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Mail Pouch Tobacco: Hitting the Broad Side of 20,000+ Barns

MONDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2011

By


Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, my family rarely took a trip when I didn’t spy at least one barn painted with a Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisement: “CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO TREAT YOURSELF TO THE BEST.” The same is probably true for you if you’ve traveled in any one of 22 states where these barns reside.

Mail Pouch Tobacco barn

Photo by Mike MacCarter

A Mail Pouch barn in Fayette County, PA  

Traveling along the Pennsylvania Turnpike recently, I thought about these barns and realized that I hadn’t seen one on this trip, which I thought was odd, and which prompted a bit of research on my part. It seems that the barn ads were painted between 1890 and 1992 with the advertisement for the West Virginia Mail Pouch Tobacco Company, and they are a dying breed now, as many have fallen into disrepair or have been completely eradicated in the name of progress, or by the elements.

Mail Pouch Tobacco barn

Photo by dok1/flickr

Mail Pouch advertisements were painted on barns between 1890 and 1992. It would appear this job dates to the early days of the century-spanning program.

Initially, the tobacco company paid barn owners between $1 and $2 a year to paint their barns, the relative equivalent of between $20 and $40  today. Not a lot of money indeed, but owners were primarily interested in having the wood of their barns protected with a fresh coat of paint, at no cost to them. The advertisement was painted on one or two sides of the barn (determined by potential visibility) and the rest of the barn was painted any color the owner chose. Many barns were repainted every few years to maintain the sharpness of the lettering. Not a bad deal at all–you pick the color, make a couple bucks, sit back and watch your barn being painted.

From 1900 to 1940 other tobacco companies, such as Beech Nut, paid farmers to paint ads on their barns, but no program was as widespread, consistent, or recognizable as Mail Pouch. 

In the mid-1960s, Lady Bird Johnson campaigned tirelessly to restrict advertisements near highways. “Ugliness is so grim,” she once said. “A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.”

Even after the Highway Beautification Act became law in 1965, Mail Pouch barns were exempted since they had been deemed historic landmarks.

Harley Warrick

Schley Cox

Harley Warrick

Belmont County, Ohio, resident Harley Warrick is credited with having painted most of these barns. Beginning after World War II, he estimated at one time that he’d personally painted 20,000. Other Mail Pouch barn painters include Mark Turley and Don Shires.

A colorful character, Harley passed away in November of 2000. I remember years ago, seeing a television interview of a Mail Pouch Tobacco barn painter; I believe it was Harley. The last question posed by the interviewer was, “So, tell me: after all this, do you chew Mail Pouch Tobacco?” He just grinned and popped a wad into his mouth, and so ended the interview.

Harley Warrick

Photo by Ray Day

“Harley,” I asked, “why did you paint the HEW before painting the C?” “I always like to sign my work before I begin,” he replied.  “You see, my name is Harley E. Warrick – HEW.” – Ray Day

Harley was a charismatic gentleman with a very matter-of-fact attitude.  Rick Campbell, a “barn collector,” recalls Harley talking about painting in cold weather. “When the temperature was below freezing, you just added more thinner to the paint and a little Seagrams to the painter, and everything works out just fine.”

Video of Harley Warrick

When Harley retired in 1992, Swisher International Group, owner of Mail Pouch Tobacco at the time, suspended the barn painting program.

The Mail Pouch Tobacco story hit home for me while I was researching this piece. I found a story in our local paper from 2008, about a building demolition that had revealed a hidden Mail Pouch ad, believed to be pre-1925. Not far from where we are, we scouted, located, and photographed the ad. (I have to confess, not really being a “barn collector” myself, I found the discovery rather thrilling.) Are there any cool Mail Pouch Tobacco murals or other interesting barn advertisements near you? Upload your photos here.

A recently discovered Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisement in Carnegie, PA

Pamela Simmons

A recently discovered Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisement in Carnegie, PA

Advertising Barns: Vanishing American Landmarks a book by William Simmonds, is a chronicle of this bygone era. Simmonds has done a remarkable job of finding and photographing these disappearing advertisements, the product of eight years and 45,000 miles on America’s highways. His book includes an interview of Harley Warrick, detailing what it was like to paint barn advertisements for nearly half a century.

The Barn Journal is a very interesting and informative site dedicated to the history of barns and “Chasing Mail Pouch Barns” on this site, details Mail Pouch barns specifically.

Mail Pouch Barns are also chronicled at this site, called ohiobarns.com.


   

Tagged categories: Commercial contractors; Contractors; Historic Structures; Murals; Murals

Comment from John Fauth, (3/26/2013, 8:28 AM)

Great story, Pamela. I spent 29 years prowling the roads of Western Pennsylvania in my sales days, and have come to appreciate tobacco advertisements as "barn art". This brought back some really fine memories.


Comment from Barry Lamm, (3/26/2013, 11:49 AM)

Here in the southeast there were hundreds of barn roofs painted with the words SEE ROCK CITY. It was a stourist spot in the soustheast corner of Tennessee and northwest corner of Georgia, as I remember.


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