From the time of the Aztecs, calendars have long held special meaning in the lives of the Mexican people. Mexico's printing industry began in the portals of the sixteenth century plaza in front of the Santo Domingo church in Mexico City. Evangelists equipped with handmade quills (feather pens) would act as public writers for people and businesses needing important documents written. Soldiers who might need to send a love letter, or merchants requiring shipping documents for exports to Spain. Once printing presses began arriving from Europe in the nineteenth century the plaza portals were transformed into small printing stalls. It was a convenient place to set up shop, since it was located next to important government buildings.
Enseñanza Objetiva were Mexico's first calendar printers. The company was founded by Salvador Garcia Guerrero and Francisco Gonzalez de la Vega in 1922. By 1935 the company was producing calendars. All of the early great painters: Antonio Gomez, Eduardo Cataño, and Jesus Helguera painted for the company. In the mid 1950's Enseñanza Objetiva closed its doors and the owners split their assets including printing presses, negatives, cameras, original paintings, and even the artists themselves between their two competitors, Lito Offset and Galas de Mexico. Today, printing house Calendarios Landin operates a modern plant in Guanajuato. Its extensive distribution network covers Mexico, the United States, and Canada. They own the reproduction rights to Jesus Helgueras' classic paintings. If you are gifted a Mexican calendar nowadays by your favorite panaderia it is very likely that it was printed by Calendarios Landin or Calendarios LEN (Lito Offset).
Calendars quietly marked time as Mexicans increased their level of education and standard of living. In the 1930's rural population began to shift and the cities of Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Mexico City began to drastically grow. A new consumer class was created and the colorful advertisements in calendars enticed people to purchase domestic products like soda, chocolates, cigarettes, beer, and tequila as well as imported goods such as radios, tires, light bulbs, and Coca Cola from the United States. Calendar advertising encouraged Mexicans to believe that they too could obtain a higher standard of living and afford many of the luxuries of the upper class. Calendars often glorified an object in such a way as to convince the consumer to buy items they had previously not thought of as a necessity. These calendars faithfully marked births, deaths, festivals, fiestas, and phases of the moon, but most importantly they were the vehicle that brought this new advertising art form into every corner of the Mexican household.
There were two types of calendars, the "exclusive" calendar and the "line" calendar. Large profitable companies that sold cigarettes, tequila, soda, soap, tractors, and riffles commissioned exclusive calendars. The most sought after artists were then hired to paint the companies annual calendar and no other company would be allowed to use those images. A pretty calendar girl might be holding a bottle of beer or a cigarette in order to meet the contract requirements of an exclusive client. Liquor and cigarette companies fueled the creation of new ideas from the artists by demanding exciting art work, all with the intention to present their products as innovative, popular, modern, or trending. Once printed, exclusive calendars were then sent to the small town distributors to give as gifts to their best customers.
Line calendars were more common. The Mexican calendar companies employed dozens of salesmen paid on commission who roamed the countryside visiting small grocery stores, mortuaries, mechanic shops, feed stores, bakeries, butcher shops, as well as vendor stalls at the local mercado. The salesmen brought with them hundreds of line calendar images for customers to chose from. Line calendars were not brand specific and did not have a product painted into the artwork. Once the customer chose an image, the calendar would be sent to be printed with the customers business name, address, and phone number along with a catchy phrase or slogan between the art and date pad. These custom printed calendars were delivered to the customer in early December.
Traditionally, this is how it has always worked. It's December and the housewives and maids were in the mercado buying fruits, vegetables, spices, meat, or bread for the various celebrations throughout the month including posadas, 12 de Diciembre, Noche Buena, y Año Nuevo. The mercado vendors give out these calendars from behind their stalls as a way to thank customers for their preference as well as to promote their business with the housewives or the help. The families favorite calendar will hang in the living room, others will hang in the kitchen, bedroom, or hall way. The images on the calendars are often so evocative and meaningful, and evoke such a feeling of nationalism that some families simply cut off the date pad and save the calendar art, proudly displaying it in the family home.
During the presidency of Alvaro Obregon (1920-1924), politicians sought to create concepts to unite the people of Mexico. This idea was championed by the new minister of public education Jose Vasconcelos. He held the philosophy that by creating an inclusive concept of regional elements and ethnic traditions and combining it with the art of the pre-conquest ancestors, the fragmented country could be united into a single patriotic Mexico. Vasconcelos created and funded programs that would allow artists, writers, and photographers to travel to remote regions and record the diverse cultural traditions of the country's many ethnic groups. They visited villages, markets, archaeological ruins, and fiestas. They viewed the country side houses, farms, and daily life of people who spoke indigenous languages. Their observations of the ethnic traditions and customs were then shared with all of Mexico through their art and photography.
Luis Marquez was one of Vasconcelos' intellectuals who traveled to remote villages of central and southern Mexico to photograph its ethnic splendor. He returned to Mexico City with thousands of original photographs of undiscovered Mexico. These images were then used as reference by calendar painters. Painters would rent photographs from Luis Marquez and use them to create the composition, design, and details of their oil paintings. Marquez's service made it possible for artists to achieve accuracy without having to leave their studios.
Naturally the calendar artists of the 1930's seized on the sensuality of Mexicanidad and began creating images of shy, beautiful girls filling their water pots at the town's fountain or being serenaded by handsome suitors. These innocent images evolved into paintings of sexy revolutionary Adelitas in low cut dresses, or voluptuous housewives doing shores in fashionable attire. All of these images were used to advertise new products and lend sex appeal to existing products.
Most artists were able to achieve a nearly photographic realism in their paintings. They were so skilled that they could capture the detail of the woven zarapes, braided palm sombreros, hand tooled leather, tiles, and painted pottery. A very popular request by customers were the traditional "calendar girls" who displayed their Mexicanism through their outfits, poses, or props. Nontheless they were still fantasy girls who often looked European or American with their cosmopolitan hairstyles, light skin, and long legs. Mexico's ideal of feminine beauty remains virtually unchanged today, light skin, big eyes, high cheekbones, and a Spanish or American appearance. This ideal of beauty may have arrived in the sixteenth century with the Catholic Church which introduced images of a beautiful white Virgen de Guadalupe. Whether the painter created a tortilla making mother, a riffle totting Adelita, or a cowgirl out at the ranch, he would always paint her white complected, with a perfect hairdo, fashionable earrings, and high heels.
The use of painted calendar art ended with the sudden popularity of color photography in the late 1950's. Printing houses found that producing calendars from paintings was simply to expensive when new printing presses and cameras could produce modern looking calendars for a fraction of the cost. Calendar companies quickly created new lines of calendars featuring color photography and painters became obsolete overnight. Some were offered different jobs within the companies but others quietly retired.
The Mexican calendar girls were originally created to sell products. These fantasy girls were meant to elicit emotional response from the viewer, one of happiness, nostalgia, or nationalistic pride. Even though the sexy calendar girls were painted to create chic images for the products they promoted they still bring back cherished, romantic memories of old Mexico.
Villalba, Angela. Mexican Calendar Girls. San Frfancisco: Chronicle Books, 2006.
Mejia Castillo, Mauricio. (2016 December 31). Los Calendarios Que No Envejecen. Retrieved From: https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/entrada-de-opinion/colaboracion/mochilazo-en-el-tiempo/nacion/sociedad/2016/12/31/los-calendarios
Almanza, Lucero. (2017, May 29). La Industria del Calendario Impreso Resiste La Modernidad. Retrieved From: https://www.elfinanciero.com.mx/bajio/la-industria-del-calendario-impreso-resiste-la-modernidad.