The logos that became folk legends

Symbols of America, by Hal Morgan. New York: Viking. 239 pp. $35. Visitors to Borden's condensed-milk exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair were only mildly interested in the automatic milking machines on display. What they really wanted to see was Elsie the Cow.

Whether she won America's heart with her bovine good looks or her contented charisma is hard to say. But by the time she'd finished a tour of the United States in the early 1940s to raise money for war bonds, Elsie clearly was the country's favorite cow.

In fact, she became such a hit that when Borden management decided in the late 1960s to retire Elsie and adopt a more modern trademark, her fans protested. She literally was brought back to work by popular demand, and today Borden is once again milking her charm in animated commercials and live appearances.

A similar tale of infatuation could be told about Dino the dinosaur, who helped to sell millions of inflatable toys and gallons of gas for Sinclair oil in the 1930s. Largely because of enthusiastic public support, Dino finally won a hard-earned place on the company's distinctive sign in 1959.

Elsie, Dino, the Bumblebee-tuna bee, Pillsbury Doughboy, and Campbell's soup kids are just a few of the colorful characters that have found a sentimental home in latter-day American folklore. Granted, they're marketing gimmicks, one and all. But they've somehow managed to strike a responsive chord in the national whimsy that stretches beyond mere buying power.

``In a sense, the symbols have stepped into the shoes of the old merchant/tradesmen -- the familiar local figures who sold a town its food and other goods in the days before packaged national brands,'' writes Hal Morgan in his latest lighthearted study of popular culture, ``Symbols of America.''

Now Mr. Morgan is also the author of ``Big Time: The American Tall Tale Postcard'' and ``The Shower Song Book,'' so readers may need to keep his pronouncements in perspective. That said, his latest work is a lively celebration of the ties that bind us to our favorite cereals and cleansers.

Some of the behind-the-label stories are downright homey.

We read about Henry J. Heinz bottling horseradish from the family garden at age 12. There's the five-year-old nephew of an advertising copywriter who posed in oilskin rainhat and slicker to become the Uneeda biscuit boy. And for instant fame and fortune, how about Lorraine Collett? An 18-year-old California beauty, she began her career passing out free samples of Sun-Maid raisins at a local fair, then posed for the picture on the nationally merchandised box, and later landed a role in the movie ``Trail of the Lonesome Pine.''

Trivia fans will find fertile new fields of facts ready for the picking here, too. Did you know, for example, that the original jolly Green Giant wasn't green? That the Mazola corn oil maiden has lost weight over the years? That the consumer movement to return red candies to the M&M assortment is still ``very much alive''? That the first Chiclets bubble gum, called Blibber-Blubber, could only be cleaned off hands and face with solvents and hard scrubbing? That the model for Dutch Boy paints was in fact a smiling Irish lad?

Staggering, isn't it?

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