A hundred years ago America loved clowns, and the one who everybody was most familiar with was a happy goof who came from Mansfield.
He had an antic smile and billowing yellow pajamas so sunny they brought the stars out in broad daylight. And best of all, he brought cookies with him wherever he went: spicy little ginger snaps. By that we know he was welcome anywhere he showed up, and in the early decades of the 20th century –from 1902 to 1930– he was everywhere.
His name was Zu Zu, and that was also the name of his cookies.
His story began on Fifth Street at the cracker factory.
In the 1800s, the Crawford & Zeller factory in the Flats was a hometown bakery that made every kind of product a growing city would need:
But when this Mansfield cracker factory changed its name to Crawford & Taylor in 1881, and then became the first headquarters for the National Biscuit Company in 1898, all those dynamics of manufacturing dozens of products changed.
The N.B.C. organization, known as Nabisco, networked Mansfield with 181 other bakeries across the United States. One of the advantages of so much support was that each bakery could specialize in their favorite breads or crackers or cakes, or whatever they did best.
What Mansfield did best was ginger snaps.
Nabisco wanted a name for their snappy little cookies that any kid could say…hopefully the very first thing any child might say as an infant. So they called them Zu Zus.
Early on in Nabisco’s cracker career, they adopted a little boy for their advertising who was always dry even though the world around him was obviously damp: it emphasized the dry, crisp quality of their crackers because they were double-wrapped with a special “Inner Seal.” Oddly, many of these paintings advertising NBC products showed a box of Zu Zus at the boy’s feet, often in the rain.
It became a running commentary within the company that the ‘little boy in the rain’ motif, though clever and cute, was somewhat gloomy. It was suggested that something a little cheerier be found to represent Nabisco to the world.
So at Christmas time in 1902, the manager of the Mansfield Nabisco plant had a photo made of the boss’s nephew dressed as a sweet clown, and posed him sitting on a cracker barrel with a package of Zu Zus at his feet. It was kind of a joke, but also half serious.
Within days, the Chicago advertising department of Nabisco turned the Mansfield boy into an advertising icon.
For decades of American kids, Zu Zu the clown was a familiar face everywhere, and for generations of the early 20th century, America was a happier place because of a kid from Mansfield who dressed up like a clown.
In researching the Mansfield boy who posed in a clown costume, I have never been able to find his name. Anecdotal literature of 1902 refers to him only as “Captain Taylor’s nephew.” The photo was made into a Christmas card by Augustus Cameron, who later became manager of the Mansfield Nabisco plant when Capt. Taylor retired.
I always wonder about that boy, particularly after I saw his picture. I can imagine him as an old man tottering around at parties in the 1970s saying, “Believe it or not, I was the original Nabisco Zu Zu clown!,” and people looking at him like he was nuts. Or maybe he died in France during WWI; or maybe there’s a street named after him in Mansfield.
Anonymity has a kind of vital immortality of its own.