By Elizabeth Emery, Guest Contributor
For North Americans, the slogan “Breakfast of Champions” has become synonymous with Wheaties cereal and orange boxes endorsed by famous sports professionals such as Lou Gehrig and Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner.
These boxes can command hundreds of dollars on the collectibles market. But for the French, whose breakfasts more likely consist of a tartine (buttered baguette with jam), a croissant, or a slice of pain d’épice (gingerbread), such celebrity images tended to feature writers rather than sports personalities. A pre-1897 gingerbread slice at the Maison Victor Hugo in Paris, for example, bears the famous writer’s likeness. It is just one of the many household Hugo collectibles such as soaps, liqueur bottles, tableware, and commemorative busts that make up a section of the museum called the “musée intime.” An ongoing enterprise, today’s conservators continue to solicit contributions of Hugo memorabilia.
Although the commercial endorsement is considered a modern business practice, its roots run deep in the nineteenth century, when new technologies allowed for the widespread reproduction of celebrity images, thus spawning all kinds of unauthorized collectors’ items like those in the Hugo museum. Candy and tobacco companies offered promotional items to draw consumers to their products, such as the baseball cards that would flourish in twentieth-century North America. Given the cultural weight of these trading cards and Wheaties sport “champions,” it is easy to forget that the phenomenon was also international and extended to many other kinds of celebrities, as in the series produced by Britain’s Ogden’s “Guinea Gold” cigarettes.
Hugo appears here, too, though this photograph was likely pilfered from photographer Paul Nadar, whose own postcard featuring this image circulated widely after Hugo’s death. Reproduced without attribution, Ogden’s also provided incorrect dates (1802-1885) and terrible image quality: the great man seems to have taken one puff too many.
In turn-of-the-century France, the precursor to Wheaties and leader of the trading card phenomenon was Félix Potin, a grocery store chain founded in 1844 on the principle that buying in bulk and selling at fixed low prices, as did newly created department stores, could revolutionize the food sector (Walmart and Costco continue his experiments on a grander scale). As of 1870, the company offered home delivery; the horse-pulled trucks made the rounds of Paris emblazoned with its logo, thus making Félix Potin a household name. Capitalizing on new advances in printing technology and international marketing, the Potin family publicized its breakfast staples, such as hot chocolate, sugar, and jams, with brightly colored posters and postcards, and piqued public interest in celebrity photographs by offering collectible cards to customers with each 500-gram package of chocolate purchased. This technique was remarkably successful as a customer loyalty program. The 1898-1908 series featured 500 celebrities and the spaces to paste them were indicated in a blank photo album that encouraged consumers to complete the set. That’s 550 pounds worth of chocolate!
A striking aspect of the Potin albums appears in the sheer variety of the international “champions” featured: while Wheaties focuses largely on sporting figures, the French series shows the late development of athletes as celebrity figures: of the thirty-eight pages only one (p. 38) is dedicated to international cyclists (the Tour de France began in 1903) and another half page (p. 37) is dedicated to fencers. Writers and royalty are the single most important groups featured: foreign rulers and their families (7.5 pages), politicians (3), clergy (3/4), Army and Navy (2 3/4), lawyers (1), scientists and engineers (1.5), explorers (1/2), doctors (1), writers (7), musicians (2.5), painters (3.4), sculptors and architects (1), actors and singers (5). Hugo appears here in the writer section,
his tousled re-appearance from Nadar to Ogden to Potin testifying to the international proliferation and unauthorized re-reproduction of such collector cards.
Today’s international interest in the collection of celebrity images, from the hype surrounding each new Wheaties “champion” and the promotion of Panini World Cup sticker albums, to more individualized “virtual” collections made possible by the arrival of Pinterest and Tumblr, follows the model set over one hundred years ago. The widespread appropriation, contemplation, and manipulation of “champions” demonstrates that—from breakfast table to blog—bric-a-brac-o-mania is alive and well.
Elizabeth Emery is Professor of French at Montclair State University. Author of Romancing the Cathedral: Gothic Architecture in Fin-de-Siècle French Culture (SUNY, 2011), Photojournalism and the Origins of the French Writer House Museum (Ashgate Publishing, 2012), and En toute intimité: quand la presse people de la Belle Epoque s’invitait chez les célébrités (Parigramme, 2015), among other works, she is currently writing a book about nineteenth-century French women collectors of Asian art under the auspices of a 2015 National Endowment for the Humanities grant.
On the striking collectability of Wheaties boxes see Steven Glew, “Cereal Box Price Guide.”
For more about the history of photography in nineteenth-century Paris see Elizabeth Anne McCauley, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photographs in Paris, 1848-1871 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
On the history of tobacco collecting cards see the New York Public Library exhibit and bibliography.
An overview of the Potin albums and digital reproductions of the images can be found here.