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1950s beauty posed for Breck shampoo ads

In the 1950s, Jean Ivory Stevens modeled as the Breck Shampoo Girl for several advertising portraits.

Breck Girl, 1950sThe “Breck Girl” originated in 1936 when Edward Breck, president of Breck Hair Care Products in Springfield, Massachusetts, asked painter Charles Sheldon if he had a portrait that could be used in a Breck ad.

Over the years, Sheldon painted 107 portraits, using women who worked at his advertising agency and from Breck’s family. Jean Ivory Stevens, a Sheldon employee between 1947 and 1952, shares her memories of the agency and her time posing for eight “Breck Girl” portraits.

When I graduated from high school in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1947, I faced a decision. Should I accept a scholarship to Boston University, or take an office job with a local company, Charles Sheldon Advertising?

It was no contest when I learned that Mr. Sheldon was the artist who had originated the popular Breck shampoo ads. This was my chance to become a “Breck Girl,” an opportunity no one of my generation could pass up!

Through the Breck ad campaign, Mr. Sheldon gave many of us in the office our “15 minutes of fame”. Working from photographs, he usually started each pastel chalk portrait at his home studio and then applied finishing touches at the office.

He often changed hair color and styles and minor facial features to disguise the fact that some models posed more than once. Marilyn Skelton appeared in 11 ads, and I placed second with eight. It was fascinating to see myself not only with my natural brown hair, but also as a redhead and as a blond.

Back then, a new Breck ad appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal every other month, then in Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar before gradually moving downline to the trade journals.

Breck Girl, 1950sMy first Breck portrait (at top of story) was known as the Jean Profile (or profeel, as Mr. Sheldon said it). He’d studied in Paris as a young artist and always pronounced it in the French manner. It’s still my favorite, probably because I look so young and because it was a thrill to see my brown hair looking far more perfect than in real life. Remember, this was before electric curling irons, sprays and mousses were in use, when we set our hair with bobby pins every night.

For my second portrait (at right), Mr. Sheldon gave me blond hair. It had a 1930s quality and reminded me more of Jean Harlow than myself.

In 1977, my husband, Russ, and I toured the Breck plant in West Springfield and came across the original of this pastel. I hadn’t seen it for 25 years but kept thinking I should know who this woman is. Then suddenly I realized…it’s me!

When he did my third portrait, Mr. Sheldon was not very happy with the result because I had cut my hair short. He put a black collar on me, which I think expressed his disappointment. Years ago, my copy of that print was ruined, so it’s missing from our display wall, which we call “The Shrine.”

Breck Girl, 1950sSometime around 1950 or ’51, the Breck Company opened a hair salon in New York City. They brought Mr. Fred, one of the stylists, to town to “gussy us up” for a photo session.

From my photos, Mr. Sheldon completed three portraits in a row, each with a different hair color. The first of these (at left) was a brunette full-view that was christened the Jean Hedy because it looked like a mix of Hedy Lamarr and me.

Breck Girl, 1950sIn the second (at right), I got to see myself as a redhead. In the third of this trio, I became a blond in profile. Several years ago, my youngest son noticed a Breck display with this ad in a drugstore in the quaint old mining town of Julian in San Diego’s backcountry. Russ and I drove there to see it, and with some difficulty, I convinced the skeptical store owner I was once that very Breck Girl.

In 1952, after I had married and moved to Florida, Mr. Sheldon surprised me with another brunette full-view, this one much more natural than the first. And finally, the proof of a blond front-view arrived the day after my first son was born.

I didn’t think it looked much like me, but in 1991, Russ and I (pictured together below) wandered into a secondhand bookstore while in England and found many old advertisements displayed. Russ asked the owner if he had any old Breck ads, explaining “My wife was once a Breck model.”

The man looked at me and exclaimed, “I’ve got you!” Sure enough, he had about eight of them, which I gladly autographed at his request.
Back in my Breck days, I often joked that the time might come when we would be seen at the Smithsonian. The Dial Corporation donated the Breck collection and related memorabilia to that famous institution. Although there are no current plans for a display, we may well become relics for future generations to study.

Breck Girl, 1950sBefore such famous Breck Girls as Cheryl Tiegs and Brooke Shields, we were an anonymous group earning about $35 a week plus a $35 weekly bonus at month’s end and a $50 bonus each time we posed for an ad.

