Friday, November 28, 2014

The History and Philosophy of Branding

A New York family bought a ranch out West where they intended to raise cattle. Friends visited and asked if the ranch had a name.
  "Well," said the would-be cattleman, "I wanted to name it the Bar-J. My wife favored Suzy-Q, one son liked the Flying-W, and the other wanted the Lazy-Y. So we're calling it the Bar-J-Suzy-Q-Flying-W-Lazy-Y." 
   "But where are all your cattle?" the friends asked. 
  "None survived the branding." 
D.A.C. News

We know from Egyptian hieroglyphics that branding livestock dates back to 2700 BCE. The Romans used symbols that were part of a magic spell to protect the animals... at least until the owner wanted to slaughter them. By the Middle Ages, the custom had spread through Europe. From Europe it emigrated with colonists to North America where, even with our modern technology, it is still one of the most effective means of establishing ownership -- or proving theft.

The term brand may come from "firebrand" or heated stick, which was the oldest way of applying your brand. (Or from the Norse "brandr" meaning burn. Take your pick.)

Obviously, only one end of the stick was brought to a smouldering temperature. That lead to the term being applied to people who were hot-headed. An iron rod, or running iron, eventually took the place of the stick, but don't be caught with one in the Old West. Honest ranchers had their brands made by blacksmiths. Carrying a running iron suggested you might be a rustler, adept at changing one brand to another.

To work, brands must be unique. Like Coca Cola and Pepsi, the marks are registered. Unlike other product brands, however, the blacksmith hammer (and the beeves' hides) can only handle so many flourishes. So a simple hieroglyphic language was developed.

2 Lazy-2 P Ranch - from The Smithsonian site
Letters and numbers can be boxed, walking, winged, rocking or lazy. Bars can be T'ed, doubled or crossed. In Under A Texas Star, I refer to the Rocking-R (whose owner breeds horses) and the Bar-B Ranch.

I promised a little philosophy and for that I'm going to go back to Coca Cola and Pepsi and brand loyalty.

Branding livestock was a practical necessity. Menkahf had to make sure that his goats didn't find themselves in Sebni's herd when it was time to bring them in from the pasture. Branding merchandise started about a thousand years later to identify the product with the maker. Both types of brand engendered brand loyalty.

Product loyalty is pretty easy to recognize. If you doubt it, offer a Coke drinker a Pepsi. (My ex once said, if dying of thirst in the desert, he'd rather eat a lizard than drink a Pepsi.)

The cowboy's loyalty to the brand is an ethical issue. I learned the concept from Louis L'Amour, particularly in his collection Riding for the Brand, but best expressed by Conn Conagher:
"I've covered a lot of country in my time but when I take a man's money I ride for the brand."
Louis L'Amour, Conagher
If you have a problem with your employer, you come out with it. If it can't be solved, you suck it up or ride on. An ally who wasn't loyal might have to be tolerated, but he'd never be respected. An enemy who stood by his villainous employer until the end, would be respected and couldn't be seen as entirely evil. He was redeemed by his loyalty.

The History of Branding, Smithsonian Magazine
Livestock Branding, Wikipedia
The History of Brands, Wikipedia
US Legal Definitions


Jacquie Rogers said...

Now that they've discontinued Ken, I guess he doesn't ride for the Bar-B anymore. Snort. Okay, that was lame.

One of the reasons the Old West draws me is the loyalty factor. Riding for the brand goes hand in hand with sticking to your code no matter what--even if that code is on the dubious side. Loyalty to the brand, loyalty to the code. It's a foreign concept today.

Melodie Campbell said...

Really cool post, Alison! Love the research.

Alison E. Bruce said...

This blog started off as a post for my own blog about branding - particularly branding oneself as an author.

I wanted to tie cattle branding in and ended up... well you can see for yourself.

Rain Trueax said...

Always interesting to read on branding and like the joke.

Registering a brand is a complication all itself. Where we raise beef, a brand is not required, but we have considered going to one as a protection from rustling which happens infrequently but still does. Currently, for us, it's ear tags (which can be torn out by brush) or tattoos in the ears. There are a lot of theories on ways to brand today from cryogenic (freeze branding) to electrical to avoid the damage that the hot brand did where it takes an experienced hand to do it right without damaging the animal.

And author brand, oh that's another fascinating subject where I'd be all ears ;)

Alison E. Bruce said...

If I ever sort the author brand out without going off on another tangent, Betty, I'll let you know.

Thanks for the extra information. Now, although I know exactly what you mean, I have the image of cattle with skulls and roses tattoos. Or maybe a Celtic triskelion.