his own wine. After becoming enamored with the California climate, which reminded him of Italy, he moved his family to Lodi in 1923 to open a business growing and shipping grapes. His success allowed him to purchase a winery in 1946, which is still thriving today as C. K. Mondavi and Family.
Crate Label, “Santa Rosa Brand Ventura County Lemons,” copyright 1927 THF293109
This label features the sprawling lemon groves in Oxnard, California. It also features the “Sunkist” logo, which became a popular brand known for its high-quality oranges and lemons.
Canned Food Labels The process of canning food has been around since the early 19th century, with products used as wartime provisions for French and British armies. Tin cans allowed food producers to safely transport their goods without fear of them breaking – as was common with glass jars and bottles – making cans a more economical container for foodstuffs. While canned foods were introduced to America by the 1820s, the demand for these products came four decades later during the American Civil War.
Unlike glass jars or bottles, which allowed consumers to view the product inside, cans required identification. At first, labels were simply a tool to inform the customers of the product they were buying, who produced it, and where it was produced. As railroad networks expanded in the late 1800s and competition increased, more elaborate labels were created to appeal to customers in new markets across the country. The label became even more important after World War I when customers began selecting products for themselves in self-service grocery stores.
Can Label, “Butterfly Brand Golden Pumpkin,” 1880-1895 THF113859
Can Label, “Butterfly Brand Golden Wax Stringless Beans,” circa 1885 THF113860
Using the same design for several different products became a strategy for helping customers find the brand with which they were familiar. Olney and Floyd’s Butterfly Brand products were easy to identify with their colorful, eye-catching labels and signature butterfly.
Can Label, “Bare Foot Boy Brand Tomatoes,” circa 1910 THF293079
Characters were a common feature in product advertising. The goal was to create an emotional or personal connection between the product and the customer – a practice that is still seen in marketing strategies today.
Can Label, “Lynx Brand Puget Sound Salmon,” 1880-1900 THF109742
As canned goods made their way across the country, certain states became known for specific products. Washington, for instance, was known for its salmon industry and canned salmon was shipped from the Pacific Northwest all across the United States. This beautiful label was created by the Schmidt Lithograph Company – one of the most well-known companies in the lithography industry.
At The Henry Ford, we believe inside every person is the potential to change the world.
For 90 years, The Henry Ford has been a force for sparking curiosity and inspiring tomorrow’s innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs thanks to the generosity of our visitors, members, staff, volunteers and more. Their support helps us build on Henry Ford’s original mission to make this institution a hands-on learning resource for the visionary in all of us.
As we move closer to celebrating our 90th anniversary this October, here are nine ways you can go above and beyond to support The Henry Ford and our mission.
Visit It may sound simple, but bringing your friends and family to The Henry Ford any day of the year is a great way to support our organization! When you’re here, make sure to post pictures and videos from your visit and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter and social accounts.
Shop at The Henry Ford Consider supporting The Henry Ford by making a purchase at one of our retail locations. Gift cards can be used in any of our stores, as well as towards the purchase of a membership, handcrafted Liberty Craftworks piece or hands-on learning kit for all ages.
Host an event During many days of the week, when our doors close at 5 pm, we’re simultaneously opening our doors to evening event guests. Weddings, company picnics and holiday parties are all great ways to support our mission at The Henry Ford.
Volunteer your time We love our volunteers! There are many ways to serve as a volunteer here at The Henry Ford. We are always looking for greeters, counselors with our summer camps and extra assistance at special programs throughout the year.
Donate to our Annual Fund Donations to The Henry Ford Annual Fund go towards projects both big and small across our campus. You can make a monthly gift, apply for an employer-matched gift or leave a legacy through a planned gift.
Support local schools and students Every year thousands of students visit The Henry Ford and are inspired by our collection. Help even more students learn from these stories of American Innovation by providing a school field trip scholarship, sending a child to summer camp or supporting a student in our Youth Mentorship Program.
Honor a loved one with a memorial gift Memorial benches in Greenfield Village, named theater seats at the Giant Screen Experience and book plates in the Benson Ford Research Center are all wonderful ways to honor a family member, friend or special occasion.
Donate to The Innovation Project The Innovation Project is a $150 million comprehensive campaign to build digital and experiential learning tools, programs and initiatives to advance innovation, invention and entrepreneurship. Gifts made to The Innovation Project will help us achieve greater accessibility, inclusivity and exposure to unlock the potential of the next generation.
Amanda Floyd is the Annual Fund Specialist at The Henry Ford.
Rosa Parks Visiting Mattox House in Greenfield Village, August 1992. THF125176
By the early 1990s, museum staff decided that its mission statement about America’s change through time was both too oriented toward the past and too inwardly focused on the museum’s own work.
