Digging into Durham’s history you’ll quickly come across a man named William Thomas Blackwell. W.T. Blackwell was an intense man[*]. So much so that 5 minutes into reading about him has you wondering why there hasn’t been a major motion picture about his life starring Daniel Day-Lewis or perhaps Joaquin Phoenix.
The stress he brought to the world is palpable in even the driest of history books and you’re left trying to unwind on his behalf long after you’ve put the book down. To say that Blackwell was focused on being the most successful in the tobacco industry would be a horrific and grievous understatement.
Many have recalled in books and oral history that rather than sleep Blackwell would pace the streets counting all the tobaccoo packages littering the thoroughfares and factoring how many were his brand and how many were their competitors’. Needless to say, if the ratio wasn’t to his liking the next morning’s meetings were nothing short of pure hell for all those in his employ.
Blackwell was successful at what he did. The global remnants of Bull Durham ads and the casualties of lung and throat cancer by way of tobacco are the lasting evidence of his marketing genius.
His hypervigilant, hyper-focused, hedonistically adaptative pursuit of success took many forms. This clever, mad-man understood the value of arts, storytelling, and omnipresence required to fully saturate the market.
From the 1870’s to his death November 12th, 1902, Blackwell commissioned artists to go throughout the United States and even abroad to Europe painting Bull Durham ads on buildings. The ads made it to Canada as well. In 2012 a couple in Canada uncovered a Bull Durham wall dog painting in prestine condition and altered their renovation plans to keep it on display[*][*].
This type of art is known as wall dog painting and its popularity caught on like wildfire. These ads sparked inspiration for others. Today remnants of Coca-Cola, Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum, Pepsi-Cola, and Chicle Candy wall dog paintings can still be seen on the sides of history Durham buildings.
The individuals who painted these types of ads were called wall dogs. Once time, rain and sunshine have had their way with the art they are referred to as ghost walls as typically little remains other than the white paint and feelings of yesteryear.
Blackwell and his colleagues had four wall dog artists that did the majority of these paintings for the purposes of continuity. Of the four the artist that rose to highest acclaim in all of this was a man named Jule Gilmer Körner of Kernersville, North Carolina[*]. As an artist, he went by the name of Rueben Rink, which is now the name of an advertising agency in Winston-Salem owned by his great-grandson.
Rink’s work would strategically receive attention in the form of outrage. He would paint the Bull Durham bull to be anatomically correct, if not strikingly well endowed. Then under the guise and fake name of a concerned local, Rink himself would pen a letter to the editor of the local paper voicing disgust of the bull’s genitals on display. This would draw the attention of the locals to the painting and thus to Bull Durham tobacco. Classic marketing ploy gone right.
Rink would allow tension and attention to rise in the city until the citizens were in a full-on tizzy demanding the removal of the painting. Then Rink would return as the hero and paint an ever so strategically placed fence post obscuring the bulls’ penis and most of his testicles. In many instances, he made the ballsy move to leave a smidge exposed. What remains to be known is whether or not he collected payment from the cities he pulled this number on to 'censor' the bull.
With the downtown Durham renaissance came a resurgence of wall dog styled paintings in the downtown area, especially around American Tobacco Campus. These replicas definitely ad to the ambiance, but the worn look is purposeful, not time derived.
The last known Bull Durham wall dog painting remaining in the Bull City is on the west side of 156 Ramseur Street and 315 West Main Street - one building two addresses. Today the building houses Teasers Men’s Club. The best view, of the painting that is, is from Ramseur Street or from the top of the American Tobacco Campus North parking garage on Pettigrew Street.
As to why the painting has been deteriorating in plain sight for decades remains one of Durham’s sadder mysteries. A feeling that only sinks deeper when you see ventilation system drilling right through the center of the art. Perhaps an ironic twist of history that in order to bring clean air to the tenants within the building contractors had to plow into a tobacco ad.
Wall dog paintings were but a small bit of Blackwell’s marketing. He made sure to cover every possible surface from every possible angle and could very well be the grandfather of strategic, cohesive branding. The fruit of his relentless business practices had deemed him the ‘Grandfather of Durham’ and at one point there was even talk of renaming the city after him. The effort was squelched because this is Durham, i.e. it was deemed too much work and a possible ding to marketing efforts. Blackwell himself was said to be against the city taking his namesake because of its potential implications on marketing efforts. The man was all business.
