Advertising History: A Brief Look At the Use of Polar Bears in Ads

For many of us, a polar bear holding a bottle immediately brings to mind the red and white colors of Coca-Cola. Polar bears as brand mascots–and even polar bears drinking out of bottles–however, long predates the Coca-Cola ads we know today. Look no further than Lot 120 in our upcoming August 3 Vintage Poster to see just how far back the association goes. 

Lot 120: Designer Unknown, Polar Bears / Circus, circa 1910. Estimate $2,000 to $3,000.

Staged against a radiant cotton-candy sky, thirteen polar bears pose on an arctic plateau. Although the designer is unknown and the poster has no text, we can confidently date the poster to around 1910, thanks to the number in the lower right courtesy of the publisher, Adolph Friedländer, who numbered his lithographs sequentially. 

As it turns out, this was not the first time that Friedländer had published this design. In 1899, Friedländer published a strikingly similar poster in which twelve polar bears perform in the same setting. Besides small variations in the bears’ poses, the most dramatic change in the 1908 poster is the addition of the bear in the middle foreground who rolls on her back as she drinks from a raised bottle. Who is this playful bear? And why was she added to the later edition?

1899 poster, Zwiggelaar Auctions, Auction 28 Session IV, Lot 3267

Where the Domesticated Bears Originated: Carl & Wilhelm Hagenbeck’s Circus

These images might appear to be a scene of pure fiction. However, the sight of bears standing up, drinking from chairs, and posing on pedestals was far from uncommon, thanks in large part to the work of Carl and Wilhelm Hagenbeck, the owners of Hagenbeck Circus and Tierpark outside of Hamburg, Germany. The Hagenbecks were important figures in the trade and training of animals in the late-nineteenth century. They pioneered displays that recreated animal habitats, such as the far north, and set up an immersive zoo experience in Stellingen outside of Hamburg. A visit to Stellingen Tierpark culminated in a Nordland-Panorama, which included groups of polar bears dotted across painted icebergs and stage-like backdrops of glacial landscapes. 

The Strand, v. 35 (1908), p. 303.      
1905 poster, Zwiggelaar Auctions, Auction 28 Session IV, Lot 3107

Wilhelm Hagenbeck himself performed with the polar bears and helped to train them. He first toured in 1898 with a group of 12 bears. By 1908, however, his troupe had grown to include 75 bears. According to contemporary accounts, the bears were impressive performers who could arrange themselves in pyramids, climb ladders, drive in carriages, drink out of bottles, and much more. Indeed, photographs of such performances published in contemporary magazines show just how realistic these circus posters could be.

The Tattler, No. 194 March 15, 1905, p. 413.   
1924 poster, Zwiggelaar Auctions, Auction 28 Session IV, Lot 3266

Arthur Harold, writing in The Strand in 1908, describes the spectacle of Hagenbeck’s bears: 

“The majority of the bears have been taught to drink out of bottles by holding them to their mouths with their fore-feet. It is most amusing and comical to watch an enormous white bear, measuring seven feet in length, suddenly sit on a chair, grasp a stone bottle in his great paws, lift it to his mouth, and drain its contents, while the band plays a popular song, entitled “Have Another Drink” (The Strand, vol. 35, 1908, 305).

We might imagine a similar tune accompanying the rollicking group in our poster. Harold’s description, however, gets even more specific: “One of the bears, Daisy, is very fond of lying down on her back while drinking.” Could it be Daisy herself who appears front and center in our 1908 poster?

Polar Bears in Ads

If it is indeed Daisy who appears in Lot 120, then her fame does not end there. A 1922 poster for Campari, designed by Franz Laskoff, appears to borrow Daisy’s image. Here again, a bear lies on her back, guzzling from a bottle held between her paws.

1922 Cordial Campari by Franz Laskoff         

Other examples of drinking bears abound in advertising, from a 1919 Anis del Oso poster to Guinness ads to the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bears. (The first Coca-Cola bear appeared in a French Coca-Cola poster in 1922. The bear was used sporadically in their advertising for the next 70 years before becoming a brand staple in the 1990s.) Whether these latter-day bears are linked to Hagenbeck’s show-bears or not, Daisy was clearly a bear ahead of her time. 

John Gilroy, My Goodness – My Guinness, 1956. Sold February 2022 for $938.

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