I know we all know this, but it’s never not interesting to me to recall that our modern notion of “brand” – small companies and giant corporations, logos and awareness and identities – were born from those literal brands: distinct identities burned with a hot iron stamp. Modern Farmer shares this intriguing history and look at the practice.
What on the surface seems a straightforward practice of laconic, no-nonsense plainsmen, cattle branding is in fact a playground of design and cowboy semiotics. Symbols, visual puns and jaunty combinations of letters, numbers and styles make up a tradition of brand design that’s held steady through decades, giving rise to such notorious brands as the “XIT”, the “Running W” and the “7 Up”.
Interestingly, they also share the iconographic components of cattle rustling, that is, forging the brand to another symbol, thereby allowing the cattle to be stolen.
“While cattle owners deployed their brands, cattle rustlers on the make were just as ingenious in coming up with ways to alter or falsify existing brands. Rustlers made use of ‘running irons’ with hooked tips to forge or change brands, branding freehand under cover of night. Being caught by an angry cattleman with a running iron in your possession meant instant death for many rustlers, but the temptation was hard to resist. Adding a few lines or curves to a brand could quickly turn someone else’s cattle into your own, and inspired rustlers were skilled in the sleight of hand that could transform a ‘Bar S’ into a ’48’ or a ‘Flying U’ into a ‘7 Up.’ “