Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz and Rosita. / Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop
Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz shares her journey to becoming a professional puppeteer, how she met Jim Henson, and what it’s like being a part of the Sesame Street family.
As a curator at The Henry Ford, I gained renewed appreciation for Jim Henson while researching the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street in 2019, then again while commemorating Henson’s legacy on the 30th anniversary of his passing in 2020. So it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to interviewing Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz, puppeteer for the Sesame Street character Rosita and someone who had worked for and personally known Jim Henson.
Carmen enchanted us with her stories: growing up in Mexico; her personal interests and love of family; her passion for puppetry and how this turned into her involvement with Jim Henson Productions; how she helped create her Sesame Street character, who was vibrant, outspoken, and passionate—much like Carmen herself.
Carmen struck us as fearless—a young, raw talent beating out more seasoned professionals for work, leaving Mexico behind to attend a puppetry workshop in New York City because she desperately wanted to learn more, and staying there because Jim Henson himself asked her to. She regrets that she never returned home, but recognizes that, through her work, she can proudly represent and keep close to her heart her love of her homeland, community, and family.
—Donna R. Braden
Did you know from an early age that you wanted to work with puppets, become a professional puppeteer?
No. Of all my friends growing up in Mexico City, I was the one who had no idea what she wanted to do. Nothing that gave me a sign. At one time, I thought I wanted to go to the Olympics—I was good in sports, very competitive. I even wanted to work with and talk to the dolphins until I found out about all the science I would need.
When I was 5 or 6 years old, I did love to watch Topo Gigio [a character on a children’s puppet show on Italian television in the early 1960s] every Monday on TV. He was so alive. And then when I was 8, I remember having a playdate at a friend’s house watching Plaza Sésamo [Mexico’s Sesame Street, one of the first international co-productions of the show, which started running in 1972] for the first time. We laughed and sang.
I think my curiosity was there—I wanted to know how they did it. I watched the Muppets, too, when that show came out. But I didn’t know much about Jim Henson until a friend of my brother brought me a book, Of Muppets and Men [Of Muppets and Men: The Making of the Muppet Show, written by Christopher Finch], when I was in high school. The book had pictures of the puppeteers and explanations on how they did it. It was the first time I saw how it worked, and it blew my mind that they had to work with their arms above their heads, that they did the voices themselves.
Was reading that book your light bulb moment?
The light bulb really went on for me when my brother, who was working for Televisa [a Mexican mass media company] at the time, invited me and my friends to attend a workshop with Americans for a children’s show that had puppets. I was the only one called back. I was with a bunch of professional actors from university—the youngest in the group at 18 with no idea of acting. On the third day of the workshop, they brought the puppets out, and we had to work with the cameras and monitors and learn how, when you move the puppet one way, it appears the other way on the monitor—it’s inverted. That is when it really clicked for me. I started remembering all I had watched on TV, how the puppets breathe and walk. They live. I was mesmerized by the challenge to make this thing with no expression have expression.
While working on the children’s television show Super Ondas for Mexican mass media company Televisa in the 1980s, Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz (at right) was one of a small group of professional female puppeteers in the industry. / Photo courtesy of Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz
I loved it. I was in heaven. While the professional actors were having problems because their expressions were happening below, not above, I was making this puppet come alive. It didn’t matter that I was shy or didn’t have the acting skills.
I think my brother knew when he invited me to that workshop. After that, it all came together for me—why I loved the puppets, the magic, the joy, the curiosity.
And I got a job working for Televisa.
How did you cross paths with Jim Henson?
I was working as a puppeteer at Televisa on The Treasure of Knowledge show when I met Kermit Love from the Henson group. He was in Mexico to train puppeteers from Plaza Sésamo. I asked him if he could help me. I felt that I was the only person in Mexico that was passionate about the puppets, that I had respect for them that no one else did. Most puppeteers were actors who were quick to move on to other things. I started asking questions about why we couldn’t do our own voices. I wanted to get better at my craft. I wanted our work to be better.
Kermit invited me to the U.S. to attend a workshop. So I went to Manhattan. One day, he came by and said, “We’re going to a party. Here’s your mask.” Suddenly, I was at a masquerade party thrown by Jim Henson at the Waldorf Astoria. That’s when I met Jim for the first time. It was so amazing. He was so amazing. He invited me to come observe production of his next season of Sesame Street. Just to see them working as a team. They were brilliant, geniuses, magicians. I thought to myself I would love to stay here. This is a dream.
