Solving a 1938 Sawyer Biscuit Cabinet Mystery and Adding One to the Checklist
1938 Sawyer Biscuit Cabinets Overview
The 1938 Sawyer Biscuit Cabinet set was a unique set of photographs distributed by the Sawyer Biscuit Company. You can read more about them here but, essentially, they were black and white/sepia style photographs inside of a makeshift frame.
In exchange for a coupon from the company’s Sawyer Butter Cookies set and ten cents, a collector could receive one of the photos of their choosing. Players on the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox (the only two teams included in the set) were the primary choices.
Even though options were limited to those two teams, there were several stars to pursue. For the Cubs, there was the popular Dizzy Dean as well as Gabby Hartnett, Billy Herman, and Tony Lazzeri. All, of course, were Hall of Famers. The White Sox also had a pair of Hall of Famers, including Ted Lyons and Luke Appling.
However, collectors had two other options – Bob Elson and a mysterious person named ‘Babs.’ Babs’ identity has long since been unknown but recently, I’ve discovered the likely person.
Bob Elson’s Involvement and the Introduction of ‘Babs’
Bob Elson was a famous Chicago broadcaster. He covered all sorts of things but was quickly picked up as a broadcaster for both the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox. As if calling games for two baseball teams wasn’t enough, Elson also called Chicago Bears football contests.
Like many people, his professional career was halted by the war. He served in the Navy during World War II and when he came back, he eventually became the White Sox’ exclusive announcer for a while working elsewhere.
One great tie of Elson with the company is that, while he was a Chicago native, he actually got his start in broadcasting with a St. Louis radio station (by accident, actually). A few years before that, Sawyer Biscuit actually merged with a company in St. Louis called Union Biscuit to form the United Biscuit Company of America. That company then changed its name to a more recognizable company to folks today – Keebler.
Elson was heavily involved in the promotion as a spokesperson of sorts, it seemed. When collectors sent away for a photo, they received a signed letter from him. The letter, seen here (previously in the collection of Net54’s Leon Luckey) encouraged consumers to send in more coupons and more money to select additional photos. The pictures of the Cubs and White Sox players was of course mentioned first, but he also states that portraits of himself are also available.
Finally, pictures of someone named ‘Babs’ could be had as well.
While Babs was no doubt known to Chicagoans at the time, her identity may not have been heavily known outside of the area. And as time went by, the mystery of who exactly this was never really went away.
This irked me for a while and I couldn’t quite figure out who ‘Babs’ was. But after running some searches, I’m 99% sure I’ve found the answer from and old postcard pictured here.
The postcard features Elson standing in front of a microphone facing a woman named Dolores ‘Babs’ Gillen. The date of production on the postcard is 1937, which, for good measure, places it right at the same time period as the Sawyer Biscuit photos.
In addition, there is no doubt that this is the same Bob Elson as the one mentioned in the promotion as the signatures in both the postcard and the letter match up.
So who was Gillen?
Well, turns out she was a broadcast partner of sorts for Elson. She did not call baseball games with him from what I can find, but the pair did work together in the Chicago area and were apparently well known enough that Sawyer Biscuit included her in the set.
They are cited here as working together on something called the ‘State Street’ interview program. The program aired at a location named the Palmer House but was being moved to the Chicago Theater entrance. The postcard actually calls Elson ‘The Man on State Street.’
While working with Elson in Chicago, though, she was somewhat of a national figure as her obituary here mentions. That states that she was ‘known nationally for her character portrayals’ and that she worked with several radio stars including Elson, Bing Crosby, and Don Ameche.
The postcard further ties both Elson and Gillen to the promotion. Turns out, these were mailed to listeners of their radio show who did not have their questions answered on air, as is indicated in a canned typed response. The postcard states that readers should not only try again with another question but also states that they should try Sawyer Butter Cookies (the products where the Sawyer Biscuit photos were offered) as well as other Sawyer Biscuit products, including their Saltines and Honey Graams.The postcards, in fact, appear tied to the set. They not only reference the product but as stated earlier, were sent out postmarked in 1937.
Okay … But Where are the Babs Sawyer Biscuit Photos?
One of the reasons the identity of Babs was unknown to this point was because her Sawyer Biscuit photo has not been found. To date I’ve not seen one or even heard of one. She has not been checklisted in the Standard Catalog or any other resources I have ever found.
But then again, given the overall scarcity of the Sawyer Biscuit issues, I’m not sure that should really be a surprise.
Think about it – First, it was a regional promotion limited to Chicago and there simply aren’t many of these around. Second, it wasn’t a basic redemption program where collectors mailed in coupons. They had to send in money for each one. And while a dime might not sound like much by today’s standards, I’m not sure how many people there would have been paying for these (let alone going through the trouble of buying the product to get a coupon) when that equated to much more than today.
Finally, and most importantly, consider Babs’ identity. For the collectors that were local and willing to buy a picture, how many would have selected the broadcaster? She may have been known to collectors but about the only reason a baseball collector would have wanted her photo is if he was a really big fan or to complete a set. I’m not even sure that many would have selected Elson, let alone his less famous partner (who, by the way, didn’t appear to have any ties to the teams). Most likely, collectors would have flocked towards the bigger names and passed on the likes of Elson and Gillen.
So with Babs’ identity now known, I would argue that her photo should be included in the formal checklist of the set. She was mentioned in the letter as an option and, while many of her photos may not have been produced, it’s safe to say that at least some likely existed.
If they weren’t distributed, should she still be included in the checklist? Maybe not. The general rule of checklisting, after all, is not to add an issue until it is confirmed to have been distributed. But as a subject that was advertised, it is likely that at some time, somewhere, Sawyer Biscuit photos of Gillen did in fact exist. If so, that would bring the known checklist of these from 47 to 48.