Article by Sheldon Posen, Ph.D.

I
N 1934, THE ST. LAWRENCE STARCH Company Ltd. of Port Credit, Ontario, introduced a campaign to promote sales of their Bee Hive Corn Syrup. They commissioned photographs of the best-known hockey stars on two NHL teams—the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens—from the teams’ official photographers. The photos showed each player in uniform on the ice, stick in hand. The company offered fans a straight­forward deal: send proof of purchase of our product, and we will mail you a photo of the player of your choice.

The Bee Hive hockey photo offer was heavily advertised on radio and in newspapers, and the promotion was a great success. Sales boomed, the players from all the NHL teams were photographed, and the offering was expanded. By the end of the decade, as many as 2,500 “ready for framing” black-and-white prints might be mailed on a single day from Bee Hive’s offices to every region of Canada. When the promotion ended in 1967, the complete roster of Bee Hive photos included 1,026 players.

Of all those photographs, there was one that stood out: Charlie “Big Bomber” Conacher, a member of the high-scoring Kid Line that had helped the Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 1932. Whatever Conacher’s fame or achievements, his Bee Hive picture, as a piece of graphic design, caught the eye. Most of the other photos were static; this one moved. Most were drab and, viewed at arm’s length, indistinguishable from each other; this one, because of its contrasts and unique silhouette, could be discerned a mile off.

The picture showed Conacher in his blue­(black, in the photograph) striped but very white Leafs’ away uniform, standing out cleanly against a solid black background. Below, the ice is dark but marked with bright streaks that look like moonlight on the surface of a frozen pond or river—or a reflection of the gleaming figure who hovers over it in a strong yet graceful, even dainty, pose.

It’s the pose that makes this picture. Imagine a diagonal line drawn from the upper right corner of the frame to the lower left. Conach­er’s body, right leg, left forearm, and stick are canted along this line. His torso faces front, so we can see the Maple Leafs crest on his chest, but everything else is aslant, off balance, in motion—the man is skating. Conacher’s left arm is raised and his elbow is bent, his face is turned aside in handsome silhouette. Our eye follows the apostrophe formed by face, shoulder, elbow, and forearm, over the glove and down the stick towards where Conacher himself is looking: the blade of the stick. But the blade isn’t there—it’s enticingly out of sight beyond the edge of the frame. So our eye does a quick reversal up the stick and notices that, parallel to the ice, trailing behind Conacher, is his left leg, bent at the knee and extended up off the ice. His skate, with the steel blade perfectly parallel to Conacher’s hockey stick and the toe pointed down, is poised delicately, jauntily, in the air. The raised leg counterbalances the line made by the rest of Conacher and his stick, and gives him an enticing, weightless quality that is part ballet, part figure skating, and yet all hockey.

Long after the Bee Hive photograph of Charlie Conacher fulfilled its original promo­tional purpose, it kept popping up, almost as a motif, in Canadian art and commercial design over the next nearly half century. More than any other single hockey image from that era, the Conacher photo has become something of a feature of our visual landscape.

Calendar
Soon after the Bee Hive Conacher photo was issued, another hockey advertiser recognized it as an attractive resource for its own com­mercial purposes. Each year since 1931, General Motors had published a booklet promoting their hockey radio broadcasts. The cover of the booklet was always the same: an artwork drawn from the perspective of the announcer in the “gondola” high above the action on a professional hockey rink. But for the 1934-35 hockey season, within months of the appear­ance of the first Bee Hive photos, General Motors replaced that year’s usual cover with a colourized version of the Conacher photograph.

Cachet
The Canadian Post Office also took notice. Since 1929, it had been running a program to promote its fledgling airmail service to stamp enthusiasts. The Post Office would announce the names of Canadian towns about to have a first mail-carrying flight between them. Col­lectors could purchase a distinctive envelope on which they typed the name of the two towns plus their own address. They took these “covers” to the post office, which forwarded them to the town where the flight would originate. The covers were carried on the first flight, then continued on to the sender after being imprinted with a unique first flight “cachet”—cover stamp—on the lower left side of the envelope.

The cachets were uniquely designed for each first flight. There were some 400 pro­duced by the Post Office between 1929 and 1941. They depicted scenes of the flight depar­ture or destination town or region, or they illustrated a particular theme. All included an airplane somewhere in the picture. There were several cachet theme series—among them, Aboriginal people, canoeing, and various sports. Every one of the cachets was designed by Herman Herbert Schwartz, the artist of the American Bank Note Company of Ottawa who also designed Canada’s postage stamps.

With such an onerous workload, Schwartz must have relied upon a large and varied port­folio of artwork prints, advertising graphics, and photographs to provide inspiration for designs. The sport-themed cachet he produced for the Winnipeg–Berens River first flight cover in 1935 is clearly based on the Bee Hive Conacher photograph, embroidered with a background that showed tiers of fans sitting behind hockey arena boards, and a goalie on duty in front of the net.