In 1992, staff settled upon a new mission statement with three key words—innovation, resourcefulness, and ingenuity—that both aligned with Henry Ford’s original vision and provided better opportunities to impact and inspire current and future audiences. These three words shaped and energized collecting—to encompass such topics as social transformation, modern design, and the stories and objects connected with innovators and visionaries. The Museum would launch its first web site in 1995.
In the 1990s, collecting objects that reflected social and technological history of the second half of the 20th century increasingly became a focus. This 1960 Park and Shop game--representing a typical shopping center of the era, complete with parking lot--mirrored the rapid suburbanization of the post-World War II era as people moved from cities into the surrounding new suburbs. This game also immersed children in an adult world of shopping and consumerism. - Jeanine Head Miller, Curator of Domestic Life
In the 1990s curators sought out Arts and Crafts era objects—especially those made by women—such as this charming silver and enameled jam dish and spoon, made about 1905 by silversmith Mary Winlock. Winlock was educated at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the 1890s, and in 1903 she joined the Handicraft Shop, an artist cooperative, where she sold her distinctive enameled silver and jewelry. - Charles Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts
The Henry Ford's auto racing collection covers all of the most popular racing types in the United States, and it includes several landmark cars. None may be more significant than "Old 16," winner of the 1908 Vanderbilt Cup. This legendary Locomobile was the first American car to win America's first great international race, and it served notice that American-built cars were every bit as good as their European counterparts. Never restored, "Old 16" still looks much as it did at the time of that victory. We intend to preserve the car just as it is -- a rare and important survivor from motorsport's earliest years. - Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation
During the 1990s, the museum leadership actively sought to represent more diverse American voices at Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. In response, a collections task force called for an increase in the racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity of the collections. Curators purchased images, like this one, that depicted the lives of African Americans, Jews, and immigrant populations. - Andy Stupperich, Associate Curator, Digital Content
The Henry Ford's collection of mid-20th century design expanded as the century came to a close. In 1992, the Herman Miller furniture company donated a substantial collection of material designed by Alexander Girard, the Director of Design of Herman Miller's textile division from 1952-1973. Girard's incredible eye for color, texture, and whimsy helped transform the aesthetic of the modern movement. - Katherine White, Associate Curator
In the 1990s, the museum assessed its holdings and developed guidelines for future collecting. The acquisition of a group of pictorial lunchboxes in 1999 reflected a new focus on post-World War II America. Introduced in 1950, pictorial lunchboxes relate to mass media, merchandising, and the Baby Boomer generation. Curators selected lunchboxes representing current events and popular culture, especially TV shows and movies. -Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content
Large machine designed to harvest a delicate crop - the mass-produced and processed tomato. Tomato genetic research in California made the machine viable but this machine was sold in Ohio to a northern Illinois truck farming family. The story is essential to conveying the massive scale required to put canned tomatoes on grocery store shelves. - Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment
Studio artist Dean Allison is our August Artist in Residence at The Henry Ford. Looking forward to a week of new ideas and exploration, Dean joins our artists in the Greenfield Village Glass Shop Aug. 13-17. Follow him on Instagram and learn more about his background below.
Tell us a little bit about you and your work. My work deals with portraiture and documenting people in glass. I’m interested in the figure and physical details that translate identity and the human condition. Most of my work is cast and utilizes molds and processes like bronze casting.
How did you get started with glassblowing? I took an elective in glass when I was an undergraduate in college. I wasn’t interested in 3D work at the time, but that swiftly changed, and glass became a material I grew to love.
What piece are you most proud of that you’ve created to date? That is a difficult question because each piece has differing challenges and obstacles. The most ambitious piece was titled “The Boxer.” It is a piece that I worked on for more than three years, ultimately made in five parts. I designed and built specialized equipment to make the piece. I mixed and melted all the glass from scratch and learned a great deal from the many processes involved.
Where do you find inspiration for your work? People, memories, conversations, human interaction, and social concerns.
What are you most looking forward to as being an Artist in Residence this year? Creating a new body of work that involves experimenting with the figure on a smaller scale and finding inspiration in gesture and form.
Chatty Cathy Talking Doll, ca. 1963, an inspiration for Gabby Gabby. THF 173150
Since 1995, Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story” films have led the industry in combining computer-generated animation with powerful, heartfelt stories. One of the reasons that adults and kids alike are drawn to these films is the clever selection of toys. More often than not, these are based upon real toys that are fondly remembered by viewers from different generations (see several examples of these from The Henry Ford’s collections in the blog post, “The Real Toys of Toy Story”).
This summer’s release of “Toy Story 4”—with its cast of old friends along with several newly introduced toys—allows us the perfect opportunity to once again delve into The Henry Ford’s collections and see what real toys provided inspiration for this fourth “Toy Story” installment.
