It didn't cause the frenzy of an American Idol, but in the 1950s, hundreds of little girls and their mothers set their sights on winning the title of Little Miss Sunbeam.
One of those little girls was Brenda Williams of Terre Haute. Today Brenda teaches writing to second graders, traveling to five elementary schools in the Vigo County School Corporation. But when she was a youngster of five growing up in Evansville, she vied for the title of Little Miss Sunbeam.
Miss Sunbeam®, the logo of Sunbeam® White Bread, was an advertising icon comparable to today's red-haired Wendy's® girl. The bread was first marketed in the Philadelphia area in 1942. After the World War II, many bakers across the United States began to bake and distribute Sunbeam Bread as members of the Quality Bakers of America Cooperative.
The image of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl that we still see on the package today was created by children's book illustrator Ellen Segner in 1942 as she watched a similar child playing in a park. During the 1940s through the 1960s, Segner produced more than 30 original oil paintings of Miss Sunbeam that were used to advertise the bread brand.
To bring Little Miss Sunbeam to life, various bakers of Sunbeam Bread across the country held contests during the 1950s and 1960s to find wholesome, happy little girls who looked just like the girl on the bread package. The winners represented the product at fairs and other events around the region. One such contest was held in 1953 by Purity Bakery of Evansville.
Brenda's family always ate Sunbeam Bread, Brenda said. "It was a standard in the '50s." Hearing about the Miss Sunbeam contest, her mother noted the resemblance to her 5-year-old daughter, and knew that being a hairdresser she could make Brenda look exactly like the girl on the package.
"My mother pin-curled my hair into the style of the little girl on the bread wrapper," Brenda said, "I don't remember for sure, but I think she must have had someone make the dress, because it looks so much like the dress on the little girl. We had my photo taken by Nance Photography in Evansville and sent it in for the contest. I looked a lot like the girl on the package."
Apparently the folks at Purity Bakery agreed, because the photo secured Brenda a place in the competition. "We went there and I remember holding up the bread and smiling, all dressed up in my Sunbeam dress and with my hair in curls."
The photo came to light last summer when Brenda decided to create a family cookbook for her son and daughter, now grown and on their own. She illustrated the cookbook with photos, including the one of herself as Miss Sunbeam. Williams' children decided to make copies of the photo to decorate Brenda's 60th birthday party.
Bob Baesler, owner of Baesler's Market at 29th and Poplar in Terre Haute, was at the party and was intrigued by the photo. "I stock Sunbeam Bread and not that many stores do. That picture of Brenda looked just like the little girl on the package," Baesler said.
Unfortunately for Brenda and her mother, the judges chose another girl as the Purity Bakery winner. Of course everyone in Brenda's family agreed that she looked much more like Miss Sunbeam than the winner. "After that we always said that the girl who won must have known somebody'," Brenda joked.
Brenda Williams never found out what it was like to be a brand icon, and that may be just as well. An attempt to track down other winners of the Miss Sunbeam contests found at least one little girl who didn't like it very much. In 1955 at age five, Patty Michaels was selected as Little Miss Sunbeam for a baker in the New York area. Patty soon tired of her Sunbeam duties, which included numerous personal appearances and strict oversight of her public image. She told her mother she didn't want to do it anymore. Her mother said she didn't have to, so she quit. Patty went on to become something of a child star, landing a part as one of the von Trapp children in the original Broadway production of "The Sound of Music."
Brenda said she never really gave much thought to what her life might have been like if she had become Miss Sunbeam. But the contest did become a cherished family memory. "It's one of those things that you do in your childhood that stands out and you never forget," Brenda said. To this day her family still uses Sunbeam Bread, a fact her friend Bob Baesler was happy to find out about!