Cardigan Pattern
Perhaps the mode in which the Conacher image motif has reverberated longest into modern times first appeared in 1957. That year, the Canadian knitting company Mary Maxim, whose sweater patterns are still used by home knitters across the country, issued a series of designs for bulky cardigans based on sports— archery (#505), curling (#503), and hockey (#502). The image for the hockey cardigan is clearly based on the Bee Hive Conacher photo. It makes a few changes—a matter of creative independence, perhaps, or maybe there was some worry about copyright. The Mary Maxim design reversed the image of the Bee Hive photograph and replaced the Maple Leafs’ uniform with generic red stockings and sweater (with white checkerboard piping and a mys­terious “C” on the chest) and dark shorts. It also transformed the streaks on the ice in the original photograph to a shadow slightly behind the player. This gave the figure a clean “surface” to skate on and cleverly enhanced the impres­sion of movement.

Hockey legend Maurice “The Rocket” Richard owned two cardigans knitted in the Mary Maxim hockey pattern. Both were cre­ated for him by Quebec fans in the 1960s. One is an exact execution of the Mary Maxim pat­tern, colours and all. The second was custom­ized for Richard: the player on the back has the bleu, blanc, rouge colours of the Canadiens uniform and includes a rendering of the offi­cial CH crest, along with a “9” on one arm of the cardigan.

The Bee Hive Conacher image served a second Mary Maxim sweater pattern of the same era, a boys’ cardigan (#474). This time, the designers retained the figure’s original orientation and the Maple Leafs’ uniform, but they repositioned the iconic raised leg: both skates are now on the ice. The resulting figure, even perched on the tips of its skate blades, lacks the other’s élan. The leg-in-the-air Conacher-based pattern remains available in the on-line Mary Maxim catalogue; the grounded one has disappeared.

Interestingly, as if to acknowledge the design legacy of Mary Maxim’s hockey cardi­gans, the cover of pattern #474 included an image of a hockey player above the com­pany logo. It is unmistakably that of the Bee Hive Conacher image and, in an uncanny resemblance to Herman Herbert Schwartz’s first flight cachet 20 years earlier, it sports a generic sweater and is enhanced with tiers of spectators watching from behind arena boards.

Folk Art
Perhaps the most striking incarnation of the Bee Hive Conacher image is a work of folk art created in 1978. In the huge collection of Canadian folk art at the Canadian Museum of History, there are a number of works by self-taught carver Sam Spencer (1898 – 1988). Spencer was born in England, grew up in Saskatchewan, and spent the first part of his life working at various pursuits—farming, construction, furs—across North America before finally settling in Saskatoon in the early 1940s. Spencer enjoyed carving as a hobby. He specialized in fashioning “pictures” in wood relief with a simple jackknife. He reproduced calendar and advertising art, and created scenes from his own imagination depicting wildlife, Aboriginal, military, and religious subjects, and his beloved pet squirrels.

In 1978, Spencer carved the figure of a hockey player wearing a Maple Leafs’ uniform in action at centre ice, cheered on by rows of spectators, within a frame of hockey sticks, pucks, and maple leaves. The work’s official title in a 1983 exhibition at the museum was simply “Hockey Player.” The catalogue entry declared that Sam Spencer had “listened to radio broadcasts of National Hockey League games when Charlie Conacher played for the Toronto Maple Leafs.” The invoice on file for the carving identifies the piece as “Hockey Player Charlie Conacher,” but goes no further. I am convinced that neither the Museum’s purchasing agent nor the show’s curator knew that Sam Spencer’s master carving was a full-colour, nearly 3-D rendition in wood of the seminal Bee Hive Charlie Conacher photograph.

As the new Curator of Canadian Folklife at the museum in 2000, and a life-long non-sports fan, I didn’t know the carving’s derivation either. But in the years since, I’ve had occasion to curate an exhibition about Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, leaf through hockey fans’ scrapbooks, purchase a boy’s hockey cardigan at a garage sale, surf the former Postal Muse­um’s catalogue for sports-related material, and learn about Canadian knitting from Museum Research Fellow Dr. Elizabeth Kalbfleisch. In the winter of 2014, the Canadian Museum of History acquired an original copy of the Bee Hive Charlie Conacher photograph. The National Collection now houses a nearly complete run of the Bee Hive Charlie Conacher image in its different forms, showing how it echoes through the history of Canadian decorative design.

Excerpted from Fall/Winter 2014 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Sheldon Posen is Curator of Canadian Folklife at the Canadian Museum of History.

The author would like to thank Marc Juteau, Elizabeth Kalbfleisch, Gord Mallett, and Carol Steed for their assistance.


Photograph of Charlie “Big Bomber” Conacher Courtesy of the Canadian Museum of History