But we received much more from Mr. Sheldon. Besides doing wonders for our self-esteem, he inspired us with his kindly philosophy of life and introduced us to far more culture than most of us had ever known.

Jean Ivory Stevens • San Diego, California
Submitted by Roberta Sandler • Wellington, Florida

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Katrina @ Edelweiss Patterns October 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm

What a neat story! I adore the hair and make-up styles from the 1930s, 40s, & 50s – there was so much more elegance and dignity back then. And these paintings are just adorable.

Thanks so much for sharing!

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Carol Clark October 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Thank you for such a sweet story and that you included your recent photograph with your husband. I am very touched by that. I aspired to be a Breck girl, but the closest thing to that was using Breck shampoo my whole childhood and young adulthood. It was the only shampoo I used. I was always happy with the result. But never became a model for it. So it was very nice to read your story. I hope they do put the display in the Smithsonian, it deserves to be there. It was an important icon of my childhood in the 50′s and 60′s. Thanks for the memories.

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Stacy October 10, 2012 at 1:03 pm

This is a GREAT story! Thanks for sharing this. I can only imagine the difficulty and fun trying to explain to that shop owner that you were indeed, the woman in the portrait.

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John Buscemi October 10, 2012 at 1:04 pm

When I was a little boy I well remember “The Breck Girls” They were always so pretty and seemed so very confident in who they were. I know time marches on and America’s view of the ideal beauty has changed but to my eye, there is nothing quite so very pretty as a girl in the Breck ads. I also enjoyed seeing the Breck girl of yore as she looks today…STILL a very pretty woman. What a great story!

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Pauline (Corrigan) Salmon October 10, 2012 at 1:07 pm

It was a pure pleasure while riding the “F” train from Queens to Manhattan to my job with CBS at 57th and Park Avenue, to view the Breck advertisments with the angelic looking young ladies on the subway cars. Oh, how I wished my hair could come out that beautifully. It happened once when I went to Victor Vito on 57th Street, but that was for our wedding. The bobbie pins and later the large curlers were painful to sleep in, but we all did what we could to make ourselves appear better and boost our self-esteem. I love the charming story that you have shared with us.

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Karen Martin October 10, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Dear Mrs. Stevens –

You made such a beautiful Breck Girl! And you are just as beautiful today! Thank you so much for sharing your contributions to one of the greats in the hair-care industry. (They did well in using you!)

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Marilyn Farnsworth October 10, 2012 at 1:59 pm

What a wonderful story! I too used Breck shampoo — never even thought of real girls posing for the ads. I guess because they looked like they were done in pastels.
So great that they also found ”””Breck girls in England! Thanks so much for sharing!

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kathleen skiba October 10, 2012 at 2:55 pm

I always loved those beautiful pictures as a young girl. We always used Breck shampoo in our home (wish I still could), but I never was as pretty as the girls in the pictures. Advertising back then was beautiful…today it is rather bizarre!

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Patte October 10, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I can remember when this was the shampoo and “creme rinse” of choice, and all those Breck Girls! Thanks for taking us on this fun trip down memory lane!

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Ann Boehm October 10, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I remember the Breck ads as a young girl in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal. However, I remember the “beautiful hair” models were children (girls) and I envied their hair. I wanted my mother to buy Breck shampoo so I could look like them.

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Denise Ruffo April 9, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I was checking this article for pictures of children used in the Breck Shampoo adds. I loved all the adds. but there was a young girl I had drawn who was in one of the adds, I’ve been cking around to see if could come up with a childs painting.

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Elva Conde October 10, 2012 at 4:24 pm

I loved your story! During the 50′s my friend and I looked through every magazine we could find and designing clothes, knowing we would be famous some day. (Would you believe some of our designs are now in fashion!) From that time, I saved the back cover of a magazine with an ad, an artist’s rendering, that had three young girls. They bear a strong resemblance to Jacqueline Smith, Lauren Hutton, and Brooke Shields. I still have that, and treasure it! Thanks for reminding me!

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Sherry Tuminaro October 10, 2012 at 4:31 pm

Love this story! Just last week I wished I had a Breck girl’s hair. When I was a little girl the pictures used to grace the back covers of magazines my Great Aunts and Grandmother used to read, and I couldn’t wait to see the new one, always pining for that perfect hair.

