Misidentified Creepiness

I recently ran across a collection of amateur photos taken of kids and adults dressing up for Halloween in the 1920s and 1930s. The scenes are innocent enough – no hockey players with machetes or sexy nurses – but there is a certain weirdness to them. It’s hard to explain, but the simplicity of the handmade masks coupled with poor lighting, poor focusing, strange posing, homespun clothing, and Depression-era backdrops make the photos far more eerie than if bright red fake blood and plastic body parts were strewn about the field of vision.

just plain creepy

just plain creepy

Less can be more. Stephen King knows this, and I think this is what Hitchcock discovered when making his horror classics… since when did mere birds or showers give anyone chills before Hitchcock?

I mention this because I’m pretty sure I made a discovery in that collection of photos that may have escaped previous observers. In the grouping was this photo labeled as ‘weird alien creatures going to a Halloween party.’ Though no date is given, from the dress of those in the background, I surmise that the picture was taken no later than the early 20th century.

Michelin Persons

Michelin Persons

But as I looked at the picture, it dawned on me… those aren’t aliens. That’s the Michelin Man! (and his wife?)

In the 1880s, Edouard and Andre Michelin owned and operated a rubber factory in Cermont-Ferrand, a town in the Auvergne region of France. A stranded bicyclist came to them one day with a tire that had separated. It needed hours to repair and then the glue between the tire and the rim had to dry overnight. The next day, Edouard took the bicycle for a test spin… and the tire promptly failed, separating again from the rim. Despite this setback, Edouard was excited about the possibilities that pneumatic tires presented, but he wanted to develop a variety that didn’t have to be glued in order to safely operate. Edouard’s vision became the Compagnie Generale des Etablissements Michelin in May 1888. Three years later, the Michelin Company was granted its first patent for a pneumatic tire that did not require gluing. In 1891, the racer Charles Terront went on to win the Europe’s inaugural long-distance bicycle rally, the Paris-Brest-Paris, using a custom bicycle with Michelin tires.

And every up-and-coming company brand needs a memorable mascot and trademark, n’est ce pas?

At the Universal & Colonial Exposition in Lyon in 1894, the Michelin brothers passed a stack of tires at one booth that reminded them of a large man without arms. Four years later, Edouard met the French cartoonist Marius Rossillon, who went by the nom de plume O’Galop, and the two decided to turn the idea of a man made from tires into the company emblem. Apparently O’Galop had earlier drawn an ad for a Munich brewery featuring a portly man with a huge stein of beer and the caption “nunc est bibendum” (“now is the time to drink”). This idea was adapted to the Michelin campaign, and the 1898 poster below is the first representation of the artistic collaboration.

Michelin poster 1898 (courtesy of Michelin)

Michelin poster 1898 (courtesy of Michelin)

In the poster, Bibendum – as he would come to be known – offers a toast to his scrawny-looking competitors, his glass full of road hazards. The caption reads, “C’est a dire, a votre sante! Le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle” (“That is to say, to your health! The Michelin tire drinks up all obstacles”).

Anyone who has seen an original Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald will understand how trademarks evolve. Bibendum – or as the Anglo world knows him, Michelin Man – was originally thinner (recall that he was made of stacked bicycle tires, not modern auto tires), wore pince-nez glasses, smoked a cigar, and was briefly black (because of the chemicals added to rubber for tires around WWI as a preservative).

Bibendum is one of the world’s oldest trademarks, and I suspect that this photo is a publicity appearance by the Man, and not a creepy Halloween photo at all.

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