Blackwell spent an exorbitant amount of money making sure that Bull Durham tobacco ads would be seen by every eye in America and then some. He and his business partner James R. Day spent nearly 15 years and $100,000 in litigation against other tobacco companies trying to use the name Durham and the emblematic bull on their packaging. The very bull John Green had blatantly stolen off of Colman mustard in 1867.
It would prove to be time and money well spent as it built an empire with a global reach, moved the majority of tobacco production from Virginia to North Carolina, and in a very short amount of time took Durham’s population from a village status of 300 people to a full-fledged city of 5000 people, most of whom were in some fashion employed in tobacco. Blackwell went as far as to have a bull bellowing whistle come from his tobacco factory, which is now known as the Old Bull and sits on Blackwell Street.
All of this was funded and moved forward by relentless advertising. The $100,000 spent on legal proceedings pales in comparison to the estimated $150,000 spent annually on Bull Durham newspaper ads alone until the discontinuation of Bull Durham marketing in 1918 when the company chose to send all Bull Durham tobacco to the soldiers fighting in World War I[*]. Supporting our troops was thought to be enough advertisement and as the product wasn’t going to the masses, the company didn’t see a need to advertise at that time.
This came 16 years after Blackwell’s death and thus the company didn’t have to run this decision by him. If it hadn’t been for the surgeon general warning the expression may very well have become, “As American as Bull Durham Tobacco.” Alas, we’re stuck with apple pie until the truth gets out about sugar.
Bull Durham ads could be found in nearly every newspaper and magazine. The ads constantly escalated with grandeur and at one point even featured a drawing of a bull on top of a pyramid to give the lasting impression of world domination – an impression that would take on a life of its own. One can imagine Blackwell’s delight when the artist showed him this ad. Well, that is if Blackwell was indeed a man capable of delight. Historical reports make that seem out of his wheelhouse.
At the very least he would have had reverence for the fact a mistranslation of the ad’s existence would leave question as to whether or not there was actually a Bull Durham ad painted on the Great Pyramid of Kafu. This myth persisted with little to no rebuttal for nearly 150 years. With photographic evidence of anything scant at this time, it left many historians without definitive evidence. In 1925 in his book “The Story of Durham, City of the New South,” writer W.K. Boyd penned, “The Old World was also invaded -not only Europe but also the Orient – and the bull was once to be seen on the Pyramids of Egypt[*].”
In 1946 Mark Twain penned a tribute to the late Julian Carr, Blackwell’s business partner in crime. In that tribute, Twain penned, “that the most conspicuous thing about the Egyptian Pyramids was the Durham Bull.” Whether he was referencing the ad, trying to embellish the reaches of Bull Durham or living up to his drunken reputation is unknown.
In her 1945 book, “The Bright-Tobacco Industry,” Nannie May Tilley wrote, “Foreign countries were also invaded by the Bull, his features once appearing on the pyramids of Egypt.” And then two pages later above the hand-drawn Bull Durham ad, “Bull Durham had sufficient spirit by 1877 to begin a vigorous advertising campaign which carried him and his smoking tobacco to the pyramids of Egypt.” So while this passage clears the air on this myth, it persisted onward, much like Blackwell's relentless marketing[*].
This myth resurfaced in the 1975 book, “The Dukes of Durham 1865 – 1929,” by Robert Durden in brief introduction of W.T. Blackwell and his business endeavors with Julius Carr. “Successfully defending their trademark and brand name in a series of tedious but important legal battles in 1870’s, Blackwell and Carr also pioneered in the techniques of advertising their “Genuine Bull Durham” tobacco.
Huge sums of money, for that day, went into advertisements in weekly newspapers, as well as in the larger daily ones, and prizes or premiums, ranging from a small item such as a razor to a more costly mantle-clock, were offered to purchasers. Most spectacular of all, huge painted signs of the Durham Bull appeared all over the United States, in Europe, and even at one point on the pyramids of Egypt.”
By the time that Our State Magazine covered the topic in 1978, article author Thad Stem wrote of a Bull Durham wall dog painting being painted onto and then removed from the Great Pyramids.
So Bull Durham ads never made it to the Pyramids, but the tobacco grown in the Bull City made it around the globe many times over. The remnants of Blackwell's marketing and the product's side effects persist. One must wonder if in addition to being the Grandfather of Durham, if W.T. was also the Father of Branding as we know it.
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