May 25: First He Invented the Soap Opera. Then He Entered Politics.


When Chester Bowles and his friend William Benton founded the Benton and Bowles ad agency in 1929, they had two accounts and 12 thousand dollars. Seven years later – in the midst of the Great Depression – it was the sixth largest ad agency in America, with annual billing of over 10 million dollars. Much of Benton and Bowles’s success came from Chester Bowles’s brilliant use of that new medium – radio. Bowles created radio programming tied to his agency’s products and targeted to those products’ target audiences. He is credited not only with inventing the product-sponsored radio soap opera — he wrote and produced “Young Doctor Malone” to sell General Mills products — he was the first person to use cue cards to tell live audiences when to laugh or applaud, the first person to use sound effects and jingles in radio commercials, and the first to use testimonial spots to sell products. By the time he sold his agency in 1941 at 40 years old, Bowles was both an advertising legend and a millionaire. Then he entered politics.

  • Chester Bowles with President John F. Kennedy, 1961.

    Bowles devoted over three decades to public service, becoming one of 20th- century Connecticut’s most accomplished politicians. Rejected from World War II military service due to an ear injury, he served as Connecticut’s rationing administrator, quickly rising to State Director of Price Administration. In 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt selected Bowles to direct the federal Office of Price Administration — the first of several high-ranking executive appointments Bowles would hold under presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson.

In 1948, Bowles decided to enter Connecticut’s gubernatorial campaign and eked out an unlikely victory in a then heavily moderate Republican state. As governor, Bowles worked to implement an ambitious and progressive economic and social agenda, using FDR’s New Deal programs as a model, with mixed success. He established Connecticut’s first Civil Rights Commission, desegregated the Connecticut National Guard, and was the first Connecticut governor to appoint both a woman and an African-American to his personal military staff. Bowles’ New Deal-style legislative proposals concerning housing, welfare, and education reform, however, were soundly rejected by the solidly Republican state legislature. Bowles lost his re-election bid to a rival who effectively painted him as an extreme left-wing liberal.

Bowles serving as U.S. Ambassador to India in 1951.

Bowles returned to Washington to serve in a number of administrative, legislative, and diplomatic posts over the next two decades. He served for a short time as President John F. Kennedy’s Under Secretary of State, as a one-term congressional representative from Connecticut’s 2nd district, and as the U.S. Ambassador to India (twice).

On May 25, 1986, Chester Bowles died in his Essex home after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Today, several government buildings, parks, and roads around Connecticut — including the majority of Route 9, one of the state’s main thoroughfares — are named in his honor.

Further Reading

Chester Bowles,”

“Benton and Bowles.” Ad Age Encyclopedia

Albin Krebs, “Chester Bowles… Served in 4 Administrations,” New York Times

Douglas P. Cooper, “Interview with Chester Bowles,” WNYC Radio