New Brunswick

A New Brunswick tea company's connection to an iconic American painter

Norman Rockwell illustrations may be as American as apple pie, but it turns out they’re also as New Brunswick as orange pekoe tea. The famous Saturday Evening Post cover artist created a series of paintings for the formerly Saint John-based Red Rose company.

Graphic designer unearths Norman Rockwell art created for 1958 advertising campaign

Woman Relaxing with Tea After Shopping. The central image is of Rockwell's oil painting. It recently sold at auction for $187,500 US. (Atlantic Advocate/Sotheby's/Norman Rockwell Museum Collections)

Norman Rockwell illustrations may be as American as apple pie, but it turns out they're also as New Brunswick as orange pekoe tea. 

The famous Saturday Evening Post cover artist created a series of paintings in the 1950s of people enjoying a certain made-in-New Brunswick tea brand.

There's a "housewife" on the phone, a doctor on a house call, a perspiring man, a pregnant woman, and a tired shopper, each enjoying a cup or glass of Red Rose. There's also a "young husband" checking a shopping list with a box of Red Rose in his grocery bag.

Graphic designer Tanya Duffy and architect John Leroux have written an article about the Rockwell Red Rose ads for the new issue of Ornamentum, the Decorative Arts Society of Canada magazine. (Atlantic Advocate/Sotheby's/Norman Rockwell Museum Collections)

Graphic designer Tanya Duffy of Fredericton came across the works while flipping through old issues of the Atlantic Advocate, a general interest monthly magazine that was published in the city between 1956 and 1992.

"They say Norman Rockwell right on them, but of course it's very obvious that it's a Rockwell because his style is so distinct."

Duffy was doing research for a "passion project" she's been working on for a couple of years with art historian and curator John Leroux — a book and exhibition about the graphic design history of the province from 1945 to 2000. She hopes it will be complete next year.

(Atlantic Advocate)

She immediately thought the ads were "awesome," but on closer inspection, her interest was further piqued.

"The packaging that's all really familiar to us as New Brunswickers was embedded into these pieces. They were part of these immaculate Norman Rockwell paintings."

Red Rose was one of two big New Brunswick tea makers at the time. The company had been operating for decades in Saint John, after being established by Theodore Harding Estabrooks of Wicklow in 1894.

Housewife At Tea Break oil painting by Norman Rockwell for the Red Rose Tea company. 1958 (Sotheby's)

"We thought, there's no way he did this specifically for Saint John," said Leroux.

But after a bit of research, the pair learned that Rockwell had indeed been commissioned for the campaign by a Toronto advertising company. 

The Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts had the reference photographs from which Rockwell painted the pictures, said Duffy. They also had correspondence between the artist and the ad company.

Rockwell painted the ad pictures from reference photographs. (Norman Rockwell Museum Collections)

"They got down to the nitty gritty of details," said Leroux. 

In the picture of the woman shopper, for example, "You can see the bottom of her shoe and it's worn. It implies she's a hard working person. But she's lying back in a rocking chair in a meditative moment with a box of Red Rose tea in her lap."

Rockwell is known for being able to capture that level of detail, said Leroux. But these paintings had the central character sort of floating in white space. It creates a "serene" feeling, said Leroux, and also leaves room for ad copy.

(Atlantic Advocate)

"I thought it was really interesting," said Duffy, "because this was at the height of Rockwell's career and his fame."

"It's really impressive that a company in New Brunswick had the foresight to go to one of the most famous visual artists at the time and realize that would be a great opportunity to help market their product on a bigger scale."

"To do something so artful and so well crafted coming out of here, I think is pretty impressive, especially for the time — it's 1958, so, it's pretty forward-thinking."

Young Husband Checking Grocery List oil painting by Norman Rockwell for Red Rose tea company, 1958. These Rockwell paintings were also reproduced on postcards that were distributed in tea boxes. Many are still around and sell for a couple of dollars each, said Leroux. (Sotheby's )

Red Rose was a "progressive" company, agreed Leroux, pointing out it was the first to sell tea packaged in individual-size tea bags.

They also bought tea from new markets in India, he said, whereas before that the Chinese and Japanese markets were more popular.

These Rockwell ads were a "really prominent" campaign, said Leroux. Most of the ads featured young characters, he said, because the company was trying to attract young, new customers.

(Norman Rockwell Museum Collections)

Red Rose operated in Saint John until the 1980s. The brand is now owned by Unilever, the British multinational maker of everything from baby food to cleaning agents.

According to the Rockwell museum, Norman Rockwell created ads for dozens of U.S. products, such as Jell-O, Skippy Peanut Butter and Corn Flakes.

But Leroux said the Red Rose ads may represent his only Canadian commission.

The old Red Rose tea factory in Saint John, N.B., is seen from a distance in 1988. (Midday/CBC Archives)

And word has it he truly did like the tea.

"He said he'd only do an ad campaign if he tried the product," Leroux said.

Samples were sent and Rockwell later reported he was a confirmed Red Rose Tea drinker, said Leroux.

It wouldn't have been the same blend sold by the label today, however. The Atlantic version was discontinued in the early 2000s.

With files from Information Morning Saint John