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Bee Hive hockey photos that inspired Howe, Hull celebrated in new book

Tracing history of collectibles that sparked dreams of reaching NHL

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

He was a hero in uniform, trudging through the snow right to the doorstep, arriving for 34 winters through a global depression, a world war and then peacetime, during the days of eight, then six NHL teams.

In this mailman's satchel might be an envelope from the St. Lawrence Starch Co. Ltd. of Port Credit, Ontario. How could a young fan not worship the man who delivered fantastic photographs of their favorite, larger-than-life NHL stars?

For generations of Canadian young players from 1934-68, there was nothing quite like a black-and-white Bee Hive hockey picture. Certainly not for those who poured Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup over their porridge and toast until their teeth ached, or scoured the trash for mail-in labels on carelessly discarded Bee Hive cans.

Just ask Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Hull, who as a boy rummaged through garbage piles in tiny Point Anne, Ontario, in search of a Bee Hive "proof of purchase." The late Gordie Howe would speak with great fondness of his 180 boyhood Bee Hives, and the devastation he would feel when a relative trashed his collection.

During his NHL career, Hull would be featured on seven Bee Hives, more than any other player; Howe appeared on four.


Co-authors Aubrey Ferguson (left) and Don Pillar poured their love of Bee Hives into a book celebrating the historic hockey photo promotion.

 

Now comes a labor-of-love celebration of Bee Hives co-authored by Don Pillar, a retired teacher, and Aubrey Ferguson, a retired consumer marketer and businessman, both members of the Society for International Hockey Research. 

Their self-published book, "The Golden Years: Bee Hive Golden Corn Syrup Hockey Picture Promotion 1934-68," is a glorious, 296-page coffee-table album tour of the most successful consumer promotion in Canadian history.

Pillar and Ferguson first met 20 years ago to discuss their Bee Hive collections and would reconnect at a collectibles show some years later, both looking to add to their stock.

"When you're at a show, it's a competitive thing," Ferguson recently told SIHR writer and author Greg Oliver.

The two men agreed to stay in touch, primarily as resources for their Bee Hive hunt, Pillar by then entertaining thoughts of a book to chart the history, challenges and joy of Bee Hive collecting. At a SIHR meeting in 2015, he and Ferguson moved their project forward.


The inaugural 10-player Bee Hive Series 1 from 1933-34 (left), and the 12 Toronto Maple Leafs featured the following year.

 

"I had talked about doing a Bee Hive book for the longest time and I was picking away at it, getting it sorted out," Pillar said. "Aubrey and I were talking and he said, 'Well, let's do it together.' " 

Nearly a half-century after the promotion's end, it was a daunting task. 

Their lavishly illustrated book includes images of all 1,025 Bee Hives that were produced during the promotion's lifetime, as well as a massive array of advertising, trivia and related Bee Hive premiums. The bulk of the advertising is from Pillar's collection, with context and rich detail provided by Ferguson.

"Our styles blended, and it was a better document than either of us could have written by ourselves," Ferguson said. 

Other collectors contributed knowledge and images; thus, every Bee Hive ever made, and a great deal more, is reproduced in these pages.

At a glance, a Bee Hive pales beside today's high-gloss, slick hockey cards. But in the hearts of those whose only connection to the game might have been a scratchy radio broadcast and a newspaper summary, a Bee Hive was, and is, sweeter and more golden than the syrup it cost.


Bee Hive tie clip and ring premiums, introduced in 1949 (left) and 1950s and '60s two-pound cans of the corn syrup, the cardboard collars atop each redeemable through the mail for hockey photos.

 

With traditional hockey cards appearing erratically from cigarette and chewing-gum companies in the 1930s and '40s, Bee Hives often were the only scrapbook-worthy photos a youngster could collect.