Carmen’s Calls to Action
Go Ahead and Dream
“Never be afraid of your dreams. And if things don’t work out quite the way you hoped now, you will find a way to make them work in the future.”
Making Mistakes Is OK “Making mistakes is actually more than OK. It’s wonderful. It’s how we learn.”
Keep Growing “Don’t be scared to try something new. Even now, I feel like me and Rosita still have a lot of space to grow, and we’re always learning new things, talking about topics I never thought we would be.”
Be Prepared to Work Hard “Being a puppeteer in the Muppet style is so much fun, but it is difficult, hard work. If you like a challenge, teamwork, laughing a lot, and throwing out ideas and solving problems all the time, then this is for you.”
When Jim did call me and said he decided he wanted me to be a part of the Muppet family, that he wanted a strong female puppeteer, I raised my hands and was like, “WAAAWWW!”
That was 1989, just a year before Jim died.
What role did you play in bringing your Sesame Street character Rosita to life?
When Jim was alive, he told me he always wanted a bilingual character for Sesame Street. I told him I didn’t really speak a lot of English. I was probably at 25%. He said no worries. We will work together. It will come out naturally. It’ll be fun.
Designer Ed Christie first asked me to help write a bio for my character because he wanted to create someone I would be comfortable with. So I told him I wanted her to be colorful and present. We Latinos like to hug and kiss. She needs to be cuddly with flowing hair. I wanted her to play the guitar and be musical like I was.
I wanted to name her Rosita, after my best friend in Mexico City, Rosa. I really liked the idea of how people could R the R’s—RRRRRosita.
Meet Rosita, a Bilingual Turquoise Monster
Full name: Rosita la Monstrua de las Cuevas (the Monster of the Caves) Age: 5 Birthday: December 7 Birthplace: Mexico Parents: Rosa and Ricardo Puppeteer: Carmen Osbahr-Vertiz Designer: Ed Christie First TV appearance:Sesame Street, season 23, episode 2888 (1991) Favorite Friends: Zoe, Elmo, Grover, Telly Monster, Prairie Dawn, and Abby Cadabby Likes: Presenting the Spanish Word of the Day and playing her guitar. She’s very good with history as well as geography.
Ed heard all that and made a puppet that wasn’t tiny but had a presence. She has a round belly, live hands and wings like a flying squirrel. He said he designed her like that thinking of a flamenco skirt. And she’s turquoise, which is an important color in Mexican culture, representing life and hope.
I just loved her from the start. Rosita is my immigrant girl, a happy, family-oriented monster that speaks better English than I do. She’s confident, doesn’t mind making mistakes and has explosive feelings.
Is it difficult to bring Rosita’s explosive personality to life?
When you’re a puppeteer, you quickly learn that it is not just about your character above. It’s also about the layer underneath.
We are in a very physical situation that is often very uncomfortable. You can’t be claustrophobic and you can’t be smelly. We all joke about eating no onions or garlic, brushing your teeth.
With Rosita, I have someone else doing her right hand as well, so he has to match what I am doing so carefully. If you move the puppet slightly the wrong way, for example, it won’t look like it is listening. It is very specific, and you’re sharing a small, cramped space with others, looking at monitors and trying to work in extremely coordinated ways.
Carmen bringing Rosita to life on the set of Sesame Street. / Photo courtesy of Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop
As puppeteers, we are solving physical problems all the time, learning new ways to trick the cameras into presenting our characters as living, breathing things. It’s about subtle movements, creating reactions that match with the other characters.
In your creative community, in the entertainment industry in general, do you feel as if Jim Henson’s legacy is still alive and well?
Jim was amazing. His mind was brilliant. He was curious and put together this world around all the things he liked. He was ahead of his time, and we keep trying to keep his legacy alive because he had it right.
For me, I can see that he still touches people. I have so many young people come up and say, “I want to be a puppeteer. Jim Henson changed my life.” And so many of them are very, very clever. They are bringing all of these new ideas and technologies to the conversation. I’m so proud of everyone that comes to us that were inspired by Jim. It’s so rewarding.
