The “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.
My 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.”
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.
In 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.
Before 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