A heroic spork? Yes, indeed! This time around, Pixar decided to explore what would happen when a handmade toy named Forky (with a plastic spork for a body) meets the old gang of mass-manufactured toys.
Sporks have a long, mostly unsuccessful history. Think about it. When you combine a spoon and a fork together, neither of them is going to work very well. Interlocking or folding sets of camp utensils have always been more popular with backpackers and Boy Scouts. Nevertheless, by the 1970s, plastic sporks were making their way into fast-food restaurants—to use for, as Forky describes it, "soup, salad, maybe chili, and then the trash!” Kentucky Fried Chicken was one of the first fast-food chains to regularly feature sporks, like the one shown here.
Image of Little Bo-Peep as part of Mother Goose Series, trade card for baking soda, John Dwight & Co., 1900. THF294575
In “Toy Story 4,” Bo Peep returns as a much more assertive and heroic character. Here we learn that she was once part of a lamp that Andy’s sister, Molly, had in her bedroom to help her fall asleep. In fact, the classic nursery rhyme, Little Bo-Peep—first printed in full in 1810—reveals that this young shepherdess lost her sheep because she had also fallen asleep!
Other connections exist between the old nursery rhyme and the newer, more independent Bo Peep. In the nursery rhyme, Bo Peep’s sheep lose their way because sheep are known to flock together. In “Toy Story 4,” Bo Peep’s three sheep are also inseparable—in fact, they are molded together as one piece, leading to often humorous results! In addition, a shepherdess would have traditionally used her crook not only to manage her sheep but also to defend them from attack by predators. In the film, Bo Peep similarly uses her crook to keep our heroes from harm.
The appearance of Giggles McDimple in “Toy Story 4” likely delighted girls who grew up in the 1990s, as Giggles and her “home” reference the highly popular Polly Pockets of that era. These were first conceived by a British Dad for his daughter in 1983, using a powder compact as a tiny house that could fit in a pocket. Bluebird Toys, of Swindon, England, licensed the concept when these first appeared on the market in 1989, with Mattel in charge of distribution. In 1998, Mattel purchased the rights to manufacture Polly Pockets, then immediately redesigned them into larger dolls with changing garments. While various versions were produced after that, the original minuscule figures with jointed legs and peg-like bases that slotted into holes inside their cases never returned.
In “Toy Story 4,” Giggles compensates for her minuscule size by displaying an air of confidence and a can-do attitude—just the kind of out sized personality that little girls of the 1990s might have ascribed to their own Polly Pockets.
Evel Knievel X-2 Sky Cycle Toy, 1976-8. THF 302676
Duke Caboom—"Canada’s Greatest Stuntman”—is not an exact imitation of Evel Knievel, but this “Toy Story 4” character was certainly inspired by the famed 1970s stunt daredevil. Robert Craig Knievel, who was known at an early age for his combined athletic prowess and guts, became a national sensation in the 1970s, when he was featured several times on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” Knievel’s tremendous crowd appeal motivated Ideal to reproduce an action-figure version of him along with various stunt-related accessories—like this X-2 Sky Cycle that replicates the one he used during an attempted jump over Snake River Canyon, Idaho, in 1974.
During the peak of his popularity, Knievel’s flashy white leather jumpsuit and reputation for keeping his word helped reinforce his heroic, larger-than-life image. That is, until 1978, when he was convicted of assaulting the author of a book written about him and his popularity quickly plummeted. The tragic backstory of Duke Caboom and his kid who rejected him is a fitting connection to the real-life 1970s Evel Knievel and his young fans.
G.I. Joe Desert Troop Dusty with Sandstorm, his coyote, 1990-91. THF 94338
Combat Carl makes a small but unforgettable appearance in “Toy Story 4”—especially if you stay to the very end of the credits. He played a bit part in the first “Toy Story” film, then a larger role in Pixar’s 2013 Halloween TV special, “Toy Story of Terror!” Combat Carl is an everyman military action figure reminiscent of G.I. Joe action figures of the 1980s and ‘90s. Mattel introduced the first G.I. Joe in 1964—a 12” poseable version that directly referenced the military men who saw action during World War II and the Korean War. An African-American version of G.I. Joe was introduced in 1965.
As a result of the unpopular Vietnam War in the late 1960s and the rising price of plastic in the 1970s, G.I. Joes declined in popularity until they were discontinued in 1978. But they made a stunning comeback during the 1980s as 3-3/4” adventure-team action figures. This G.I. Joe action figure from The Henry Ford’s collection, named Dusty, was introduced in 1991, after the Persian Gulf War inspired toys based upon the real-life conflict. Exuding a great deal of self-possessed machismo but also tugging at our heartstrings a bit, Combat Carl always leaves us rooting for him.