What about with audiences? Does Jim’s vision resonate with the next generation?
I know animation is where it’s at today, but it’s just so flat, and Jim’s characters are just so alive. When we did Sesame Street’s 50th anniversary concert live a few years ago, I was so worried about the audience’s reaction to seeing us rolling around, sweating on the stage. What I felt instead was absolutely incredible. I saw grandparents with their grandkids, parents with their children singing and crying, connecting with each other. Because of Jim. It was so touching, so inspiring.
In terms of your impact, how has your career influenced others? Can you speak to the appreciation you have for how your role as Rosita is helping children learn and grow?
What this job has brought to me has been amazing, and impact really goes both ways. The impact Rosita has had on others and the impact people have had on my life because of her.
Rosita. / Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop
Rosita is part of lots of outreach within communities where so many see her and the other characters as friends. Today, we are working on racial justice messages, and Rosita and I have also been working with military families for 10 years. We’ve created videos for young parents so they can help explain deployment to their children. We’ve also had a script where Rosita’s dad comes back home from a tour of duty and is injured and in a wheelchair. The words in that video—how military families have to deal with both invisible and physical injuries, the suffering they face and sacrifices they make—I took it very personally. I even asked myself if I thought I was ready to become an American citizen. It was something I had researched before, but I was never sure if I was ready—I’m so proud of my Mexican heritage. After working with military families, though, I said to myself that I was definitely ready, and I became an American citizen.
In 1947, George Nelson opened his eponymous design office on Lexington Avenue in New York City. George Nelson & Co., as the first iteration of the office was named, was located on the second floor of a narrow building; the ground floor was a health food restaurant. In the introduction to Nelson’s collection of 26 essays called Problems of Design, Museum of Modern Art curator Arthur Drexler recalled that the restaurant had a loyal customer base, even though it “smelled funny.” Drexler observed an “unnerving contrast between the solemnity on the ground floor and that haphazard urbanity on the floor above.” George Nelson’s tendency to do many things simultaneously would have created a sometimes chaotic but always exhilarating environment that perhaps occasionally featured a pungent reminder of its downstairs neighbor.
Over the next four decades, the office would change names, move around New York City, employ many of the best and brightest designers, and complete a dizzying number of projects for a variety of clients. Constant through these changes was George Nelson’s emphasis on the importance of the design process. Even late nights at the office, sometimes saturated with drink, could be productive. Concepts imagined the night before might find their way to the drawing board in the bright light of the morning to be refined, altered, and honed further.
Sometimes, Nelson was more involved with the ideation and later refinement of an idea than with its realization—the office’s staff designers tended to that. A one-time employee of the office, architect and designer Michael Graves, reminisced that Nelson “would come in and touch down his magic dust on somebody and then leave.” While Nelson’s “magic dust”—and the powerful brand that his name symbolized—was vital to the office’s success, Nelson’s own hand in the development of a product or design was sometimes exaggerated. It has taken many years for certain designs to be accurately attributed—and surely there are many more that have not been and may never be. This problem is not unique to Nelson’s office, however, and was often the price designers paid to gain experience and contacts in the field. Hilda Longinotti, the office’s long-time receptionist, reflected on this: “As the years went by, George with all of his intelligence, did not do one thing he should have done and that is make the most talented designers partners in the firm. He gave them titles, but he didn’t give them a piece of the business. As the years went by, they left to form their own offices…”
The hundred-plus people employed by George Nelson over the course of his career—some for a short time and others much longer—include Lance Wyman, Ernest Farmer, Tomoko Miho, Irving Harper, Michael Graves, Don Ervin, Lucia DeRespinis, George Tscherny, and many others. The Henry Ford’s collections feature graphics and products designed by Nelson himself as well as some confirmed to be designed by the office’s staff. Below, we will focus on three of these designers: Irving Harper, George Tscherny, and Tomoko Miho.
For many of the years that George Nelson was Herman Miller’s design director, Irving Harper was the director of design at George Nelson’s office. George Nelson hired Harper in 1947, and Harper did a little bit of everything in his tenure there—industrial design, furniture, and, eventually, graphics. Although he didn’t have much experience in graphic design, Harper quickly excelled. Herman Miller’s sweeping red “M” logo was one of Harper’s first forays into graphic design, and, 75 years later, the logo is still beloved and used by the company. Harper also designed many of the Nelson Office’s notable products, including many of the clocks for Howard Miller and the iconic Marshmallow sofa.
