Cast your eyes upward in the older part of any American city and you're likely to glimpse a relic of advertising history. Take, for example, a sign I saw earlier this week on the side of a gingerbready Victorian in Old Oakland, near 8th and Washington:
The paint may look fresh (probably thanks to a local preservation effort), but the sign is a relic of a curious ad campaign that made its debut exactly a century ago—a campaign I learned about in an interesting article by Susan Saperstein, "San Francisco Coffee Roasters."
MJB Coffee was founded in San Francisco in 1899 by Max Brandenstein, whose father had immigrated from Germany during the Gold Rush. Max originally named the company after himself; he changed it when his brothers Mannie, Eddie, and Charlie joined the company. Saperstein writes that the brothers' first coffee brand, called Climax, "was advertised with a woman reclining in bed, smiling and sipping a cup of coffee."
Their next campaign was also suggestive, but in a different way:
Mannie launched a marketing campaign in 1910 with the slogan “MJB Coffee Why?” It began with promotional fans given to people attending a boxing match in Reno, Nevada; later signs were painted all over San Francisco. Mannie’s daughter later revealed the meaning of “Why?”–Mannie said it had no meaning, he just wanted people asking about MJB.
MJB 's "ultramodern coffee parlor" at the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Expo in San Francisco made creative use of the "WHY?" slogan:
(Photo from the San Francisco Chronicle.)
Mannie, Charlie, and Eddie changed their surname to Bransten to avoid anti-German bias during World War I. "This angered Max," Saperstein writes, "but they all reunited after the war."
Swiss conglomerate Nestlé bought MJB in 1985 and sold it 14 years later to Sara Lee. In 2005, Massimo Zanetti Beverage, based in Bologna, Italy, and Portsmouth, Virginia, bought MJB from Sara Lee along with three other coffee brands: Hills Brothers (another old San Francisco company), Chase & Sanborn, and Chock Full O' Nuts.
One of Max Brandenstein's descendants, Rena Bransten, owns the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco, which represents highly regarded artists such as Ruth Asawa and Ron Nagle.
To see the effects of a hundred years of sun, rain, and fog on a painted ad, see this MJB sign of similar vintage across the bay.