Three series or sets of Bee Hives were produced -- 1934-45, 1947-64 and 1964-68, the final series featuring a woodgrain border. The promotion, which was suspended between 1945-47 because of wartime restrictions, a corn shortage and then a strike, ended in the fall of 1967 upon the NHL expansion from six to 12 teams. Redemption mailings into the spring of 1968 included a letter explaining the demise was because of rising endorsement fees and the cost of photography, postage and administration. In all, 604 NHL players had been featured over 34 years.

At 4¼ by 6¾ inches, mounted on a larger color matte, every player's picture a vertical except for eight horizontals of goalies, the photos were a stroke of marketing genius for the St. Lawrence Starch Co., which produced Bee Hive and various corn oils and food and laundry starches for a century until it was bought in 1989 by U.S. interests.

Bee Hive became Canada's largest-selling corn syrup in the 1930s, its sales quadrupling during its photo promotion. At its peak, more than 2,500 photos were mailed daily from the St. Lawrence business office.

Getting a Bee Hive photo was a simple matter, if one that involved a stamp and a major sugar rush: a collar off the top of a two-pound can -- which contained almost 4,200 calories of liquid gold -- earned a single photo that you chose from a checklist of players; a token from a five-pound can, and its more than 10,000 calories, was worth two pictures.


From left, all Series 2: Gordie Howe's first Bee Hive appearance, 1948-49; Dave Keon, 1960-61; Jean Beliveau, 1953-54.

 

In his 2014 autobiography, "Mr. Hockey: My Story," Howe nostalgically recalled his boyhood Bee Hive roots, saying he foraged collars off the cans in the pantries of neighbors, working odd jobs to earn money to buy the three-cent stamps to mail them in. 

If the starch company didn't deliver the Bee Hive photo Howe had requested, he'd receive by default one of popular Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Turk Broda. He'd immediately trade it with Saskatoon friends to fill out his collection while wondering "if someday a kid would ask for a Bee Hive photo of Gordie Howe." 

On Oct. 16, 1946, Howe scored the first of his 801 NHL goals, in his first NHL game. It came against Broda, who with Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice Richard was the only player featured in all three Bee Hive series.


A 1962 Bee Hive scribbler, one of many premiums offered through the promotion.

 

"The Golden Years" chronicles feuding corn-syrup companies, other promotions that marketed their own Bee Hive-like photo sets and Bee Hive's partnership and sponsorship of radio and TV broadcasts. It explores the promotion widening, with its post-war popularity soaring, to include rings, dress pins, tie clips, NHL guides, crests, skate sharpeners and lined exercise-book scribblers for school. 

There were Bee Hives of coaches, broadcasters, trophies, war planes and ships, British royalty, Olympians, Canada's famous Dionne quintuplets and even a plaque to celebrate Canadian prime ministers. But Bee Hive is best remembered, by far, for hockey pictures.

The authors' exhaustive study begins with a look at the St. Lawrence Starch Co. and the genesis of its inspired promotion, moves chronologically through each series and concludes with a post-promotion epilogue and appendices of unconfirmed and unlisted pictures. 

More than 700 Bee Hive fakes made their way to market over the years, counterfeiters realizing and exploiting the value of the brand.


The Nov. 1, 1961 Bee Hive player list, erroneously listing Guy Rousseau for his Montreal Canadiens brother, Bobby, and the Detroit Red Wings featured in Series 3 of 1964-65, with a woodgrain border.

 

"Doing it year by year, we were able to tie in what was happening in history, the social events of that time," Ferguson said of the book's layout. "So it becomes a bit of a Canadian history as well as a Bee Hive hockey promotion."

And what a grand promotion it was. For just a proof of purchase, a young person could score a Squee Allen, Eberhardt Heller or Zellio Toppazzini -- or more likely a Boom-Boom Geoffrion, Dave Keon or Terry Sawchuk.

All these decades later, Bee Hives remain a cherished piece of Canadiana from a simpler time. As almost a vanity project, authors Pillar and Ferguson have published a wonderful addition to the hockey library, the celebration of a promotion that helped kids, eager for the mailman's next visit, through their long, frostbitten winters.

For more on the book, which is available only through the authors' website: beehivegoldenyears.com

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