Born in New York City in 1916, Harper trained as an architect at New York’s Cooper Union and Brooklyn College. He soon began designing interiors. At the age of 19, Harper was hired by Gilbert Rohde, Nelson’s predecessor at Herman Miller, to work on projects for the 1939 World’s Fair, including renderings and production drawings. Harper worked for George Nelson from 1947 until 1963, when he left to start his own firm, Harper+George, which primarily designed interiors for commercial clients. Harper began to create incredibly intricate paper sculptures in the early 1960s as a stress relief measure, turning him into a proper sculptor as well as designer. The paper sculptures bridged his active design years into his retirement in 1983, when his sculpting output greatly increased. Harper died in 2015 at his long-time home in Rye, New York.
This 1947 advertisement features Herman Miller’s sweeping new “M” logo, which was designed by Irving Harper in one of his first forays into graphic design. / THF623975
Irving Harper designed this 1961 Herman Miller advertisement for the “Eames Chair Collection.” / THF266918
George Tscherny began working at George Nelson & Co. in 1953. Nelson hired Tscherny specifically to design print advertisements for the office’s largest client, Herman Miller, under the direction of Irving Harper. Nelson reportedly had a hands-off approach. Tscherny recalled, “He had no pressing need to involve himself in my area. That meant I could do almost anything within reason.” Tscherny was able to expand and hone his graphic style, which stresses the inherent nature of objects and is always human-centered—even when a human isn’t visible.
Tscherny, born into a Jewish family in 1924 in Budapest, Hungary, grew up in Berlin, Germany. The rise of the Nazi Party and, specifically, the evening of Kristallnacht(“The Night of the Broken Glass”) on November 10, 1938, led Tscherny to believe “there was no future for us in Germany.” The following month, George and his younger brother Alexander escaped to the Netherlands, where they spent the following years moving between refugee camps and Jewish orphanages. Their parents, Mandel and Bella (Heimann) Tscherny, obtained visas and emigrated to the United States in 1939. It wasn’t until June of 1941 that George and Alexander finally joined their parents in New Jersey, after numerous close calls with the Nazi Party. In 1943, George Tscherny enlisted as a soldier in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II and went back to Europe, using his language skills as an interpreter. After the war, Tscherny used the G.I. Bill to fund his study of graphic design, attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York; he would leave just weeks before graduation to work for designer Donald Deskey. In 1953, he was hired by George Nelson.
Although Tscherny only worked for Nelson until 1955, numerous advertisements he designed for Herman Miller during his short tenure became iconic of the era. Tscherny left the office to start his independent design studio, which designed graphics for major corporations. He also taught at the School of the Visual Arts in New York City for over half a century. Tscherny says he attempted to teach his students, as Nelson taught him, “not to have preconceptions, but rather to be receptive to new ideas.” Tscherny, currently 96 years old, lives in New York City with Sonia, his wife of over 70 years.
The famous "Traveling Men" advertisement for Herman Miller was designed by George Tscherny in 1954. / THF624755
George Tscherny’s 1955 “Herman Miller Comes to Dallas” advertisement implies a human presence through the inclusion of a cowboy hat. / THF148287
Tomoko Miho was one of a few women that George Nelson hired to design for his office. Miho is not very well-known today, both due to a societal tendency to ignore contributions of women working in the mid-century period and to her private and reserved nature. Although her name may be unfamiliar, this is not due to a lack of talent—Miho’s skill in graphic design and art direction were extraordinary. Once you identify her clean, minimalist, architectural style, it becomes distinct from the others working in the Nelson office.
Born Tomoko Kawakami in 1931 in Los Angeles, she and her family were held at the Gila River Japanese internment camp in Arizona during World War II. Afterwards, the family moved to Minneapolis, where Tomoko began coursework in art and design. She received a full scholarship to the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where she graduated with a degree in Industrial Design in 1958. She worked as a packaging designer for Harley Earl Associates before moving to New York City and, on the recommendation of George Tscherny, she contacted Irving Harper and was then hired by George Nelson in 1960. As the prominent graphic designer (and later colleague of Miho) John Massey stated, Miho was “a master of the dramatic understatement.” Her work is graceful, clean, and highly structured, while also seeming unrestricted. Her designs are masterfully well-balanced and lend themselves well to their primary purpose—conveying information.
