Among things to do when you were a kid in a small town in the Midwest in 1935 and it was too hot to play ball and too early to listen to Jack Armstrong on the radio: "Well, we knew exactly when they changed the sign at the filling station. They changed it every second day. So we'd go down and see what the new saying was. Usually we'd get a good laugh out of it."
"The sign" was six feet tall, mounted on a post out where everyone could see it. It was the figure of a smiling boy in checkered knickers and red sox; he was holding up a black slate. And on the slate appeared a "saying"-an epigram. "The horn of plenty is the one honking behind." "Best cure for love at first sight: take another look." "Face powder never tastes as good as it smells." "The man on the flying trapeze knows the ropes."
There were thousands of these boy-with-slate signs, and through the 1920's and '30's they were familiar sights in cities and rural communities from Pennsylvania to the Rocky Mountains.
Strangely, the boy-with-slate never got a nickname. He was just there, holding up his smart-alecky sign, smiling like Skeezix (or, a later generation would recognize, like, Alfred E. Neuman), and helping sell EN-AR-CO motor oils and lubricants and White Rose gasoline.
The kid worked for National Refining Company, which once was among the nation's leaders in refining and petroleum product marketing. And as an advertising medium, he was well ahead of his time. Today he may seem campy, a simplistic contemporary of the Gold Dust twins and the red-checked Campbell's Soup youngsters, a peddler of out-landish puns and hayseed wit and the sort of jokes that bring grimaces instead of grins.

For the person who laughs without dissecting a quip or comment, though, the messages on the boy's slate still are funny. There's nothing complicated about them; they're there, and you laugh.

"It was a great blow for Father; he got a handkerchief for Christmas." "Buying a radio is a sound investment."

The story of the development of the boy as the bearer of an important, expensive, and effective advertising program tells much about the development of National Refining, the Cleveland-based company that in 1882 started selling lubricants, lamp oil and other petroleum products to a horse-drawn America.

Sometime early in this century an aggressive marketing man at National concluded that the growing company should do something to reach its customers on a regular, informal basis in order to tell them about its many products, which, in addition to gasoline, then included such items as Black Beauty Axle Grease, Black Star Harness Oil, National Linseed Oil Soap and Ko-Rek-Tiv Pure Mineral Oil ("...odorless, tasteless prescribed by eminent physicians everywhere...).

This quest for a medium resulted in the introduction of a booklet called "The National News Oil Trade Journal," and soon the booklet was being mailed monthly to more than 500,000 National customers. "National News" originally carried a lot of advertising, with "Write in for free offer" and "Read there extracts from letters from our satisfied customers" abounding; but it also had a heavy lacing of jokes.

There were three-liners and He and She jokes and rustic rib and tongue twisters and Hiram and Silases.

January, 1915-"It was Smith's first Sunday as usher in church, and he was a bit flustered. Turning to a lady who entered, he said, "This way, madam, and I'll sew you into a sheet."

June, 1916-"How much vas dose collars?" "Two for a quarter." "How much for vun is costing?" "Fifteen cents." "Den pliz giff me de odder vun."

And in the issue of July, 1916, there appeared for the first time the name of a man who would be associated with the booklet through the remaining many years of its existence. The notation appears on Page 1: Edited by Chas. L. Archbold (photo at left).

Says a National old-timer-"Charlie Archbold was a nice man, and a very clever one. He made up just about everything that appeared in the National News, and he wrote all of those boy-with-slate epigrams. There must have been thousands and thousands of them, enough to fill books. And they certainly sold gasoline!"

As time passed Archbold changed the character of National News. It became more sprightly and timely. It sold more subtly. It could never be accused of sophistication, but it developed its own outrageous way with jingles and jibes and comments.

It is possible to look through the old issues, too, and see a search taking place for a distinctive sort of cartooned salesman. First came "I.Can," (image at the right) a smiling, posturing oil can that pointed to slogans and called on motorists to "sign the pledge" to use National Products. He looked a little like Jack Haley was to appear as the Tin Woodman in the Wizard of Oz, but he didn't have the Woodman's heartwarming qualities. He was hard sell. In a few years he disappeared.

On the cover of the September, 1916, issue (image at the left) came an out-of-time figure, a schoolboy standing in front of a blackboard covered with messages and drawings. He had checkered knickers, a polka-dotted shirt and a coy smile. But he didn't make it then as National's prime messenger. His time arrived in September, 1920, when he landed on the cover of the National News, (image at lower right) slate in hand. Inside the booklet were other reproductions of the new figure, with snappy messages--"I" in Idea is what counts," "Most helping hands are empty," "L-I-V-E wrong is E-V-I-L."

And he was an immediate success. In the next year the company offered its dealers the six-foot figure to display at their stations and garages, and pledged and unending supply of epigrams to chalk onto the slate. Charlie Archbold kept them coming, too, through the '20's and the Depression and on into the late '30's. At the program's peak his epigrams were displayed if front of some 12,000 sales outlets.

Boy-with-slate even appeared on radio. For several years he was featured nightly--along with "his Girl Friend Ethyl, the EN-AR-CO Motor Oil Orchestra and the White Rose Gasoline Quartet," on stations from Memphis to Minneapolis.

Perhaps his most widely distributed message came with a thermometer attached to his slate, and the figure mounted on heavy cardboard. Some still hang in homes around the country. Beside the thermometer is the statement--"What if it does go down to zero?--That's nothing," Today the boy has been retired, and National Refining no longer exits in its previous corporate form. Many of the company's assets were sold during the late '30's and '40's after a series of business reverses, and in April, 1950, Ashland acquired National's Findlay, Ohio, refinery, its sales organization, a large inventory of products and rights to its brand names. At the time the refinery was shut down; now it operates busily as a part of Ashland, primarily manufacturing asphalt and jet fuels.

There are veteran employees from National at Findlay, Ashland and other company locations who remember the boy-with-slate well and fondly. He was a big-time salesman. Don't be saddened, though, by his demise, for he didn't take to nostalgia well. After all, he's the guy who told his readers--- "Take back your heart. I ordered liver."

Copyright 1996-2010 Ben Eckart. All rights reserved.

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