Two years ago, I met the woman of everyone's dreams. her name was Roma Whitney, and she became one of the original Breck Girls in 1937, when she was 17. Hers was the face that launched the Breck Company's first national advertising campaign in 1946, and her image was registered as the company's trademark in 1951. Her haloed blonde profile, the dynamic tension between her defiantly uplifted chin and her downcast eyes, spoke to me across a gulf of more than 50 years, and I couldn't help but wonder what message her image had carried to the women of her day.
As one of a team of archivists responsible for acquiring 20th-century advertising history records for the Archives Center of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, I am accustomed to having my head turned by some of the millions of pieces preserved in the museum's collections. The Breck Girls collection was one I simply couldn't resist.
I first saw their pastel portraits when, in 1998, following initial contacts by Nance Briscoe, a colleague whose mother was a Breck Girl, I acquired original Breck advertising art and print advertising from Dial Corporation, owner of the brand since 1990.
The Breck Girls portraits were born during the Depression and came of age in the 1940s and '50s, times that shook cherished values, including long-held beliefs about the roles of men and women. Advertising executives responded by crafting and presenting idealized images of an American woman they thought everyone could love, a woman both desirable and chaste. These images from our Breck Girls collection testify to the tenacity of that ideal.
I also discovered that Breck Girls were and are real women. I've heard from about a dozen who admit they still sometimes think of themselves as Breck Girls, and it's that connection between the real and the ideal that intrigues me most.
In 1936, Edward Breck, son of the founder of the Springfield, Massachusetts, shampoo company, engaged the services of Charles Sheldon, a commercial artist living in the area. Sheldon's early portraits for Breck depicted provocative, even sensual, female poses executed in pastels, with soft focus and haloes of light and color to create highly romantic images of feminine beauty and purity. Sheldon and his successor, Ralph William Williams, perfected a vision of American womanhood that resonated powerfully for more than 50 years. Today the shampoo is still around but the Breck girls are a part of history.