Miho worked for the Nelson office until 1965, when family commitments took her to California, back to New York City, and then to Chicago, where she worked for the Center for Advanced Research and Design (CARD). She designed possibly her best known work while working for CARD—the 1967 "Great Architecture in Chicago" poster. It reflects her sense that Chicago’s architecture is “both solid and ethereal,” as Miho explained. Miho continued to collaborate with designers she met at George Nelson & Co. for years. She also had an incredibly long-lasting relationship with Herman Miller: she began designing for the company during her tenure at George Nelson & Co., continued while she was employed by CARD, and even after starting her own firm, Tomoko Miho Co., Herman Miller remained a client. Miho passed away in 2012 in New York City.
Tomoko Miho featured the Herman Miller logo in this price list, camouflaging it in bold contrasting stripes. This is one document in a suite, all featuring the same design, but in different colorways. / THF64160
The “Library Group” trade literature was designed by Tomoko Miho, circa 1970. / THF147737
As with many entrepreneur stories, this one begins with immigrants coming to the United States to pursue the American dream. That dream was to create stylish, attractive silver housewares, but a national economic crisis forced them to get creative with a new material – aluminum – and resulted in the creation of the Everlast Metal Products Corporation. This blog highlights the company’s nearly 30-year history.
Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours From Everlast The Finest – Bar None!” 1947 THF125124
When the Great Depression gripped the nation during the 1930s, demand for consumer products fell as many people struggled to get by in the faltering economy. Up to this point, silver had been the primary material used for creating fashionable housewares. With few buyers able to purchase silver products, manufacturers turned to aluminum. One of the most prolific manufacturers of aluminum giftware was the Everlast Metal Products Corporation of New York City.
Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Everlast Hand-Forged Aluminum, So Beautiful – So Versatile!” 1948-1949 THF295633
Everlast founders Louis Schnitzer and his brother-in-law, Nathan Gelfman, were experienced metalworkers in their homeland of Kiev, Russia before immigrating to the United States in the 1910s. In the early 1920s, the two men created a silver housewares business in New York City called Western Silver Works, Inc., where they polished and plated silver. By 1930, Schnitzer and Gelfman began producing silver- and chrome-plated items under the name Western Silver Novelty Company.
Affected by the decline of buyers for silver products during the Great Depression, Schnitzer and Gelfman decided to adapt, attempting to work with the modern and more affordable metal, aluminum. Aluminum was more costly than gold from its discovery in the 1800s until the first smelting methods were invented in 1886. Inexpensive aluminum cookware and kitchen utensils were manufactured in the 1890s, but poor manufacturing quality made customers skeptical of the new material. During the first World War, aluminum’s light weight and rust-resistant properties made the metal ideal for use in soldiers’ canteens and military vehicles. From this, aluminum gained wider acceptance, and consumer confidence in the metal led to a surge in aluminum products in the next few decades.
In 1932, Schnitzer and Gelfman formed Everlast Metal Products Corporation and began producing high-quality, hand-forged aluminum giftware. Hammered aluminum giftware products were, at once, both “old” and “new.” In an era of growing uniformity via factory production, the “made by hand” aspect of these products held an aesthetic appeal for consumers, while their aluminum material made them seem decidedly modern.
Everlast “Forged” Gravy Boat, 1938-1950 THF125117 Everlast’s first product line, “Forged Giftware,” was introduced in 1933 and continued until the company closed. Featuring Colonial Revival- and Neoclassical Revival-inspired designs, this line – with items like this gravy boat – appealed to customers with traditional tastes.
Schnitzer, the creative force behind the company, recognized the necessity of increased marketing to promote Everlast’s products. Around 1935, Jack Orenstein was brought on as National Sales Manager. Orenstein, skilled in merchandising techniques and in building relationships with clients, was essential in the success of the company. Already successful in the giftware industry before joining the company, Orenstein organized a highly effective sales force which gave Everlast a national presence in the decorative aluminum giftware market.
