With her umbrella clasped in one arm and an upturned container of salt in another, the Morton Salt Girl has been a fixture of American cupboards for more than 100 years. But she almost didn’t come to be at all. (And if you’ve ever wondered why she appears to be spilling the product she’s promoting, there’s a very good reason for that.)
A Picture Worth a Thousand Words
The Morton Salt company has its roots in a 19th century Chicago salt business called Richmond & Company. A businessman from Nebraska named Joy Morton acquired a major interest in the company in 1889, after realizing the nation’s rising population and meatpacking industry boom would create an increased demand for salt. The company was incorporated as the Morton Salt Company in 1910. But the following year is when something magic happened.
In the early 20th century, salt was a bit of a pain for cooks and housewives, not to mention diners. It had a tendency to clump in humid or rainy weather, forcing people to chisel apart rock-hard slabs just to get a few sprinkles. The chunks were due to the fact that salt (like sugar) is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water vapor from the air around it. In 1911, Morton solved the problem by adding a game-changing ingredient: magnesium carbonate. An anti-caking agent, magnesium carbonate prevented the salt from clumping, thus creating the world’s first free-pouring salt. (Morton now uses calcium silicate for the same purpose.) To make things even easier for salt-lovers everywhere, the company also added an easy-pour spout on their distinctive round blue container.
Morton wanted the world to know of their innovations. They hired Philadelphia advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Company to develop concepts for their first national consumer campaign, a series of 12 ads to run in Good Housekeeping magazine. Founded in 1869, N.W. Ayer & Company was one of the biggest and oldest ad agencies in the U.S. Among the their biggest wins, they have been the brains behind memorable ad slogans such as De Beers's "A Diamond is Forever,” the U.S. Army’s “Be All You Can Be,” and AT&T’s “Reach Out and Touch Someone.”
Unfortunately, none of the concepts the Ayer representatives brought along that day found favor with Morton management — but one of the back-up ideas did. Joy Morton’s son and the company’s then-secretary, Sterling Morton, loved an image of a curly-haired little girl with an umbrella in one hand and a spilling salt container in another. To him, it beautifully summed up exactly what the company hoped to convey: their salt would run even when it was damp outside. (Though people often write to the company asking who the little girl is based on, there was no single model for her; she was just an illustrator’s image of an apple-cheeked tyke.)
A Slogan for the Ages
Although Sterling Morton loved the little girl, he was less enthused about the planned slogan for the Good Housekeeping ads: “Even in rainy weather, it flows freely.” Management thought it seemed a little wordy, while other suggestions, like “Flows Freely” or “Runs Freely,” also failed to appeal. One proposal, however — “It never rains but it pours” — was deemed to have potential.
The phrase is actually a proverb that dates to the 18th century. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, it may go back to either a book by Queen Anne's physician, John Arbuthnot, or an article by Jonathan Swift, both of which were called “It Cannot Rain But It Pours” (and both, oddly, published in 1726). The phrase generally means that events or strokes of luck, whether good or bad, tend to happen in droves. However, Morton brass thought it seemed potentially a little negative. A new version, “When It Rains It Pours” was thought to be more positive and eventually met with success. Both the “Umbrella Girl” and the slogan first appeared on the cylindrical package in 1914, and in Good Housekeeping ads in October 1914.
Keeping Up to Date
Over the years, the Morton Salt Girl’s look has been updated six times. In 1921, her blond curls were switched to straight dark hair, before becoming curly again in 1933 at the height of Shirley Temple’s fame. In 1941, she first donned her now-signature yellow dress and got blond pigtails, and in 1956, the handle of her umbrella went yellow too. In 1968, her hair (now bobbed) and dress (simplified with a shorter hem) changed too. In 2014, she again got a refresh to mark the company’s centenary, this time appearing in simplified linework.
She has since appeared in Super Bowl ad campaigns, been named one of the Top 10 Female Ad Icons of All Time (by Ad Age in 2012), and had 100 birthdays parties in 100 cities over 100 days on her centenary. She’s even appeared as a Funko Pop figurine. She remains such a nostalgic figure today that you can buy T-shirts, tote bags — and yes, even umbrellas — emblazoned with her likeness. Not bad for a back-up idea.
All photos courtesy of Morton Salt.