From the Pen of the Captain’s Kid: The Coppertone Girl was a future OCBP lifeguard

From the Pen of the Captain’s Kid: The Coppertone Girl was a future OCBP lifeguard

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From the Pen of the Captain’s Kid:

The Coppertone Girl was a future OCBP lifeguard

How did you get that great tan?”  the girl in a bikini asked, looking up at the Ocean City lifeguard.

“Why, Coppertone, of course.” he replied from his lifeguard stand, sometimes holding up a bottle like a television barker. “We get it from the Captain.”

The direct connection, during the early years of the lifeguard organization, between Coppertone sun tan lotion and the Ocean City Beach Patrol may be recalled by lifeguards from those years, but it is not widely known today.  Why did all the beach patrol lifeguards use Coppertone? And why was the competitor Sea and Ski never mentioned in the Craig household?  Equally little known is the fact that the famous Coppertone girl later became a member of the Ocean City Beach Patrol.  Want to know who it was?  Purchase a copy of my book Saving Lives: A History of the Ocean City Beach Patrol, and you can “read all about it.” 

Almost everyone knows the image of the little girl and the dog that tugs at the girl’s bathing suit to reveal a tan line and a bit of her derrière.  “Don’t be a Paleface” was already an established slogan for the new sun tan lotion company in the early 1950s, but the cartoon-like drawing of what became universally known as the Coppertone Girl is one of the most recognized images in marketing history.  If you see the drawing, you immediately think ‘Coppertone,” and conversely if someone mentions the little girl on the beach who looks back as the dog  yanks down her shorts, almost everyone knows that’s a Coppertone image.

During the first summer that Robert S. Craig served as captain of the beach patrol, his brother Frank was a rookie guard.  A student at University of Delaware, Frank S. Craig, Jr., continued to work on the beach patrol during the summers of 1946-8 and possibly 1949.  After a brief Navy stint, Craig’s brother moved to south Florida where he was hired by Coppertone and soon rose in the ranks to serve as vice president in charge of advertising/marketing.   Coppertone was a tan darkening skin lotion invented in 1944 by Benjamin Green, a Hungarian-born druggist from Cleveland, Ohio. Green opened a pharmacy in Coconut Grove, Florida, where he dispensed the lotion, but by 1950 he had sold his tanning lotion to investors.  It was at this point that two lines crossed, both linked to the Craigs.  Frank found employment with Coppertone, and his older brother Robert (captain of the Ocean City Beach Patrol and an amateur photographer)  snapped a picture of a child and a dog on the beach—you guessed it, the dog’s paw tugged down the child’s bathing suit revealing white buttocks in contrast to a tanned body and startled face..  Captain Craig happened to share the photo with his brother Frank.

Frank took the image to artists at Coppertone, and, after some significant changes (Savings Lives discloses the full story), what would become the famous Coppertone Girl emerged not as a photo but as an artist’s sketch.  That sketch served Coppertone advertisements for a year or two when the original drawing was lost in a fire and another artist was hired through a different advertising agency to redraw the Coppertone girl.  Frank knew he already had a highly marketable and recognizable image in the initial sketch, but the second version was even more enticing.  Its creator was pin up artist Joyce Ballantyne Brand who had specialized in creating popular 1950s calendar girls, those familiar, pre-Playboy images of scantily clad female models advertising tools, cars, and farm equipment.  As a young boy in the 1950s, I remember seeing many such calendars displayed during the decade on the walls of workshops, farm sheds, and garages throughout the country.  At the time, Joyce Ballantyne Brand worked for Grant Advertising in New York, and it was she who was commissioned to re-create, not to create, the lost Coppertone girl sketch.  Both sketches, in turn, had been based on Captain Craig’s photograph, a fact that no other account discloses.  Indeed, in future years countless women later claimed that as a girl, they were the Coppertone girl and had never received royalties.   “Uncle Frank” never worried since presumably the company still had his brother’s photo negative—probably under lock and key in a huge safe somewhere, next to the secret Coca-Cola formula!   The mystery, for Ocean City, is this: who was the original subject, the future Ocean City Beach Patrol lifeguard?  Saving Lives: A History of the Ocean City Beach Patrol recounts the never before fully published story of the creation of the Coppertone Girl, and who she was.  For signed copies ($21.95 + $3.50 shipping) email me at rob.craig@arch.gatech.edu.  There is, of course, lots more about the history of the beach patrol in this illustrated book, as well as in its companion book, Maryland’s Ocean City Beach Patrol (21.99 + $3.50 shipping),   both books and others described in more detail at captainskidbooks.com.

Each summer former lifeguard Frank S. Craig, Jr.,  sent cases of Coppertone products to his brother in Ocean City to be distributed to the lifeguards who sat all day in the sun.  It was another clever marketing move:  who better to display the best suntans on the beach than the “bronze gods” who were only too happy to acknowledge that it was their free Coppertone that gave them such great tans.  Even the Coppertone Girl herself would grow up to be an Ocean City Beach Patrol lifeguard, sitting on the stand on 15th Street, and serving for five summers. 

Coppertone
The Coppertone Girl, image from a Coppertone beach bag, author’s collection. Photo by Robert M. Craig.
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