Everlast “Forged” Tray, 1938-1947 THF144107 Through innovative manufacturing and creative marketing, Everlast was able to expand its “Forged Giftware” product line. Instead of creating new product forms each year, the company combined new handles and design motifs with previous years’ product forms to create “new” pieces. This cost-effective method for product development enabled Everlast to introduce new items regularly while also keeping up with rapidly changing design trends. The two trays pictured here have the same form, but the second piece now features handles and a different motif.
Everlast Aluminum Advertisement, “Yours from Everlast for ‘Dining Out’ at Home!” THF295629
When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the production of aluminum for consumer goods was halted to focus on the production of military equipment. While some aluminum houseware companies struggled to adapt, Everlast rose to the challenge, securing government contracts and upgrading their facilities to produce military equipment under the name Browning Precision Tool Co.
Throughout the war, Everlast created partnerships with various businesses in the floral, woodworking, and ceramic industries, enabling the company to remain in the public awareness, despite not producing consumer goods itself. As the war was winding down, Everlast turned its focus back to manufacturing consumer products. The upgrades made to its facilities during wartime put the company in a better position to manufacture mass-produced giftware in a more cost-effective manner – just in time for increased consumer spending during a time of post-war prosperity.
Everlast “Bali Bamboo” Ice Bucket, 1953-1959 THF125114 Everlast’s most successful line, “Bali Bamboo,” was a direct result of America’s fascination with the South Pacific following World War II. More than 60 different items, produced between 1946 and 1959, featured raised bamboo shoots and a satin finish. Together these features provided the added advantage of hiding scratches.
Following the war, Everlast resumed its advertising and marketing strategies. To increase its accessibility to consumers in the Midwest, the company also established a showroom in Chicago in 1946. Unfortunately, despite the initial post-war momentum for aluminum housewares, the industry and company struggled throughout the 1950s, experiencing setbacks that ultimately led to its demise.
Everlast “Silvercrest” Tumbler, circa 1952 THF125119 In 1952, Everlast introduced a line called “Silvercrest,” featuring a highly polished aluminum finish. By this time, as a cost-cutting measure, the products’ “hand-forged” hammer marks were actually produced by a machine.
The first blow to the Everlast company came in 1951 when the Korean War initiated a restriction on the use of aluminum for consumer goods once again. Soon after, Jack Orenstein left the company to pursue a career in the new era of modern housewares – ceramics and plastics. Compared to these materials, which were colorful and lacked ornamentation, aluminum was beginning to be seen as old-fashioned and outdated. Despite several attempts to reinvent its products, Everlast floundered, failing to revive consumer interest in aluminum housewares.
Everlast “Modern” Three-Tier Tidbit Tray, circa 1953 THF125116 In an attempt to reinvent its products amidst the growing popularity of plastics, Everlast introduced a contemporary line in 1953 called, “Everlast Modern.”
Like other manufacturers of the time, the company also chose to forego quality in favor of machine-made, mass-produced goods. This ultimately over-saturated the housewares market and crushed any interest in “hand-forged” household items. After nearly thirty years in business, Louis Schnitzer and Nathan Gelfman closed Everlast in 1961.
The two men from Russia had forged their American dream, adapting early on to pursue their entrepreneurial vision. It can be said that advances in technology and rapidly changing consumer interests secured the downfall of the aluminum industry. It cannot be said, however, that Everlast’s founders went down without a fight. Though their entrepreneurial journey came to an end in 1961, the founders experienced undeniable success during their company’s thirty-year history to become one of the eminent manufacturers of aluminum housewares and giftware.
To see more artifacts from the Everlast Metal Products Corporation, visit our Digital Collections.
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from the Pic of the Month from April 2007, written by Donna Braden and Kira Macyda. Special thanks to Constance Levi for sharing her knowledge of the company and for reviewing this content.
Crate Label, “Oh Yes! We Grow the Best California Fruits,” 1930-1940, used by the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation THF293029
Giuseppe “Joseph” Di Giorgio (1874-1951) was introduced to the fruit business at a young age. His father grew lemons and grapes, among other seasonal crops, in Sicily. In 1888, at the age of 14, Di Giorgio immigrated to the United States. When he arrived in New York, speaking little-to-no English, he found work as a fruit jobber, a middleman who would buy large quantities of goods from fruit packers and sell those goods to retailers or merchants.
