In 1937, Schenley Distilleries acquired the Bernheim Distillery and the I.W. Harper brand. The brand had been popular in the days before Prohibition and was the flagship brand for Bernheim Bros. They had marketed the brand with slogans such as “From small acorns, huge oaks grow”, “The Gold Medal Bourbon” and ‘The Prosperity whiskey”. Schenley also wanted to make I.W. Harper one of their flagship brands but decided that it needed a new image. Their new theme for I.W. Harper was the “Hospitality Bourbon”. To complete this image, they created the “Bowing Man”. It was probably an homage to the “Striding Man” used by Johnny Walker. Like Johnny Walker’s Striding Man, the Bowing Man appeared in much of the advertising done for I.W. Harper.
Dressed in a coat with tails and a cane while tipping his top hat to a bottle or glass of I.W. Harper Bourbon, the Bowing Man helped create an image of not only hospitality, but also sophistication, elegance and quality. The Bowing Man appeared in print advertisements in the late 1930s and became popular with consumers. Soon, The Bowing Man was placed on everything dealing with I.W. Harper. There were items such as glassware and bar trays with the Bowing Man. In 1955, Schenley introduced the first ceramic decanters of the Bowing Man. They came in two color schemes – Blue trousers and grey trousers. Later came an all-white version of the Bowing Man and as rewards to top sales people, a gold colored ceramic Bowing Man. My favorite Bowing Man was a billboard located near Taylor Blvd. on the Waterson Expressway here in Louisville during the 1960s. It had the Bowing Man who would bow and tip his hat to the people driving on the expressway.
In the early 1960s, Schenley made I.W. Harper their flagship brand for export markets. Print ads and bar trays featured the Bowing Man tipping his hat to the slogan “The only Bourbon enjoyed in 110 countries”. The brand met with moderate success in most overseas markets, but grew particularly popular in Japan.
While Bourbon sales were declining in the United States in the 1970s, exports of I.W. Harper were growing in Japan. Schenley was getting a premium price for bottles of I.W. Harper in Japan and this led to a problem for the company. People were purchasing cases of I.W. Harper in America where the price of all Bourbon was artificially low due to overproduction and taking them back to Japan. Even after paying the duties on the whiskey entering Japan, these people could still sell the bottles at a profit while underselling the Bourbon being imported by Schenley. To solve this problem, Schenley took the brand out of the United States market in the 1980s. It was an “export only” market brand for a couple of decades.
The company that is now Diageo acquired Schenley in 1987. The “powers that be” decided that the Bowing Man was no longer the image they wanted for I.W. Harper and phased him out of their advertising in Japan, the largest market for the brand. Soon, the Bowing Man was just a memory. In the 21st century, Diageo brought I.W. Harper back to the domestic market. I have not seen much advertisement for the brand and what I have seen does not include the “Bowing Man’. I do hope that Diageo considers bringing him back if they do begin advertising the brand.
Photos courtesy of Rosemary Miller and Michael Veach