Shown on the right side of the page, Chatty Cathy is featured in the 1964 Sears Roebuck & Co. Christmas Catalog. Note her Gabby Gabby-like freckles! THF287020
At first glance, the scheming Gabby Gabby appears to have been based upon Chatty Cathy, introduced to the American public in 1960 as the first in a new line of Mattel talking dolls. Like Gabby Gabby in the film, Chatty Cathy’s “voice” was activated by a pull string in the back. The first Chatty Cathy, who had blue eyes and sported a blonde bobbed hairdo, recited 11 phrases at random via a record that was driven by a metal coil wound by pulling the toy’s string. Her phrases were voiced by June Foray, also famous as the voice of Rocky the Squirrel in “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show.” Newer versions of the doll sported a wider choice of hair and eye colors as well as an African-American version. By 1963, when this version of Chatty Cathy was introduced, she had long pigtails and her vocabulary had increased to 18 phrases.
According to director Josh Cooley, Gabby Gabby was based more directly upon an evil doll named Talky Tina, who appeared in a 1963 “Twilight Zone” episode. In this edge-of-your-seats episode, a family’s problems are made worse when a talking doll—which was loosely based upon Chatty Cathy and was also voiced by June Foray—develops a mind of her own and wreaks havoc on the family, inevitably leading to a tragic ending.
As Woody and Forky search for Bo Peep in the quiet atmosphere of the antique shop, the sudden sound of a squeaky doll carriage edging closer but just out of view is one of the more hair-raising moments in the film. Sure enough, it reveals itself as Gabby Gabby’s mobility device and there is good reason for viewers to be nervous. Some of us have a visceral memory of those squeaky doll carriages of the mid-20th century, before safety and cost issues replaced the carriages’ metal and vinyl parts with plastic.
Doll carriages were generally based upon full-size baby carriages of their era. In the late 19th century, these were often quite elaborate, made of wicker with brass fittings and matching parasols and only affordable to the wealthy. As the 20th century progressed, pop-up tops, removable beds, and suspension systems made baby carriages more comfortable and convenient, and they also became more affordable to families of different economic levels. The three options shown in this 1964 Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog—of varying prices and materials—are all reminiscent of Gabby Gabby’s squeaky—and sneaky—doll carriage.
In “Toy Story 4,” Gabby Gabby is delighted when the antique shop owner’s granddaughter, Harmony, sets up a toy tea set and pretends to take tea—hoping beyond hope that when her voice box is fixed, Harmony will invite her to join in.
Since the 19th century, miniature tea sets were a traditional way for little girls to practice adult skills and feminine roles. It was up to them, however, to decide whom to invite for company. Images, like the cover of this doll dessert set, often show little girls having tea with favored dolls and stuffed animals. Indeed, in previous “Toy Story” movies, we saw both neighbor Sid’s little sister and young Bonnie engage in this type of imaginative play. The strengthening of bonds between little girls and their dolls through pretend tea-drinking is something that Gabby Gabby desperately wants—so much so that she will resort to desperate measures to have it.
Without a doubt the creepiest characters in “Toy Story 4” are the Bensons—the group of ventriloquist dummies that Gabby Gabby enlists to do her bidding. Dating back to 18th-century traveling fairs, ventriloquists “threw” their voices to appear as if they were coming from elsewhere, usually a puppet or other semi-lifelike figure referred to as a dummy. During the early 20th century, Edgar Bergen popularized the idea of comedic ventriloquism, teaming up with his “cheeky,” boyish dummy, Charlie McCarthy. Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy became so popular that they appeared on “The Chase & Sanborn Radio Hour” from 1937 to 1956, as well as later films and TV programs. As shown here, Charlie McCarthy was reproduced by Effanbee as a child’s toy, complete with different outfits and a carrying trunk.
The Charlie McCarthy dummy and related doll were not intended to be evil (although some people would maintain that all ventriloquists’ dummies are creepy). Credit for that goes to the fact that the Bensons were more directly inspired by a series of “Goosebumps” books by R. L. Stine that began in 1993, featuring the villainous Slappy the Dummy. Though the book is from a later era, Slappy’s appearance recalls the ventriloquist dummies of Charlie McCarthy’s time. In “Toy Story 4,” the Bensons have no voices because there are no humans to provide them. And their bodies are soft with no structure because, without humans to operate them, their body parts just dangle. Very clever! And definitely creepy!
Will there be a “Toy Story 5”—with new toys, the return of familiar old toys, and a fresh spin on their interconnecting stories? Only time will tell.
Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
A happy family on a road trip inside their 1958 Edsel Bermuda Station Wagon. THF124600
Nothing epitomizes the 20th-century American family vacation more than the station wagon. After World War II, as family vacationers flooded the highways out to enjoy all that America had to offer, the station wagon became the quintessential family car. Although they had been around for a few decades, station wagons by this time had become roomier, more comfortable, and more within the reach of family budgets.