After a short time of learning the business, Di Giorgio moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he set up his own store selling lemons. By the age of 16, he had become one of the most successful fruit receivers and distributors in Baltimore. But lemons were a seasonal crop. To supplement his income in the off-season, he began importing bananas from the West Indies – a prosperous endeavor that eventually became a year-round business.
His good fortune allowed him to invest in other business ventures, including partnerships with investors to open auction houses for fresh produce in various cities across the United States. Shipments of produce were brought into the auction houses and sold quickly at fair prices to merchants who would gather daily for their pick of the products. It was a profitable business. Owners of the auction house received money from packing and shipping companies for hosting the sale, and received commission on the sold goods. By 1904, Di Giorgio owned auction houses in New York and Baltimore, and had partial interests in others along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest.
1924 Railroad Refrigerator Car, Used by Fruit Growers ExpressTHF68309
Refrigerated rail cars, like this one, allowed meats and produce to be shipped for long distances without spoiling. This innovation allowed farmers to reach new and distant markets, and it provided tastier, healthier foods to consumers.
Joseph Di Giorgio recognized that a direct influence in the growing and packing business would allow him to control every aspect of the fresh produce business – the orchards where the fruit was grown, the harvesting and packing of the produce, shipment to the auction houses he already owned, and the final sale to merchants. In 1911, Di Giorgio seized the opportunity to make his vision a reality by purchasing Earl Fruit Company, the dominant packing company in California.
Men Loading Fruit Boxes onto Horse-Drawn Wagons, circa 1905THF205612
By the time Joseph Di Giorgio purchased the Earl Fruit Company in 1911, it had packing houses in every important fruit center across the state of California. The company shipped its produce across the country to eastern markets by rail and to local markets by horse-drawn wagon. In this photograph, taken in 1905 before Di Giorgio purchased the company, men load crates of oranges bearing the name “Earl Fruit Company” onto wagons heading for market.
With the profits he made through this lucrative acquisition, Di Giorgio was able to expand even further. His first land acquisition came in 1918 when he purchased citrus groves in Florida. The following year, he developed open desert land in California’s San Joaquin Valley, turning it into a thriving oasis for various fruits. By 1920, Joseph Di Giorgio was the leading supplier of California’s deciduous fruit (that is, fruit that grows on vines, trees, and bushes, excluding citrus fruits.) He also owned apple orchards in Oregon and Washington, plum orchards in Idaho which produced prunes, and citrus orchards in Florida that yielded oranges and grapefruit. At this time, Di Giorgio still owned an operation in the banana industry as well, but he abandoned this venture in the 1930s as he turned his focus to his domestic interests.
Crate Label for Blue Flag Brand Pears, 1920-1994 THF293053
Upon arrival at an auction house, merchants were given a catalogue of the produce available. With so many companies and brands to choose from, it was important for fruit packers to make their products stand out. Companies often adopted a signature image or brand to help loyal customers recognize their products. One of Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation’s widely used brands was Blue Flag Brand, which featured a flag within its label design.
In December 1920, Di Giorgio established the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation, combining all of his holdings – close to 50 by one estimate – into one company. Throughout the next several decades, the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation would venture into the vegetable and canning industries. In the 1930s, the company entered the wine business and by mid-century had the largest winery in the state of California.
At the time of his death in 1951, Joseph Di Giorgio was at the peak of his career as a grower, and his company was the largest fruit-packing enterprise in the country. The success of his company can be attributed to Di Giorgio’s leadership. His experience in all aspects of the fruit industry allowed him to recognize potential problems and adapt appropriately. A brilliant and personable man, Di Giorgio earned respect and loyalty from employees and clients alike – an aspect of the business Di Giorgio was proud of. But above all, he was confident and dedicated to seeing his vision through, propelling the Di Giorgio Fruit Corporation to national recognition and appropriately earning himself the media-given nickname, the “Fruit King.”
Samantha Johnson is Project Curator for the William Davidson Foundation Initiative for Entrepreneurship at The Henry Ford.
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.
