Creator of the Gerber Baby

Illustrator Dorothy Hope Smith

Created date

March 4th, 2016
The Gerber Baby
The Gerber Baby

Although many today may not know her name, her creation is household knowledge. Dorothy Hope Smith, who gave us the timeless image of the Gerber Baby, was one of the most talented illustrators of the twentieth century.

Born in Maryland in 1895, Smith was the middle of three girls. In her early teens, she moved with her parents to Chicago, Ill., where she spent her formative years.

Following high school, Smith enrolled at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that she met her husband, Perry Barlow. 

The two married in 1922 and relocated to New York City to embark on illustration careers. Once they had established themselves, they bought a home in Westport, Conn., which became their primary base of operation.

As an illustrator, Smith had a special talent for children, and babies in particular. She quickly earned a name for herself.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, she had no shortage of work. She produced the Ivory Soap Baby for Proctor & Gamble, illustrated children’s books for publishers such as Putnam and McLoughlin Brothers, and provided the cover art for distinguished mainstream periodicals that included Woman’s Home Companion and Parents magazine.

Yet oddly enough, her most famous work was not the result of her professional connections or a routine contract but, rather, a contest.

The birth of the Gerber Baby

In 1928, Gerber baby food, a division of the Fremont Canning Company, announced an art competition in which contestants could submit drawings of babies. The best one would be used in a future ad campaign. 

While she was already a reputable illustrator, Smith joined the scores of starving artists looking for a big break and sent the judges a charcoal sketch. The portrait depicted an adorable, bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked Ann Turner, the daughter of Smith’s friend, syndicated newspaper cartoonist Leslie Turner (known for Captain Easy).

As the story goes, Smith’s entry was rough and unfinished—intended only as a preliminary inquiry into precisely what they were looking for. She informed the judges that if they chose her composition as the winner, she would give it the proper finishing touches.

But the drawing’s raw simplicity actually wound up impressing the judges, who had tired of the same old elaborate, photo-realistic portraits. Without further ado, Smith won a $300 cash prize, effectively selling the rights of her image to the company. 

It became Gerber’s official trademark in 1931.

Unique style

Smith stuck with her winning method until her death in 1955. The understated, unpretentious style that defined her art was as much her own trademark as the iconic baby was Gerber’s.

There was a familiar warmth to her work—a comforting hominess that brought a smile to anyone who laid eyes on it. 

For example, despite the Gerber Baby’s lack of realism and fine detail, it possesses an unmistakably emotional quality. Her wide, lively eyes are full of energy and life, her puckered lips a bit mischievous in a playful way.

Quite possibly on purpose, Smith offered very little in the way of clothing or frilly accessories. The focus is on the child’s face and, more than anything else, that is what has sold Gerber’s products for so many years.

Still, companies hawking children’s goods weren’t the only ones who saw the potential in Smith’s work. The same simplicity and distinctive tenderness that had won over Gerber’s management also attracted ad executives with the Ford Motor Company, who promised drivers that they would ride “[S]o-o-o gently! Like a lullaby!” in a Mercury.

Interestingly, the cars they were selling appeared nowhere on the page. The ad instead featured one of Smith’s illustrations: a happy, contented baby. As usual, the portrait was simple and modest, but nonetheless charming.

Like anyone who masters their craft, Dorothy Hope Smith had a natural gift. In her case, she could move people through her art.

That’s why she’s among the greats.