When I give talks about my book American Dude Ranch I mention that I started collecting dude ranch memorabilia about 10 years ago, and that I now have more than 100 items (not that I’m obsessed or anything). I thought it might be fun to showcase some of these items here, and I’ll start with a few interesting pieces of advertising.
By the early 1920s dude ranches were able to market themselves thanks to the railroad lines which snaked across the West and brought guests to the ranches: Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Burlington Northern, Santa Fe, etc. These companies put out beautiful brochures about dude ranches to help drum up business, especially for themselves, because railroads made a lot more money with tourists than they did with freight.
I’m also fascinated by the companies who used the dude ranch as a hook to sell their products. some of which had nothing to do with dude ranching.
For example, cars.
This Studebaker ad from 1938, titled “Dude Ranch Fivesome,” includes the sentence, “Whether set down in the rugged background of a dude ranch, or in the most effete driveway from Malibu to Marblehead…” Studebaker wanted to show that its 5-seater convertible could handle any sort of terrain, and when it came to rugged, the dude ranch was the first thing that came to mind. By the 1930s, dude ranches were showing up in books and movies, and more people started taking ranch vacations. If you wanted to sell any kind of consumer product, evoking the dude ranch got everyone’s attention.
Maybe you wanted to sell liniment to saddle sore dudes.
The W.F. Young company of Massachusetts had developed a horse liniment in 1892 that farmers started using on their own sore muscles, so the firm came out with a version for people which they named Absorbine, Jr. In 1939 the company’s advertising was managed by the famed J. Walter Thompson agency. In June of that year, they sent 200 sample bottles of Absorbine Jr. to Larry Larom, the owner of the large and popular Valley Ranch outside of Cody. He handed out the bottles to his dudes and also sold them in his on-site gift shop.
In 1940 the agency sent out more samples to Larom, and this time each bottle came with a pre-printed letter from an alleged cowboy named Bill. Bill touted the benefits of Absorbine, Jr. in western language that could only have been written by an east coast PR man.
Courtesy McCracken Research Library, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, Wyoming
And of course, clothing makers also got in on the act. Levi Strauss & Co., Lee, Arrow Shirts, Rockmount Ranch Wear, and many others, made dude ranch duds and went full Western in their advertising.
Finally, my favorite marketing/advertising piece in the collection is a book of paper dolls from the late 1940s. Families were taking vacations on dude ranches more often as the war years waned and the 1950s approached. So, companies that sold paper dolls made sure to hop onto that wagon.
I would wear every outfit in this book.