Atlanta Marketing Man Searches for Lost Sign from Knoxville’s Past

Atlanta Marketing Man Seeks Giant Ice Cream Cone Boy on Ladder

This story begins at my B2B marketing agency in Atlanta, among hundreds of advertising characters. Anybody who knows me knows I have a thing for vintage advertising, especially circa ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. I amassed quite a collection of original poster prints, advertising figures, and even full-size billboards over the years, and many are still on display throughout the shelves and walls of our Atlanta marketing agency. Classic advertising mascots smile at me daily, from Speedy Alka-Seltzer and Toucan Sam to the dapper Coronet Man and striding Johnny Walker. A 20 ft. bathing beauty from Jantzen adorns one of our walls.

Moving on to where my story unfolds…at a Social Media Marketing Conference in Knoxville, TN

An Atlanta Marketing Man Comes Home to Knoxville, TN

Several years ago, I attended the first of several Social Media Marketing Conferences in Knoxville, Tennessee, called “Social Slam.” My friend, Mark Schaefer, was the originator of these gatherings when almost every marketing professional on Earth needed to know more about social media marketing. Each event drew well-known speakers and representatives from national and local brands. It got more prominent each year until Mark decided he either needed to quit everything else he was doing to keep it going and growing OR end it on a high note, which he eventually decided to do.

I really enjoyed those Social Slam events; each year, a whole team from our agency would attend. What I enjoyed most was returning to the city of my birth, Knoxville, Tennessee for the first time in decades.

Even though I grew up in Atlanta, my childhood memories of Knoxville are etched in my mind. My father’s father, William Mitchell (I’m named after him), was a city bus driver in Knoxville. His many years behind the wheel dated back to when most cities had cable cars, and he drove those, too.

In the early sixties, my parents would send my siblings from Atlanta to our grandparents’ house in Knoxville, Tennessee for couple of weeks each summer.

Work starts way before sunrise for a city bus driver. And sometimes Pa* would wake me up before dawn and take me and my big brother with him on the big city bus. He picked up hundreds of people on their way to work each shift, and I thought he must’ve been the most well-known and well-liked man in town. It was fun to ride the bus with him in his uniform and hat, see the sites around Knoxville as the sun came up, and watch people from every walk of life getting on and off the bus. We’d stop for a quick lunch downtown and again on the way back to the depot for moon pies and RC Colas.

But I digress. There’s a reason I told you all about my interest in vintage advertising, marketing conferences, and riding the bus all around Knoxville.

When I returned to Knoxville for the first Social Slam Conference, I met a friendly guy from the Knoxville Historical Society. I asked him about something I vividly remembered from childhood that was no longer around. In the early sixties, in Knoxville, you couldn’t go far without passing Kay’s Ice Cream. And you knew it when you saw it because every location had a GIANT ICE CREAM CONE out front. Even more memorable, each cone had a ladder beside it and a kid in overalls wearing a “Jug Head hat” at the top of the ladder getting a lick of the ice cream. The Historical Society guy remembered the giant ice cream cones, not the ladder or the kid. Did I dream it? No way.

He even sent me some vintage black and white photos of the old signs, but none with the giant boy on the ladder in them. I went on a Google quest, looking for anything I could find to prove my memory wasn’t a figment of my imagination, and nowhere did any evidence exist. So, I gave up at the time.

Quite a while later, I was talking to someone who shared my fondness for old advertising when those old Kay’s Ice Cream signs popped back into my head. So, I googled it again, thinking all I would find were the same images I had already seen – with no kid on a ladder.

This time I went deep into an image search and to my surprise and delight, there he was. On the ladder. Licking the cone and wearing the Jug Head hat.

Mystery solved. Memory confirmed.

*We called my father’s parents Ma and Pa as a kind of family joke because it was funny to us and still is to me.

I prefer to write my own stories relying on first-hand experience rather than AI assistance. Like everyone else I know in marketing, I am trying to learn as much as I can about how AI can help us improve our work quality and efficiency. One area I’m discovering AI useful is for search. Or should I say research?

For example, I couldn’t find anything interesting about the vintage ice cream sign on Google, but a ChatGPT question prompt got this result:

Me: Who designed the signs for Kay’s Ice Cream with the big ice cream cone and the boy on the ladder licking the ice cream?

ChatGPT: The designer or specific individual responsible for creating the iconic Kay’s Ice Cream signs featuring a big ice cream cone and a boy on a ladder licking the ice cream is not directly mentioned in the available sources.

However, it’s noted that the signs, particularly the one with the big cone and representations of children, were significant to the brand and recognized as iconic symbols of Kay’s Ice Cream. These signs were so cherished that even when businesses changed, the new owners often chose to keep the signs due to their iconic status. For example, in Maryville, the big cone sign remained at a location even after the business there changed to “Sweet Sensations”​​.

Furthermore, the Library of Congress houses a photograph of the Kay’s Ice Cream sign in Knoxville, Tennessee, as part of the John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive. This suggests that the sign is considered a noteworthy example of American roadside signage, although the archive does not provide specific information about the designer​​.

For more detailed history or potentially discovering the designer, it might be worthwhile to explore the John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive at the Library of Congress or local historical societies in Knoxville, Tennessee, where Kay’s Ice Cream was a well-known establishment.

I learned something new. I hope you did too. And the photo of the ice cream sign is courtesy of the Library of Congress archive mentioned above.

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