12 May ‘Happy Bear’ Signs
By Debra Jane Seltzer
The Bear Manufacturing Company was established in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1917 as an auto luggage rack producer. The company used the slogan “Let Bear Lug Your Luggage.” Although it is not known where the Bear name came from, it is thought that the animal was chosen to convey strength. A more realistic bear was used in early advertising.
By the early 1920s, Bear began producing wheel alignment tools. During this time, the company developed the yellow “Happy Bear” character which was used in print and signs across the United States. The bear symbol indicated that those auto shops had been trained by Bear and used Bear wheel alignment and diagnostic tools. By the late 1920s, the company was training mechanics from all over the country at its Rock Island headquarters.
The training school was a popular destination for servicemen returning from World War II who were interested in learning a trade and starting their own businesses. In response to the demand, a Streamline Moderne building was constructed in 1949 specifically for the Bear Automotive Safety Service School. At the time, the company was training around 1,000 mechanics annually. While the two neon bear signs are gone from the facade, the building still stands.
The Happy Bear is also referred to as the “Laughing Bear” or the “Dancing Bear.” The Grateful Dead rock band used a slightly modified, dancing version of the bear logo in the early 1970s. While the character was used without permission, Bear Manufacturing never pursued the band legally. Applied Power Industries bought Bear Manufacturing in 1970. The training school closed then or shortly after that. Afterwards, the Bear Automotive Service Equipment Company was sold several times until Bear products disappeared when they were rebranded in 2009 by Cartek. Despite that, many auto shops still display Bear signs whether they continue to use Bear equipment or not. Once ubiquitous, there are now only about three dozen of these signs on display in 11 states, with most of them in Southern California. Many shop owners will proudly show you other Bear signs inside their bays or offices.
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This article originally appeared in the SCA Road Journal, Fall 2017, Vol. 35, No. 2. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.