Give a 15-Year Old 8,400 Pounds of Soap and He’ll Carve You a Radio Transmitter — 1930

by Paula Bosse

wfaa-in-soap_dmn_100730-cMike Owen, Jr., 1930

by Paula Bosse

In 1930, 15-year old sculptor Mike Owen, Jr. earned himself a lot of ink in The Dallas Morning News for carving a replica of the WFAA transmitter building (owned, of course, by The Dallas Morning News) … out of 8,400 pounds of Ivory soap. And why not? It was a big draw at that year’s State Fair of Texas.

Mike Owen, a student at well-to-do Highland Park High School (although Dallas artist Olin Travis, who had him as a pupil at about this time, described him as being “very poor”), had apparently been sculpting all sorts of things from the age of 3. He had begun winning awards when he was 13 or 14, and earlier in 1930, he had won a prize in a “soap modeling” contest sponsored by Procter & Gamble. Not only did that result in young Mr. Owen being commissioned by Sanger Bros. to carve a model of the downtown skyline (I’m not sure this commission was ever actually completed), he was also asked by the Morning News to create an attraction for the State Fair: a replica-in-soap of the WFAA transmitter plant. And it was a hit.

Michael Owen went on to become a professional artist, with early enthusiastic support from Jerry Bywaters. He was associated with the Dallas Nine (and was, by far, the youngest member affiliated with that somewhat amorphous group), and I will address his more serious non-soap forays into the art world in a later post. But, first, back to soap!

wfaa-in-soap_dmn_100730-a(Click for larger image.)

wfaa-in-soap_dmn_100730-bwfaa-in-soap_dmn_100730-dPhotos and above article from the DMN, Oct. 7, 1930

wfaa-in-soap_dmn-101230DMN, Oct. 12, 1930 (click for larger image)

wfaa-in-soap_dmn_101330aDMN, Oct. 13, 1930 – name misspelled…

WFAA-in-soap_dmn_101430DMN, Oct. 14, 1930

A grainy newspaper photo doesn’t do the sculpture justice. The photo below is much more impressive. (Click for larger image.)

owen_wfaa-soap_degolyer(Belo Collection, DeGolyer Library, SMU)

It’s difficult to tell what the scale is of the finished piece. It was supposed to be “five feet high and seven feet front and back.” It was touted as being ” the largest soap model ever made.” I have a feeling this was more impressive-looking in person — especially as it was bathed in “bright rays of blue light.” After the 12 days of working on this, I bet that kid was squeaky-clean and positively reeked of Ivory soap.

wfaa-in-soap_dmn_102630DMN, Oct. 26, 1930

wfaa-in-soap_dmn_121930DMN, Dec. 19, 1930


All photos and articles from The Dallas Morning News.

For a look at the actual WFAA transmitter plant, see here.

Two other Flashback Dallas posts on Owen:

  • For a look at Owen’s professional career as a sculptor, see my post “Michael G. Owen, Jr., Dallas Sculptor of Lead Belly” here.
  • To read about the Peruna monument SMU commissioned him to produce in 1937 (when he was only 21), see my post here.

To browse many of the articles I used in researching Owen, see them collected in a PDF, here.

UPDATE: The photo of the finished sculpture from the Belo Records collection at the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, was added recently; zoom in and look at it up close here.

Several images larger when clicked.


Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.