Along the Heritage Trail

Untitled watercolor on artist’s board by Louis Bonsib
(PHOTO COURTESY OF THE FORT WAYNE MUSEUM OF ART)

Artist and ad man

Agency founder Bonsib also known for paintings

By Tom Castaldi
Louis Bonsib, artist and advertising executive, was born in Vincennes, in March 1892. His grandfather, for whom he was named, had immigrated to the United States from Alsace-Lorraine during the years of Napoleon Bonaparte. He and four brothers or stepbrothers made the trip to New Orleans in the mid-1800s.

How the surname became Bonsib from whatever it was in Europe remains a mystery. Grandfather Louis met Henriette Caspermor, married and moved to Vincennes. Here the couple became the parents of four children. The youngest, John F. Bonsib — father of Louis W. Bonsib — was born in 1862.

John opened a business buying bicycle parts and assembled them for sale. Later he opened a furniture store that became quite successful. By 1890 John met and married Ida Brown and two years later Louis W. Bonsib was born. Unfortunately, Ida died in 1894 and Louis was cared for by his Aunt Molly. It was she who encouraged Louis to pursue his natural art talent drawing and painting leaves. By the time Louis was 15, he heard a lecturer speak about building a radio to transmit Morse code. Louis built and assembled a radio from parts he could find and, using a window screen for an antenna, was able to communicate with a distant friend.

Later, as crystal radio sets became available, Louis was able to produce a better radio. While still in high school he was granted a license to operate the first ham radio in the state of Indiana. Modern Electrics magazine featured him in an issue to show the achievements of a young amateur. It was so early in the days of radio that Louis was able to purchase and sell parts to companies and individuals interested in building their own sets.

Although he first pursued art courses in 1910 through the International Correspondence School, Louis had visions of becoming an electrical engineer. That same year he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati and later at Vincennes University. Not entirely pleased with his choice, he decided to enroll at Indiana University in 1912, and in 1914 was studying sociology at the University of Illinois.

Returning to IU, he was accepted into the Phi Beta Kappa fraternity and joined the wrestling team. He also started as the center on the football team and found the time to work on the IU yearbook, the Arbutus. He graduated summa cum laude and took a position with the Indianapolis Engraving Company. That led him into the advertising agency business, and in 1923, he set up his own shop in Peru, Ind. and then moved it to Fort Wayne.

At first, the Fort Wayne clients did not think to pay for the artwork produced by ad agencies. Louis thought differently and demanded payment, which the clients did without complaint. In 1926, to solidify the agency-client relationship, Louis organized the Fort Wayne Advertising Club, which thrived until the Great Depression.

After World War II, the Ad Club was reconstituted, and Louis initiated a speakers’ bureau that found him traveling the Midwest promoting the opportunities an advertising agency offers business operations. Serving as many as 20 accounts in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan, Bonsib grew the agency, concentrating on radio and automobile manufacturer clients. Others included Wayne Pump and Magnavox. In 1941, he listed more than 100 companies that had been or continued as Bonsib Advertising clients. Bonsib Advertising grew and became one of the most successful and highly regarded agencies in the state.

Painting continued to be one of Louis’ passions, and he continued using his oils and watercolors to capture the scenes of favorite sites especially in Brown County.

Other locations took him around the world from Maine, Quebec and California, Appalachian valleys, to Hawaii, Japan, Alaska and Europe. If he did not have the time to paint on his visit, he’d photograph the scene to paint later. The celebrated Hoosier Salon exhibited his work in a gallery in New Harmony, Ind., exhibitions in Chicago and the Salon’s Broad Ripple, Indianapolis gallery. Bonsib’s paintings hang today in many collections and in many private homes. As Dr. Michael J.

Mastrangelo said in his December 2009 Quest Club paper reviewing the life of Bonsib, Louis chose to donate the major portion of his library of more than 200 art books and pamphlets to Vincennes University as well as several hundred of his paintings.

Tom Castaldi

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi, a retired Essex vice president, hosts "On the Heritage Trail," which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM, and "Historia Nostra" heard on WLYV-1450 AM.

Posted: Wed, 08/24/2011 - 1:39 pm
Last updated: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:14 pm