America’s Favorite Clown was Born in Mansfield: 1902

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: 

The Cracker Factory stood on the SE corner of Fifth and Walnut. Built in 1869, it gave the Flats a friendly ambience with the smell of fresh baked bread. Newspapers in other cities referred to C&Z as “Mansfield’s cake bakers.”

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.


The National Biscuit Company can be said to have originated in 181 different cities when all the bakeries in those cities united under one brand name, but the first president of the organization was Benjamin Crawford of the Fifth Street bakery, so the address of the first headquarters of the company was in Mansfield. When the main offices moved to Chicago a few years later, Crawford got a second home in that city.

Without a doubt, one of the best-selling products Nabisco sold were Zu Zus, known all over the country, and made in Mansfield.


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.


As the new iconic representative of Nabisco, Zu Zu was fitted with a baggy smock the same color as the familiar yellow raincoat of the “rainy day boy.”

Zu Zu the clown ran wild through newspapers & magazines all over America for 25 years, showing off the little cookies. His face and demeanor changed periodically as the NBC Advertising Department shuffled back and forth from Chicago to NYC, and different artists were tasked with giving the clown new form for various advertising media.

There were even popular songs wrtitten about him, like the “Zu Zu Rag.”


Zu Zu had become so popular by 1910 that the company began giving away Zu Zu costumes to anyone who would wear them in public. Photos in albums from the 1910s and ’20s show Zu Zu at family reunions, company picnics, commencement exercises, class plays and church socials.

He marched in every Mansfield parade of the 1910s handing out little boxes of ginger snaps.

Here he is posing at a business exposition in 1921.

People loved bringing the happy Zu Zu character to life: the familiar yellow pajama costume was public license to be goofy.

The era of Zu Zu the clown happened to correspond to the era of streetcars in America, and a familiar form of advertising in those years was the “trolley card:” posters that fit into a curved ceiling space inside the car. Dozens of different trolley card designs found today in antique stores indicate what a widespread presence Zu Zu had in American popular culture.


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.



Post Script:

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.



2 comments

  1. A Big WOW!! I do believe Jim Gerhing of Ground Source Heating and Cooling on Lexington Ave owns the building. I would love share this with my Haring brothers.

    Like

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