By the mid-1960s an American actress became a household name, despite the fact that it wasn’t her own. Josephine the Plumber was a popular character for Comet cleanser, appearing in scores of television commercials and print ads.
Jane Withers started her acting career at age three, and was a popular child film star of the ’30s and early ’40s. Born in Atlanta, Georgia on April 12, 1926, Withers first appeared on local radio broadcasts as “Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop”. In the early ’30s Withers and her mother moved to Hollywood, where the young girl worked as a child model and bit part player in several films.
Her big break was in Shirley Temple’s 1934 film Bright Eyes, in which she played Joy Smythe – a spoiled, obnoxious girl. This role led to several starring ones, in movies like Ginger (1935) and Little Miss Nobody (1936). In 1937 Withers landed on the top ten list for box-office stars.
Withers was also the heroine of three novels under the Whitman Authorized Editions for Girls imprint, which featured famous actresses. Two of the books used her name and appearance, yet otherwise “has no connection…” - Jane Withers and the Hidden Room (1942) by Eleanor Packer and Jane Withers and the Phantom Violin (1943) by Roy J. Snell. A third book, Jane Withers and the Soup Wizard (1944) by Kathryn Heisenfelt, identified her character was as a famous actress.
In 1942 Withers’ Sweet Sixteen birthday party was filmed by Paramount for the Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood series. Throughout the ’40s she worked on 16 films for Fox, Columbia and Republic Pictures.
In 1947 Withers married Texas oil man William P. Moss and retired from acting. Their marriage produced three children, but lasted only six years. In October 1955 she wed Kenneth Errair of The Four Freshnmen. They had two children.
While filming the movie Giant, Withers befriended James Dean. Dean had a pink cowboy shirt, Withers later said, that he wore all the time and would not let it go to the laundry out of fear it would be lost like other shirts he’d had. Withers convinced Dean to let her wash his shirt, and on the day he died he gave her the shirt before going to the race. It is still in her possession.
While known to many movie-goers and teens when she was a younger actress, it was the Comet role that brought Withers into every American household in later years. As Josephine the Plumber she demonstrated the cleaning power of the product. The character became a beloved one, lasting into the 1970s before, in the 1980s, her niece JoAnn (or Jo) would show us a picture of her Aunt Josephine in various commercials.
Withers went on to do voice-over work and would occasionally guest star on TV shows.
Many believe today’s Progressive Insurance character Flo was inspired by Josephine. In 2008, Advertising Age described Flo as “a weirdly sincere, post-modern Josephine the Plumber who just really wants to help.”
Take a look at this 1960s commercial featuring Josephine the Plumber and a young Robbie Benson: