Wide eyes stare out from countless store shelves and inside cupboards in millions of American homes. The angelic face of an adorable infant is an instantly recognized icon for the baby food and accessories manufacturer Gerber Products Company – but just who is the individual behind the famous face?
Gerber set up shop a century ago in Fremont, Michigan in 1927. Founder Daniel Frank Gerber already owned a canning company, but when his daughter, Sally, came along he spotted a gap in the market for canned baby food. The new company needed a logo to help brand its product, so in 1928 it turned to the general public for their help. Gerber held a competition, asking people to submit pictures or suggestions to be considered as the new face of its products – and someone in a north-eastern state took them literally.
In November 1926, a family in Connecticut welcomed a beautiful bouncing baby girl. Ann Turner Cook was a wide-eyed infant with a seemingly permanent curious expression etched on her cherubic face – an adorable look which caught the attention of an artistic family friend and Westport neighbor.
Commercial artist Dorothy Hope Smith made a rough charcoal sketch of Ann, capturing the cuteness of her friend’s new baby when she was about four months old. With sparkling eyes, long lashes and an inquisitive gaping rosebud mouth she was irresistible, and Smith had the talent to create a fetching likeness.
Initially just meant as a family memento, the unfinished sketch was carefully kept as a memory to be treasured. It was only a year later when Gerber launched its contest to find an image to front its marketing strategy that the picture was remembered. Smith sent her unfinished portrait of the beautiful baby Ann to Fremont for consideration.
Despite only being an initial sketch Gerber loved the image just as it was. They picked Smith’s picture as the winner, without even asking the artist to complete the drawing, preferring it to be simple and straightforward. Smith won $300 in the competition and relinquished her rights to the image. And it wouldn’t be long before the artist saw a whole lot more of her simple sketch.
The distinctive baby picture was placed on thousands of Gerber products and featured in its advertising nationwide. The sketch of the cherub-cheeked sweetheart was confirmed as the official trademark of the company in 1931, but the identity of the baby behind the face was kept a secret.
But why? It was suggested that the big wigs at Gerber were keen to keep the name of the famous baby fronting their products under wraps for commercial reasons. They felt that the curiosity surrounding the child’s identity helped to build interest and intrigue around the Gerber brand.
Rumors ranged from the likeness being Sally, the boss’ daughter, to even belonging to a Hollywood legend. It was suggested that the baby could have been Humphrey Bogart or Elizabeth Taylor, pictured as infants before they grew up to hit the big time. It wouldn’t be until years later that these theories were found not to be true.
The lack of recognition of the famous face started to cause headaches for Gerber. With no name assigned to the angelic child on their products, members of the public were free to claim that it was their likeness represented on the packaging – and the fame and money that went with it.
In 1950, decades after first featuring the image, Gerber received a false claim from a nuisance litigator saying that they had in fact been the baby used so widely by the brand, and demanding financial compensation for its usage.
Gerber knew, of course, that the claim wasn’t true. There was only one original baby – Ann Turner Cook. The company paid a lump settlement to the star of that charcoal sketch, now in her twenties, to secure both her silence and to thwart any further bogus claims to the satisfaction of any court.
So the now grown-up baby and the people behind the Gerber brand kept quiet and the name of the infant remained a mystery to the public. It was to be almost half a century after her face first appeared, that Gerber revealed the identity behind the face as Ann Turner Cook to celebrate the logo’s 50th anniversary.
The world was only just putting a name to the face, but Cook says that she had been aware all along. In an interview with CBS News in 2014, she said: “I probably was about three years old when Mother pointed out the baby food jar and said that was my picture, and I thought it was quite a lovely thing!”
Despite her likeness being used and known as a national icon for almost a century, Cook didn’t make a fortune from her face. In fact, the only money she received from Gerber was from the settlement in 1950, which was enough to allow her to put a deposit on a small home and buy a car.
Going on to become a teacher and later a mystery writer, Cook is now 90 years old and is a great grandmother but she is still known as the Gerber baby – especially to her proud family. She says that when in the baby food aisles in supermarkets, her children would often stop and draw the attention of fellow shoppers to her image and exclaim, “That’s my mother!”.
Cook isn’t giving up on being the Gerber baby any time soon – but nevertheless she enjoyed judging a contest to find a new angel-faced infant to also represent the brand. Mary Jane Montoya, an eight-month-old from Fresno in California, took the prize and appeared in television advertisements for Gerber the following year. However, it remains Cook’s iconic face from all those years ago that flutters on a flag outside the company’s H.Q. in Fremont.
Gerber is sure that without Cook, it may not have enjoyed the success it has seen in the last 100 years. Marilyn Knox, chief executive of Gerber, says that she has no doubt about the positive impact that Cook’s image has had. Neither does she underestimate the meaning the logo holds for parents, stating to CBS News, “You don’t even have to have the word Gerber on it. That face is honored as we’re doing the best for our child.”
So Cook’s role as the Gerber baby has not been forgotten, even after all this time. The brand’s publicity people celebrate the anniversaries of both the trademark and the woman behind it. Gerber posted a congratulatory message across social media for Cook’s 90th birthday in 2016, showing its little baby all grown-up celebrating her big day surrounded by her children and their spouses.
Seeing the photos of the happy event, it’s easy to see why Ann Turner Cook was chosen as the Gerber baby. Even at 90 years of age, her eyes still seem to gleam as brightly as they shone when she was sketched in charcoal at just four months old for the image that still proudly represents Gerber baby products.