Retail

Package Deal: In 1957, Dutch Gold decided to put its honey in a squeezable bear, and forever reshaped the honey aisle

They tried not to copy Winnie the Pooh. Then everyone copied them.
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Joseph Devenney/Getty Images

· 4 min read

A package protects, promotes, and sets a product apart. This new feature looks at how iconic packages took shape.

Honey bear

  • Introduced: 1957
  • Design concept: Luella and Ralph Gamber
  • Material: Plastic

Honey, I’m home: It all began in 1946, when Ralph Gamber, an Armour meat salesman in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, returned home with three beehives he bought for $27 at an auction. Not an ideal scenario, perhaps, for his wife, Luella, who was allergic to bee stings and bee pollen, but she still signed on with their plan to start a modest side business: Dutch Gold Honey.

By 1957, the honey business was ticking along, although not so well that Ralph didn’t keep working as a meat salesman. One evening they had another couple over to dinner, Rita and Woodrow Miller, also beekeepers, who were visiting from California. The conversation turned to the topic of whether there was a honey package that might get more—what else?—buzz.

“We just figured a bear likes honey, why not a bear of honey?” Ralph Gamber told the Associated Press in 1997. The ursine-honey association was particularly resonant because the legacy of A.A. Milne, who’d written four popular books featuring Winnie the Pooh, had been celebrated when he died the previous year, in 1956, at age 74.

The Gambers acknowledged that Winnie the Pooh was an inspiration, but as they began designs on the container, they didn’t want to replicate the character.

“We made it look as different as possible,” Ralph told AP. “We thought we’d be sued.” (Not that it would have been a defense in court, but the original honey bear, inexplicably, had six toes.)

That fear of legal action may have been why the Gambers never patented the honey bear, which debuted in 1957. It was (and still is) a family business, with their young daughters, Marianne and Nancy, painting the noses and eyes of the bears. The honey-bear package was a hit, and it was the business boost they’d been hoping for.

The next year, 1958, Ralph Gamber finally left his day job.

Plastic surgery: It was still early days for plastic-packaging technology, especially squeezable plastic, like the honey bear. A company called Sqeezits made a tomato-shaped ketchup dispenser in 1952, that by 1954, had sold 2.9 million units, according to a contemporaneous court case. In the early 1950s, British designer Bill Pugh created a lemon-shaped squeeze bottle for lemon juice that is still prominent in the supermarket refrigerator aisle today.

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But back in 1957, like so many new to a job, the honey bear just couldn’t seem to keep it together. It was common early on, Dutch Gold itself reports, for the bears to leak out of their ears, where there was a seam, or, anthropomorphically enough, out of their noses.

Go figure: The honey bear helped pave the way for other packages in the shape of characters. One popular branded example was the Nestlé Nesquik bunny-shaped squeezable bottle, now discontinued and a collectors’ item. Also no longer with us are a Mr. Bubble-shaped dispenser that got Gen X in a lather in the 1970s, and many Avon bubble-bath characters, some dating back even further, including Mickey Mouse, various Peanuts characters, and E.T. Still with us is Mrs. Butterworth’s, but perhaps not for long, because some associate it with harmful racial stereotypes and Conagra reportedly is reconsidering the future of the brand (but taking its own sweet time).

Follow the honey: In 2010, the National Honey Board put the jar at the center of a campaign, Save the Endangered Honey Bear. The aim was to raise awareness about honey look-alikes that are honey that has been diluted with cheaper syrups or, worse, is just honey-flavored and colored.

As unlikely as the photo-illustration for the campaign was—a photo of an adorable honey bear with “Endangered” stamped diagonally across it—the problem of what’s sometimes called “honey laundering” is all too real. Honey is the third most likely food to be faked or adulterated, behind milk and olive oil, according to Insider.

Containment strategy: Because Dutch Gold didn’t patent the design, it had no recourse when, shortly after it debuted the package in 1957, other brands started selling their product in honey bears, too. But Ralph Gamber did manage to monetize it by starting a second business, Gamber Container, which sells many types of glass and plastic containers including, of course, honey bears.

There are seven different models today, and most, unlike the original design, have a flattened-out section in the front and back to accommodate labels. Available in various sizes, they call the design Panel Bear.

But there’s just one model that harkens back to the original design, as sweet and full as a life well-lived: Round Belly Bear.

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