As shown in this circa 1953 Coleman brochure, station wagons proved the perfect vehicle for families who needed to haul lots of gear for their “back to nature” camping vacations. THF275653
When limited-access turnpikes and interstate freeways expanded across the country during the 1950s and 1960s, sales of station wagons exploded. From three percent of all cars sold in 1950, sales of these cars mushroomed to 10 times that in 1955. By the end of the decade, some one in every five cars sold was a station wagon.
As family vacation trips lengthened, so did the time family members spent on the road together in the car. However, even though the ads claimed that vacations taken in a roomy, comfortable station wagon could improve family relations, this wasn’t always the case. Younger family members, in particular, inevitably got cranky and bored--threatening any attempt at family togetherness and fun. Enter a host of family car games and activities.
Mom and the kids read together in the back seat of the family car, with apparent disregard for “buckling up” for safety. THF275640
During the 1950s and 1960s, inventive game manufacturers, creative writers, and ingenious publishers devised all manner of family games and activities. These were intended to keep family members occupied, reinforce family togetherness, and increase the fun of traveling together.
Book of Ford Travel Games, free dealer giveaway, 1954. THF206270
During the post-World War II era, many of the car games and activities with which we are still familiar today were published and disseminated. This 1954 Ford dealer giveaway book was dedicated to the author’s four teenagers, “whose restlessness during childhood days first made these games necessary.” Most games in it, intended to be played by young and old, were the “scavenger” type, that would “help much to pass the time in an enjoyable manner” while “affording an opportunity for all members of the family to enjoy doing things together during the long hours on a motor trip.” The object of these scavenger-type games was to see who was the first one to find the items on the list, including car license plates, animals, sounds, and songs. Other games and contests included the classic I Spy game, a memory game called My Grandfather’s Trunk, and identifying shapes by looking at cloud formations.
Ford Game and Travel Book with stamps, 1959. THF275639
The 1959 Ford Game and Travel Book included games, songs, stories, riddles, and information enough to “provide hours and hours of pleasure for the whole family during the trip.” It included 128 full-color stamps to affix to various pages. The games and activities were much the same as those in the 1954 Travel Games book.
Fun on Wheels book for AAA, by Dave Garroway, 1960. THF275643
Dave Garroway, the founding host and anchor of NBC’s Today TV show from 1952 to 1961, was known for his easy and relaxing style. By the time this book was published in 1960 for members of the American Automobile Association, Garroway would have been a familiar name in most households. This book of “sit-able” games, quizzes, riddles, contests, puzzles, songs, and coin tricks “guaranteed miles of motoring pleasure” and was intended to “make any trip easier, safer, and more agreeable for parents and youngsters alike.”
Auto Bingo, a product of the Regal Games Manufacturing Company from Chicago, Illinois, was introduced in the 1950s and proved incredibly popular during succeeding decades. The classic game, shown here, is still produced today.
The popularity of the classic Auto Bingo game spawned many variations, like this Traffic Sign Bingo, with magnetic game pieces.
Ad for 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity Estate station wagon. THF275646
Although the OPEC oil crisis and tougher emission standards dealt a blow to the station wagon market in the 1970s, station wagons were still considered the family vacation vehicle of choice. By the early 1980s, these vehicles had greatly expanded in size and comfort over their 1950s counterparts. Manufacturers promoted their spaciousness, like this ad that likened the 1984 Chevrolet Celebrity Estate wagon to a family room! This is, in fact, the very type of vehicle that was satirized in the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation--although the Griswold family’s clunky green Family Truckster was actually a modified 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire.
Fisher-Price mini-van toy, a repackaged version of the company’s earlier mini-school bus, 1986-90. THF150890
While we may have chuckled at the Griswolds’ Family Truckster in 1983, the future of the station wagon as a family vacation vehicle was, in fact, no laughing matter. Families would soon prefer roomy minivans, introduced in 1984, and fully-featured SUV’s in the 1990s, to haul kids and luggage on long-distance trips.
The family vehicle pictured on the cover of this 1985 travel game and activity book is more akin to a minivan than a station wagon. THF275648
As family road trips continued in subsequent decades, such innovations as portable music and gaming devices and in-car DVD players came to occupy and entertain family members during long trips.
A 1982 redesign of the original Sony Walkman, the first portable audio cassette player introduced in 1979. THF153124
But classic family games and activities persisted, in both traditional and newer versions.
