Thursday, August 19, 2021

The World that Made Me


Isaly's was a chain of dairies and stores that began in Mansfield, Ohio, my hometown.

For a simple advertising sign, the image above packs a ton of information. It tickles my memory. 

It is easy to date because coonskin caps such as the one worn by the little boy only became popular after the 1954 premier of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, a Walt Disney-produced TV show. The headdress worn by the little girl is a reference to the character of Tiger Lily from the Broadway musical adaptation of "Peter Pan," which premiered in 1954 and became a sensation on television when it was first broadcast in 1955. 

I was an ardent fan of both franchises. (I turned 4 in 1955.) I had a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. So did my three brothers. I also knew every song from "Peter Pan." Mom had the album, which in those days consisted of several 78 rpm disks, one song per side. One song in particular, "I Won't Grow Up," spoke to me.

And I was a fan of Isaly's, a dairy and shop that started in Mansfield and in its heyday had locations throughout the Midwest. I was not necessarily a fan of the skyscraper cone depicted here. I was more likely to choose their more famous frozen confection, the Klondike Bar. Ohio was a big dairy producer in those days. The Klondike bar was created in Mansfield, the Good Humor Bar was created in Youngstown, and Big Moo (Borden's) was in Columbus. 

Isaly's also was famous for a non-dairy product, its chipped ham. Ohio produced a lot of pork. Bob Evans Farms was and still is an Ohio company.

In my childhood, on any given day I might have had for lunch a sandwich of Isaly's chipped ham, on Nickel's bread, with a side of Jones Potato Chips, a Stewart's Root Beer to drink and a Klondike Bar for dessert. Every one of those products was made right there in Mansfield.

Mansfield may have been unusual in launching two enduring national brands, but locally-made products such as bread, beer, soft drinks, lunch meat, milk, and ice cream were still the norm back then. 

Stewart's and Isaly's are good examples of this phenomenon. Both started in Mansfield in the 1920s and by the 60s each had become a large, regional operation. Obviously, in each new market they entered they competed against a local incumbent. The most successful of these large, regional companies became national and competed everywhere. Stewart's and Isaly's never became truly national but were absorbed into companies that did.

When I started to work in advertising, local companies were being forced to become more sophisticated about their marketing to compete with encroaching regional and national brands. Even a city as small as Mansfield had advertising professionals able to give them a hand.

I dabbled in advertising in high school and even took a class in it at St. Pete's. My advertising career began in earnest after college in Dayton, Ohio, in 1974, where I made radio and television commercials for a local department store chain, Elder-Beerman. Department store ads dominated newspapers in those days and the stores had huge in-house departments that employed dozens of designers and copywriters. They were just beginning to use radio and television advertising. Elder-Beerman had an in-house agency for that too. There were four of us.   

An uncle worked for an ad agency in Columbus, my next stop. In a city like Dayton or Columbus back then, a typical advertising agency would have as its main clients a bank, a dairy, a meat packer, a bakery, a car dealer, and maybe a retailer or two. My Columbus employer had two divisions. One had that typical portfolio. My uncle worked on the bank account. Our meat packer client was Bob Evans Farms, when it was still run by Bob and his brother.  

Because of my experience in Dayton, I was hired by the other division which specialized in major market department store chains. My big client was Lazarus, a name anyone from Central Ohio will recognize. Lazarus was owned by Federated, a national company that also owned Rikes in Dayton and Shillito's in Cincinnati, but each store was still locally managed and branded.  

Department stores were dying even then. According to some store executives I spoke with, they had been dying since the end of WWII. They were losing share to specialty chains like The Limited (another Columbus operation), and discounters such as Target, K-Mart, Venture, and Wal-Mart, while also competing against established national chains like Sears, Montgomery-Ward and J. C. Penny.

Because none of our department store clients competed directly against each other, we syndicated many of our advertising campaigns by using the same creative for multiple stores.

It was that very particular expertise that took me to Louisville, to an ad agency that had built its business by selling syndicated advertising campaigns to similar local companies that were trying to compete with the national and regional brands then penetrating their markets. It had syndicated campaigns for dairies and bakeries in the past but by the time I got there (1978) that business had pretty much dried up. The national/regional brands had won those categories. Some locals continued as brand names, but they were no longer local companies.

My Louisville employer was at the tail end of its syndicated work for meat packers and had one final hit with a campaign for savings and loan associations. That led to me writing for George Burns, including a four-line song. It was a thrill to work with Burns and his manager, Irving Fein.

That was pretty much the end of the line for local companies in many businesses. Everything now is national or international. Am I pining for 'the good old days'? Not at all, just reflecting on how no matter what you do, whether or not you know it at the time, you are participating in and engaging with something bigger, maybe epochal even. There is always a big picture and you are part of it, we all are.


Anonymous said...

I share a common ancestor and during some genealogical research I learned a bit about the family. Isaly's was founded by two brothers who came to Mansfield in the late 1800s with their mother from Switzerland after their father died. Her brothers were already established here. The family name was originally Isili but they changed it so it was easier to pronounce. The Isili dairy was called the Pure Milk Company and was located in downtown Mansfield.

Anonymous said...

We had Isaly’s in the Pittsburgh, PA area growing up. Was an occasional treat eating out, or just buying the ingredients at the store and making the same at home.

I like to say that these local or regional eateries add color and variety to the pallet being used to paint the community. With everything a big box or national chain, everything is painted with the same color pallet and there is little to differentiate one community from the next.

Still keep my eyes open for Taylor's Pork Roll when traveling around the east coast for a nostalgic purchase.

Richard Turner said...

"There is always a big picture and you are part of it."
...And, whether or not one is aware at the time, that picture is always changing, evolving. Even the most successful are not certain to remain so. Change being inevitable, in big and small ways, those that innovate, adapt and evolve can ride the wave longer. Those that are unable to effectively do so are engulfed by it. ...Just sayin'.....
Looking back as you are here, is a nostalgic and fun way to 'review' that evolution, eh?

Chuck Cowdery said...

BBQ sauce as a condiment for chipped ham is definitely a Pittsburgh innovation. I never heard of that in Ohio.

Anonymous said...

No, BBQ sauce was not big in our family either. Islay's does/did sell it though, so it was available at the time.

There was a Rick Sebak PBS show, "Sandwiches That You Will Like" which highlighted the traditional Islay's Chipped Ham Sandwich off the grill. That is how I remember it, even when we made it at home.

t ball said...

We had many 78 rpm records when I was a child, including many Disney albums. I have never seen a 16 rpm record, but we used to enjoy playing the 78s at that speed.

The economic forces behind centralization are pretty much impossibly to get around, but it's sad to see the effects on local merchants.

David said...

Fun stuff. And good to remember that every national and international brand started out as something local. Maybe even in someone's garage or kitchen.