Pictorial: Mail Pouch Tobacco Barns

A Mail Pouch Tobacco barn, or simply Mail Pouch barn, is a barn with one or more sides painted with a barn advertisement for the West Virginia Mail Pouch chewing tobacco company (Bloch Brothers Tobacco Company). The program ran from 1891 to 1992, and at its height in the early 1960s, about 20,000 Mail Pouch barns were spread across 22 states. Photo by John Clise

By John Clise

We’ve all likely seen a Mail Pouch barn in person or through film or other print media. There’s a great history behind these barns that brings the imagination to life thinking about the adventures those painting must have had, the thing these barns have lived through, and the excitement the barn owner had when offered the opportunity to have “Mail Pouch” barn.

According to Mail Pouch history, barns, they can be found in IllinoisIndianaIowaKentuckyMarylandMichiganOhioPennsylvaniaNew JerseyNew YorkSouth CarolinaTennesseeWisconsinWest VirginiaConnecticut and California (Ontario, on Jurupa and Turner, and Merced County, CA-99 and Worden Avenue), although an increasing number have fallen into dilapidation or have been demolished. The barns, usually hand-painted in black or red with yellow or white capital lettering, read as: “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco–Treat Yourself to the Best.” Sometimes, they are surrounded on the left and right by a thin vertical blue border.

Initially, barn owners were paid between $1 and $2 a year for the advertisement, equivalent in 1913 dollars to about $20–40 today, but more importantly, they received a much desired fresh coat of paint to preserve the integrity of the wood. Mail Pouch painted their message on one or two sides of the barn (depending on visibility from the roadway, an additional ad for Kentucky Club pipe mixture might be included as well) and painted the other sides of the barn any color the owner wished. Many of the barns were repainted every few years to maintain the sharp colors of the lettering.

West Virginia. Photo by John Clise

After World War II, many of the barns were painted by Harley Warrick of Belmont County, Ohio.[2] He once estimated that he had painted 20,000 barns in his life, spending an average of six hours on each. Warrick claimed that he always began each barn with the “E” in the word “Chew”. Other barns were painted by Mark Turley, Don Shires, Dick Green and several others. Their initials remain preserved on some of the barns with the date of the painting. These initials can be found on the blue border surrounding the front side, or nearer to the roof.

Harley E. Warrick (October 5, 1924 – November 24, 2000), was an American barn painter, best known for his work painting Mail Pouch tobacco advertising on barns across 13 states in the American Midwest and Appalachian states. Over his 55-year career, Warrick painted or retouched over 20,000 Mail Pouch signs. When he retired, he was the last of the Mail Pouch sign painters in America. The Mail Pouch signs have become iconic and some of Harley Warrick’s work has been exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution. Though he was not the first or the only Mail Pouch barn painter, he was the most prolific and famous. Featured in newspapers and magazines, traveling to fairs and festivals to demonstrate his skills, Warrick’s fame increased appearing on Good Morning America and On the Road with Charles Kuralt

The program was suspended in 1992 when Warrick retired, as he was the last painter left working.

In the heyday of barn advertising (around 1900–1940) many companies paid farmers to use their barns as roadside ads, with other tobacco products (such as “Beech Nut” tobacco) and local feed and grain stores being the most common, but Mail Pouch was the only product advertised in so widespread and consistent a manner in this fashion.

Possibly Pennsylvania. Photo y John Clise
The Mail Pouch barn just south of Bicknell collapsed after years of neglect, as have many of the barns of the past. Photo by Brian Piret.

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