This set contained 10 games (including Solitaire, Checkers, and Mini-Chutes and Ladders). Its interchangeable game board contained holes to hold peg-like game pieces in place. THF140658
Scrabble isn’t the best idea for a travel game, as letters are small and can easily get lost. Later versions of this game came with magnetic letters. THF106452
Today, we have a plethora of personal and mobile technologies to keep individuals occupied in the car on long-distance vacations (if they don’t opt for much speedier air travel). But these devices also separate and isolate members of the family. It’s nice to know that, if you want, you can still find classic family car games and activities online or available as digital downloads. And, of course, there’s still the old way of learning the classic games--passed down from parent to child.
Anyone for a rousing game of I Spy?
Donna R. Braden, Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life, grew up in a large family and took many family vacations with her parents and four brothers in their Country Squire station wagon.
1950 Plymouth Deluxe Suburban Station Wagon. THF90908
The earliest station wagons hauled travelers and luggage between train stations and hotels. Wagons remained low-production specialty vehicles until the 1950s, when parents embraced them as ideal vehicles for transporting growing families. Packed with children, groceries, camping gear, or luggage, station wagons became the very symbol of the family car.
Durant Motor Company, "The New Star Car," 1924. THF105552
Star, made by Durant Motor Company, became the first manufacturer-produced station wagon in 1923. Early wagons, also known as depot hacks, were utility vehicles, and not very family-friendly.
"The New All-Metal Plymouth Suburban, the Car with 101 Uses," Chrysler Corporation Plymouth Division, 1949. THF105554
By 1949, when the Plymouth Suburban was introduced, families were growing and suburbs expanding. The utility of the modern Suburban appealed to parents, and the first all-steel body was a major upgrade from older wood-body wagons.
1957 Ford Station Wagon Ad, "Nine's Fine!" THF105560
By 1957, all wagons had steel bodies. But designers applied wood—or fake wood—to “woody” wagons for many years.
1961 Chevrolet Catalog, "There's a Chevy Wagon for Every Purpose, Every Family!" THF105556
Even compact cars like the Chevy Corvair had wagon versions. This 1961 Chevy sales brochure touted its rear-engine Corvair Lakewood, with storage in front and back.
It was the 1960s—the golden age of television. Some 95% of American homes boasted at least one TV. These were primarily black and white sets, as color TV was still out of the reach of many families. It’s hard to imagine now but there were only three channels at the time. Every year, the three networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) vied for viewer ratings, shifting and changing shows and showtimes at two pivotal times during the television season—Fall and Winter.
As the Fall 1966 season unfolded, it became evident to TV viewers that something extraordinary was happening. Sure, there were the usual long-running sitcoms, like Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and The Beverly Hillbillies. But change was in the wind. A new crop of programs emerged—colorful, fast-paced, poking fun at things that were supposed to be serious and exploring contemporary social issues.
Why the difference all of a sudden? Many of these shows were aimed at the youth audience, considered by this time an influential group of TV watchers. Others purposefully took advantage of the new color televisions. Sometimes show producers and creators were simply tired of the old formulas and wanted to break out of the box.
Let’s take a look at a few highlights from the 1966-67 TV season—starting with the staid and true and working up to the wild and wacky—and see what all the hubbub was about!
Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (Sunday, 7:30-8:30 p.m., NBC)
Snow Globe, “The Wonderful World of Disney,” 1969-79. THF174650
On Sunday nights since 1954, millions of Americans had tuned in to watch Walt Disney host his TV show, with a changing array of animated and live-action features, nature specials, movie reruns, travelogues, programs about science and outer space, and—best of all—updates on Walt Disney’s theme park, Disneyland. Since 1961, this show had been broadcast in color.
The 1966-67 season was particularly memorable because Walt Disney tragically passed away on December 15, 1966. But since the episodes had been pre-recorded, there was Walt still hosting them until April 1967. Viewers found this both comforting and disconcerting. Finally, after April, Walt was dropped as the host and, eventually, the show was retitled The Wonderful World of Disney. It ran with solid ratings until the mid-1970s.
Viewership was high on NBC on Sunday nights at 9:00, as Bonanza was one of the most popular TV shows of all time. Running for 14 seasons and 430 episodes, this series about the trials and tribulations of widower Ben Cartwright and his three sons on the Ponderosa Ranch was an immediate breakout hit when it premiered in 1959, amidst a plethora of more run-of-the-mill prime-time westerns. Its popularity was primarily due to its quirky characters and unconventional stories—including early attempts to confront social issues. It was the first major western to be filmed in color and was the top-rated show on TV from 1964 to 1968. Bonanza ran until 1973.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Friday, 8:30-9:30, NBC)
“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lunchbox and thermos, 1966. THF92303
Premiering in September 1964, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. took full advantage of the popularity of the spy genre launched by the James Bond film series. In fact, early concepts for it were conceptualized by Bond creator Ian Fleming. In this series, Napoleon Solo (originally conceived as the lone star) and Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin (added in response to popular demand) teamed up as part of a secret international counterespionage and law enforcement agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Solo and Kuryakin banded together with a global organization of other agents to fight THRUSH, an international organization that aimed to conquer the world.
