Native Americans in Beer Advertising - a Look at Beer History

From time to time, I like to throw a little history your way.  Most of what you read regarding the history  of beer culture is about as valuable as your Uncle Charlie espousing his theory on how to fix the national debt, handle ISIS, or turn the Bears into a dynasty. Roll your eyes and move on.

In truth, I could write 50 pages on the history of American beer culture without blinking an eye.  I spent about 16 weeks of graduate school preparing a paper titled, “A Pint of Liberty” (seem familiar?) and my passion for researching the topic continues. In fact, it fascinates me. But, I don’t want to bore you. Instead, I will just provide a few little interesting history tidbits here and there. I hope you enjoy.

The history of beer in America can be looked at three different ways:

1) The history of the beer and brewing (this is akin to looking at different cars throughout the decades).

2) The effect of beer on America, such as the development of pubs, it’s connection to baseball; Superbowl ads; and things of that nature (similar to relating cars to the development of interstates, motels, oil production, and fuzzy dice production.)

3) Using beer as a lens with which to view broader aspects of American history (similar to relating fast food to consumerism, two-income families, urbanism, and fast-paced living).

So, now that we have that out of the way, let me take you through door number three and discuss the use of Native American imagery and my view of its purpose.

Let’s start in 1910:


Notice how the Native American chief is glorified for valor and wisdom. Budweiser praises the chief and then proclaims its product has essentially risen to the level of the noble Native American.

Anheuser-Busch must have thought very highly of Native Americans, right? Wrong.

This ad also ran in 1910:


In a huge contrast from the previous ad. Budweiser now notes the benefits of defeating the stubborn red man — the very one they championed in previous ad — in order to get the means necessary with which to harvest barley for Budweiser.

(By the way, “hops grown in the Old World” was fine to say in 1910, but four years later when WWI started….not so much.)

So, in 1910, the idea of describing Native Americans as a red men was deemed acceptable and normal.  Also, in both cases, the Natives are noted as warriors. More importantly, Budweiser needed to attach its product with the idea of the American spirit and nothing does that greater than talking about Native Americans. Native American imagery invokes ideas of colonial America, taming the frontier, and cowboys – all part of the American lexicon.

By the way, notice it says, “St. Louis, U.S.A.” Why not Missouri? I’ll let you ponder that. More on that another time.

After WWII and during the early stages of the Cold War, many beer advertisers relied heavily on promoting their beer as a “truly American product” and “examples of freedom and progress.”  The term “red man” remained, but it was the fear of “red communists” that inspired most ads. As such, the rise of Native American symbolism within beer advertising resurfaced.

In this 1947 ad, Anheuser-Busch presented an incredibly inaccurate depiction of Thanksgiving and…well, everything else in the picture.


Chants? Tom-Toms? No. Native Americans of the first Thanksgiving did not beat on Tom-Toms. I won’t even get into the fact that the picture clearly shows Aztecs, or maybe Incas. Did the Pilgrims land in what is now modern day Mexico? I don’t think so.

Notice that Budweiser claims, in 1947, that the red man would marvel at the use of corn in Budweiser beer. In other words, Budweiser uses a truly American product that dates back to the Pilgrims and modern day beer demonstrates the magnificence of an advanced society. In other words, to drink a Bud is to embrace America (or Mexico, perhaps. It’s hard to tell from the image).

Finally, let’s go to Hamm’s TV commercial during the early 1950s:

Yet, again, it is obvious that disparaging imagery of Native Americans in the 1950s seemed completely reasonable. Granted, the Native American’s ability to make rain bests the bear, but they still show him as savage, beating drums, and tribal. However, we see again how Native American imagery (and promoting beer that uses America’s amazing natural resources) intends to connect beer to the essence of America.

In the end, beer makers throughout America’s history have routinely remarked on “how American they are.”  Native American symbolism is just one of many ways beer makers have chosen to accomplish that feat. Even today, Budweiser’s “brewed the hard way” campaign is riddled with a “we are more American than craft brewers” message — watch closely, you’ll see it. 

Thanks for letting me be a historian for a day.  My next post will involve my “research” at a brewery; one beer at a time.



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