The Rivalry Between Calendar Giants Brown & Bigelow and Louis F. Dow
One of the most intriguing and spiteful episodes in the history of American pin-up art came out of the competition between Brown & Bigelow and Louis F. Dow, the two largest calendar companies in the United States in the 20th century. Both were based in St. Paul, Minnesota and their rivalry led to an arms race in printing, promotion, and talent acquisition of commercial artists.
Gil Elvgren’s early career at Louis F. Dow
In 1937, Dow hired an unknown artist fresh out of art school, Gil Elvgren, to start creating pin-up images for their calendar line. He would go on to create approximately 60 different images for Dow.
Elvgren’s work was popular, but not overly so, until the United States started shipping soldiers overseas to fight in the Second World War. In 1942 Dow had the genius idea to create pre-printed sets of 12, cheap to mail pin-up collections of Elvgren images that people could buy to send to their boys in the Army. Called “Military Pin Up Kits,” these sets took Elvgren girls worldwide, and they can often be seen in archival photographs of soldiers barracks. It was as Elvgren’s star rose during wartime that Brown & Bigelow sought to steal his talent for themselves.
Gil Elvgren’s move to Brown & Bigelow and Louis F. Dow’s revenge
There aren’t a lot of specifics about how it transpired that Elvgren moved to Brown & Bigelow in 1944, but what is known is that he left Dow on incredibly bad terms.
It was common for the calendar companies that commissioned artworks to retain ownership of the original canvases as well as the copyrights, and Dow took full advantage of this fact. They were so interested in belittling the talents of Elvgren, while profiting off of them, that they employed Vaughan Bass (who would go on to become a highly regarded pin-up artist in his own right) to overpaint these canvases so they could be marketed a second time.
Bass was told to leave the faces untouched, but to extensively re-work the backgrounds and fashions. Dow would go on to re-title these images and publish them as mailers, calendars, advertisements, and mutoscope cards.
Original overpainted Elvgren’s on the market
In the 1970s Dow began selling off the contents of their original art archive, renting out hotel ballrooms and covering the walls with canvases which they offered to buyers at $100.00 a piece. Included in these sales, were the Elvgren canvases, as well as pin-up art by other stable artists like Edward D’Ancona and Art Frahm. We at Grapefruit Moon Gallery have been fortunate over the years to meet many of the original buyers of these classics of American illustration. We are currently thrilled to be offering a selection of artworks to come directly from one of these Louis F. Dow “hotel sales” featuring “What A Break” a historically significant, rare, and beautiful overpainted original Elvgren.