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Sheridan Fenwick October 10, 2012 at 4:36 pm

She is still a beautiful Breck Girl!!!!! We couldn’t afford Breck til I got a little older…and it would have been nice if It could have made me look like her !!!!! Wonderful story …and all are in your magazine….I have been getting it for quite some time.

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Mary Lou October 10, 2012 at 4:56 pm

My mother had a beauty shop in our home in the 1940s and 1950s. She always used Breck shampoo on her customers. I remember it coming in big 5 gallon containers that were very hard for her to pour into smaller bottles. I can remember the distinctive aroma that went all over the beauty shop when Mama used Breck. Thank you for bringing up memories from the past. All the Breck girls were an inspiration.

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Barbara Vanecek October 10, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Breck was the only shampoo my parents bought. I so loved the Breck ads, I would cut them out and put them in a scrapbook. Nothing else went in that scrapbook. Thank you for your delightful memories.

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Karen Brooks October 10, 2012 at 7:16 pm

Being a woman of color I loved using and seeing the Breck Women.
Were there any women of color who were Breck Girls? Thank You — Karen Brooks Denver, Colorado

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Laura Pinto October 10, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Thank you for sharing Jean’s story. It was fascinating to me because I love vintage ads (1970s and prior) and have a Tumblr blog as well as a Pinterest board dedicated to them. I was amused to read about the artist, Mr. Sheldon, putting a black collar on Jean as a sign of his displeasure at her short haircut. I just did a quick search and found this image (not sure whether it will post as a link; could this be the missing print? It appears to be from the March, 1951 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. http://pages.adsbydee.com/11382/PictPage/1923072815.html

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Robin S. August 23, 2013 at 11:38 pm

It certainly does look like her! Thanks for sharing the link!

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charmaine gordon October 10, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Thanks for a marvelous story. We came from a different era where we worked hard and treasured every thing we fought for. You’re still lovely. Good health and love from me to you

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Hank Rimmer October 11, 2012 at 6:10 am

Very nice. Could not survive without Reminisce and their stories like this one about the Breck girl…. The good old days were a lot better than what is happening in todays world….. Keep up the good work…….

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Susan Provan October 11, 2012 at 8:51 am

Great article. I am so glad Mrs. Stevens shared her story with us. The art is just fabulous. It is both the dignity and elegance of that idyllic American era that speaks to our nostalgic souls. I wish our current America had stayed closer to the ways of that bygone era.

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Linda Livingston October 11, 2012 at 9:04 am

When I was a little girl in the 50′s, The Breck girls were an inspiration to me. My mom was a beautician and I always wanted her to make me look like one of them. We used Breck shampoo, of course! Thanks for your story. It brought back fond memories.

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Kaye Smith October 11, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Beautiful then and still beautiful today. What an experience and thanks for sharing.

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Maureen Henault October 11, 2012 at 11:15 pm

I remember cutting out Breck Girl pictures and taking them to the hair salon and telling the beautition, make my hair just like this. I was all of 12 years old. One interesting thing, I lived in Pittsfield, Ma and never knew Breck was made a mere 50 miles away in Springfield, Ma
I love Reminisce, I always learn something new

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Robin S. August 23, 2013 at 11:42 pm

This was a great story – thank you for sharing it! Reading about Breck Girls brought back fond memories of the ones I saw in the sixties and seventies…I think the last Breck Girl was seen in 1976, the year I graduated from high school.

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Robin S. August 23, 2013 at 11:46 pm

P.S. That is, the last non-professional model Breck Girl was seen in 1976. There were a few models as Breck Girls after that year, but no more”girl next door” Breck Girls.

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Deborah Armstrong Schueler August 29, 2013 at 9:01 am

Hi Jean–Your story touched me as my Mother, Roma Whitney Armstrong, was the Breck model with the blue background which was used as the trademark for many years. I also sat for an oil and was one of the monthly ads years ago. I am guessing I was about 6 or so and the oil made me look like a young woman.

My Dad, Robert Armstrong, worked for Mr. Sheldon for a bit. I am wondering if you remember any of us as we more than likely crossed paths. We lived on Spencer Street in Springfield for many years! I have so many fond memeories of those years.

Thank you again for sharing your story!!!

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Mary Abnderson January 29, 2014 at 2:46 pm

What a delightful story, thank you for sharing……………I used Breck in the 50′s and on up. But in the 50′s I could never get my hair to look as perfect as those pictures did. Now I know why ..lol. Thanks again for sharing your story with us

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