Go to the back of the museum, over in the area filled with hulking power-generating machinery, next to the grey mass of the Spokane water turbine, and you’ll find something new. Or rather something almost a century old that’s new to the area. Actually, you’ll find twelve things. Or rather 795. Okay, let me explain…
What you’ll find is a group of 12 display panels created in the mid-1920s for the L. Miller and Son lumber and hardware store of 1815 W. Division Street, Chicago, Illinois. The installation consists of six panels of hand tools and six of hardware, all logically, carefully, and gracefully arrayed on green felt backing, mounted in glass-fronted doors. Now they are arranged gallery-like on the wall, but originally they hinged out of a floor-to-ceiling cabinet system of shelves, bins, and drawers custom-fitted into the store’s long narrow retail space.
The original business was founded by Louis Miller, a Russian immigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1894. Miller and his family served a neighborhood made up of immigrants from Poland, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine (the second and third floors of part of the store property housed Russian and Polish social clubs). The clear visibility of the store’s stock of tools and hardware made it easier for customers with a language barrier to find what they needed. The display’s elegant arrangement was great salesmanship but could also serve a problem solving function: viewing tools and components is rather like scanning a menu of possible solutions.
The neighborhood underwent several transformations over the years. The final wave of European immigrants, primarily from Poland, arrived in the 1940s and 50s as refugees; Kennedy Expressway construction cut a wide swath through the area, and once completed in 1960 served to cut it off from neighborhoods to the east; by the 1970s many residents were fleeing to the suburbs and the area was becoming rife with gang activity. The store, in its original location on Division (the “Polish Broadway” that served as the dividing line between the Wicker Park and East Village neighborhoods), endured through all these changes except for the most recent: gentrification. The subsequent rise in property taxes finally prompted the need for the company to move to a new location.
How Did the Exhibit Make Its Way to The Henry Ford? During the 1950s the owners had already phased out the hardware side of the business in order to concentrate on lumber and construction materials. The display remained in place, fondly remembered—and occasionally visited—by a dwindling number of locals. In early 2011, with the business’s move looming, owner Bob Margolin (grandson of the founder) and I began to discuss The Henry Ford’s potential interest in acquiring the display. In April Bob indicated that he would be travelling to Michigan on business and we agreed that bringing a sampling of the display—a panel or two to look at more closely—would be a good idea. On the sunny afternoon of Friday April 29 I went out to meet him in our employee parking lot adjacent to Lovett Hall: he hadn’t brought a sampling, he’d brought the entire display, and had already started carefully propping the panels adjacent to one another against the side of his van—much to the fascination and enthrallment of numerous staff leaving for the day. An amazing sight, it was as if the display had lurched out of the shadows to literally claim a day in the sun—and offer a kind of final proof of its sales power, even though there was no longer any stock of tools for it to sell.
The acquisition went ahead. Now, precisely five years later, the display is on exhibit. It is a museum of tools within a larger museum. It is an artifact in its own right but it is made up of artifacts. It is made up of stunningly ordinary stuff—the workaday items ordinarily built into homes or hidden in toolboxes—but it celebrates everyday practicality and resourcefulness. Like a great many museum artifacts it is a paradox: in a state of rest, set sparkling in Made in America—but also active, continuing to work its magic, prompting an urge to build, fix, construct—making you want to somehow do something…
Marc Greuther is Chief Curator and Senior Director, Historical Resources at The Henry Ford.
Learn more about the L. Miller and Son Hardware and Tool Display in this collection of artifact cards.
As they’ve demonstrated before, being a curator often involves some sleuthing – see how a simple search uncovered the puzzling life of a 20th-century portrait painter for our curator of decorative arts.
Recently, while searching through our painting collection for portraits of Henry and Clara Ford, I came across two created in 1926 by an artist named Carl Bennett Linder. Displayed at Henry and Clara Ford’s Fair Lane home, these portraits came to Henry Ford Museum in 1951, following Clara’s death.
A search of our collections database revealed that we actually own nine canvases by Mr. Linder – all portraits of the Ford family. Curious, I searched the Ford family papers, where I found letters and receipts spanning from 1924 to 1936 for an even larger group of paintings of the extended Ford family: Henry and Clara’s son, Edsel, and his wife, Eleanor; the Ford grandchildren; and even a portrait of Mrs. William Clay, Eleanor Ford’s mother. Mr. Linder was apparently a favorite artist of Henry and Clara, as he produced several portraits of them over the years.