January 23, 2019


Today's resident of accomplishment, Walter Oehrle, is the artist who created one of the most iconic characters of 20th Century advertising, Elsie the Cow. His life, in bullet points. 

✱ Born 1892 in Omaha. A freelance artist from an early age, he wins various assignments ‒ paintings for the Union Pacific Railroad, cartoons for Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies ‒ until he lands in New York in 1936, where he gets a job on a Borden's milk ad campaign. Borden's milk is more expensive than the competition ‒ it's pasteurized, unlike its competitors' ‒ and Oehrle is hired to make folksy renderings of cows, to put a face to the product.

✱ These first ads call out Elsie, but picture her alongside other cows, and don't make much impact. Along comes the 1939 New York World's Fair, where the Borden's Exhibit includes live cows. Visitors ask 'which one's Elsie?' often enough that Oehrle is soon back at work.

✱ Along with Stuart Peabody, the ad director, Oehrle refashions four-legged Elsie into a bipedal housewife, clad in a daisy-chain necklace, a bow on her tail, and a variety of aprons, purses and hats. She's married to Elmer, a bull-headed bull (whom Elmer's Glue is named after, enough said), and they have two children, Beulah and Beauregard. In the ads, she does everything normal people do ‒ she cooks, goes shopping, nags her husband, makes phone calls, sells war bonds ‒ completely unaware that she's a cow!

Some examples of Oehrle's amusing artwork from the 1940s, below.

Elsie's rise from barn to boudoir to Hollywood is a quick one, and she is a mainstay in Borden advertising well into the 1970s.
Above, the battle of the sexes, Elsie style.
A nod to the real source of Elsie's success ‒ chemistry!

✱ It is unclear how long Oehrle continues to draw Elsie. After he dies of a sudden heart attack in 1957, Tudor City View runs his obituary, noting that he resided in The Woodstock, and later No. 5, during the 1950s.

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