During this, the Cold War era, it was groundbreaking for a show to portray a United States-Soviet Union pair of secret agents, as these two countries were ideologically at odds most of the time. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was also known for its high-profile guest stars and—taking a cue from the Bond films—its clever gadgets. In 1966, this series won the Golden Globe for Best Television Program and, building upon its popularity, spun off into two related double-feature movies that year. Unfortunately, attempting to compete with lighter, campier programs of the era, the producers made a conscious effort to increase the level of humor—leading to a severe ratings drop. Although the serious plot lines were soon reinstated, the ratings never recovered. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was canceled in January 1968.
I Spy (Wednesday 10:00-11:00, NBC)
TV Guide featuring “I Spy” characters Robert Culp and Bill Cosby on cover, March 25-31, 1967. THF275655
One series that never opted for campy was I Spy, which starred Bill Cosby and Robert Culp playing two U.S. intelligence agents traveling undercover as international “tennis bums.” This series, which premiered in 1965, was also inspired by the James Bond film series and remained a fixture in the secret agent/espionage genre until cancelled in April 1968. I Spy, additionally a leader in the buddy genre, broke new ground as the first American TV drama series to feature a black actor in a lead role. It was also unusual in its use of exotic locations—much like the James Bond films—when shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were completely filmed on a studio backlot.
I Spy offered hip banter between the two stars and some humor, but it focused primarily on the grittier side of the espionage business, sometimes even ending on a somber note. The success of this series was attributed to the strong chemistry between Culp and Cosby. Cosby’s presence was never called out in the way that black stars and co-stars were made a big deal of on later TV programs like Julia (1968) and Room 222 (1969).
Premiering in September 1965, Get Smart was a comedy that satirized virtually everything considered serious and sacred in the James Bond films and such TV shows as I Spy and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Created by comic writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry as a response to the grim seriousness of the Cold War spy genre, it starred bumbling Secret Agent 86—otherwise known as Maxwell “Max” Smart, along with supporting characters, female Agent 99 and the Chief. These characters worked for CONTROL, a secret U.S. government counterintelligence agency, against KAOS, “an international organization of evil.” Brooks and Henry also poked fun at this genre’s use of high-tech spy gadgets (Max’s shoe phone perhaps being the most memorable), world takeover plots, and enemy agents. Somehow, despite serious mess-ups in every episode, Maxwell Smart always emerged victorious in the end.
Get Smart was considered groundbreaking for broadening the parameters of TV sitcoms but was especially known for catchphrases like “Would you believe…” and “Sorry about that, Chief.” Despite a declining interest in the secret-agent genre, Get Smart’s talented writers attempted to keep it fresh until it was finally cancelled in May 1970.
Bursting onto the scene in January 1966, Batman became an instant hit and took the country by storm. Batmania was in full swing by the Fall 1966-67 TV season. The series, based upon the DC comic book of the same name, featured the Caped Crusader (millionaire Bruce Wayne in his alter-ego of Batman) and the Boy Wonder (his young ward Dick Grayson in his alter-ego of Robin). These two crime-fighting heroes defended Gotham City from a variety of evil villains. It aired twice weekly, with most stories leaving viewers hanging in suspense the first night until they tuned in the second night.
This show successfully captured the youth audience, with its campy style, upbeat theme music, and tongue-in-cheek humor. Despite the fact that it verged on being a sitcom, the producers wisely left out the laugh track, reinforcing the seriousness with which the characters seemed to take the often absurd and wildly improbable situations in which they found themselves. The filming simulated a surreal comic-book quality, with characters and situations shot at high and low angles, with bright splashy colors and with sound effects, like Pow, Bam, and Zonk, appearing as words splashed across the action sequences on screen. The series was also replete with numerous gadgets and over-the-top props, with the Batmobile undoubtedly most memorable. Batman ran until March 1968, experiencing a significant ratings drop after its initial novelty faded.
Lost in Space (Wednesday 7:30-8:30, CBS)
“Lost in Space” Lunchbox and Thermos, 1967. THF92298
Loosely based upon the story of the Swiss Family Robinson, this TV series depicted the adventures of the Robinson family, a pioneering family of space colonists who struggled to survive in the depths of space in the futuristic year of 1997—as the United States was gearing up to colonize space due to overpopulation. But the family’s mission was sabotaged, forcing the crew members to crash-land on a strange planet and leaving them lost in space.
The show had premiered in September 1965 as a serious science fiction series about space exploration and a family searching to find a new place for humans to dwell. But, in January 1966, pitted against Batman’s time slot, Lost in Space producers attempted to imitate Batman’s campiness with ever-more-outrageous villains, brightly colored outfits, and over-the-top action. The plots increasingly featured Robby the Robot and the evil Dr. Zachary Smith. Viewers and actors alike strongly disapproved of this shift. The show lingered on until March 1968.
Where other shows might have been lighthearted, campy, or tongue-in-cheek, The Monkees at times verged on pure anarchy. This series, which premiered on September 12, 1966, led off NBC’s prime-time programming every Monday night. It lasted only two seasons but during that time, its star shone brightly. The Monkees followed the experiences of four young men trying to make a name for themselves as a rock ‘n’ roll band, often finding themselves in strange, even bizarre, circumstances while searching for their big break. Aimed directly at the youth audience, the band members were characterized as heroes down on their luck while the adults were consistently depicted as the “heavies.”
The Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! inspired producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider to create not only a show about a rock ‘n’ roll band but also to adapt a loose narrative structure (each member of the Monkees was trained in improvisational acting techniques at the outset of the show) and the musical sequences or “romps” that appeared each week. The series built a reputation for its innovative use of avant-garde filming techniques like quick jump cuts and breaking the fourth wall (that is, having the characters directly address the TV viewers). A well-oiled marketing machine behind the show also ensured that strong tie-ins were maintained with teen magazines, merchandise, and live concerts.
The Monkees won the Emmy for best comedy series during its first, the 1966-67, season. However, backlash was inevitable among critics and older teenagers when the Monkees admitted that they did not play their own instruments—although they clearly played them in their live concerts and, in fact, eventually had a falling-out with network executives about this very issue. Though the show was cancelled in 1968, it experienced a huge revival among younger audiences through Saturday morning reruns and especially with the 1986 MTV Monkees Marathon. Remaining band members Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith still attract large audiences of intergenerational fans at their live concerts, while reruns of their TV shows continue to draw new audiences.
When Star Trek premiered on September 8, 1966, science fiction shows were not very advanced—or even thought of very highly. Star Trek’s closest competitor, Lost in Space, offered only shallow plots, one-dimensional characters, and fake sets. No one could imagine at the time that this rather low-key show would become one of the biggest, longest-running, and highest-grossing media franchises of all time. This series traced the interstellar adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and his crew aboard the United Federation of Planets’ starship Enterprise, on a five-year mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Creator Gene Roddenberry, aiming the show at the youth audience, wanted to combine suspenseful adventure stories with morality tales reflecting contemporary life and social issues. So, to get by network scrutiny, he set the premise of the show in an imaginary future. With the freedom to experiment, he put in place one of TV’s first multiracial and multicultural casts and was able to explore through different episodes some of the most relevant political and social allegories on TV at the time. The stories were also considered exceptionally high quality for that era, involving believable characters with which viewers could both identify and sympathize. Unlike the gloomy predictions of most science fiction writings of the time, Roddenberry hoped that the futuristic utopia he created on Star Trek would give young people hope, that it would empower them to create a better future for themselves someday. Star Trek, with only modest ratings, lasted only three seasons. But it would go on to become a cult classic.
The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (Sunday, 9:00-10:00 p.m. beginning February 1967, CBS)
TV Guide featuring The Smothers Brothers on cover, June 10-16, 1967. THF275657
In Fall 1966, The Garry Moore Show, a variety show on CBS hosted by the aging radio and TV star, was no match when pitted against Bonanza—even with this, its first season in color. Network executives, at their wit’s end to try to attract viewership, decided the only way they could come up with a quick replacement was to substitute another variety show. In desperation, they landed on a simple variety series featuring the soft-spoken, clean-cut, non-threatening folk-music-playing Smothers Brothers. Considered a “young act,” an added bonus was that their show might capture the coveted youth audience. Little did they know what they were in for.
As the show evolved, the brothers not only became more politicized themselves but felt that they owed it to their young viewers to increase the show’s relevance, boldly addressing overtly divisive political and social issues. Their staff of young writers was only too happy to comply. Unfortunately, as a result, the brothers were continually at odds with the network censors until the show was finally cancelled after three seasons. In its continual conflicts with network executives, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour turned the variety show genre on its ear and paved the way for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (1968) and, in pushing TV’s all-out rebellion against the status quo, led an explosive charge that resulted in 1970s shows like All in the Family (1971).
These are but a few highlights from the 1966-67 TV season. Some say that this was the greatest television season ever, a clear indication that TV had finally come of age. Because of shows like these, television would certainly never be the same again. And, come to think of it, neither would we!
Donna Braden, Curator of Public Life, was 13 years old during that memorable TV season and proudly wears her fan club button to every Monkees concert she still attends.