"Collectionnez les 32 decalcomanies offert par La Vache Qui Rit: 8 planches de 4 dessins "A La Conquête de l'Espace", de la Montgolfiere aux derniers satellites."
Letraset's factory at Ashford in Kent was built around a new Rotary Gravure press, which allowed full process colour for the first time & allowed artwork to be mechanically separated rather than have colour laboriously simulated on separate sheets of spot colour.
"The work on the new factory proceeded well, and by the autumn of 1968 we had installed most of our production with very little disruption…
"We received from Italy the largest order for our toys (to be used as premiums with a specially prepared cheese for children) that we had ever taken and it proved to be so successful that it was reordered several times before it was eventually dropped. …Our large premium order had both required and virtually paid for the gravure printing press we needed…"
— John Chudley, "Letraset: a Lesson in Growth"
We don't know for certain what this order was, but although La Vache Qui Rit are French rather than Italian, we originally thought this series might fit the bill. If this promotion was the one John Chudley was referring to, then it must have been printed by Autumn 1968 at the latest.
Now, it has to be said that there are some difficulties with this hypothesis, not least the "Italy/France" discrepancy. There is also a question of date. Originally I was told that ads for this promotion appeared in "Pilote" (greatest of all French bandes dessinées) in early January 1969, which seemed a reasonable date given that John Chudley mentions repeat ordering. But then it turned out that the earliest ads for this promotion actually ran in issues 507, 508, & 509 — 24th July to 6th August 1969. Which is nearly a year too late! (Pilote 508, 31st July 1969, shown here.)
Everything will be up in the air if we ever discover an Italian cheese promotion from 1968 (perhaps by Milkana), but in the meantime we have found a better contender for the coveted "World's First Full-Colour Dry Rub-Down Transfer" award: Parein Cha-Cha-Rama Tintin.
Meanwhile, the search for evidence of an early date for this promotion had some interesting consequences…
La Vache Qui Rit had been giving away free gifts in their cartons for many decades. A series of several very popular promotions for Astérix in 1967 gives you the general idea (this one is from Pilote 391, 20th April 1967):
There were also a couple of promotions for the Jungle Book in 1968, one giving away slide transparencies, & the other… wait for it… transfers. However, these were waterslide transfers, not Letraset. But this does mean that transfers were on the cards!
(You can see a transfer from the Jungle Book promotion at the bottom of our page "Some Lovely Décalcomanies".)
So, it's August 1968, & you're searching through magazines for a promotion in packets of eight soft French cheese slices called "Conquête De L'Espace", & you find the above ad (in Pilote 460, 29th August 1968).
The slight catch is that this is NOT La Vache Qui Rit. It's their rivals, Finas (who were taken over by Bel, owners of La Vache Qui Rit, shortly afterwards).
It seems to me at least plausible that Bel were jealous of their rivals, & decided (since Space was in the air, thanks to the imminent Moon landings) to "one-up" them. So although it wasn't until a year later that the promotion actually ran, it could be that this was when Bel commissioned Letraset to produce these transfers. A year is a long lead-time; but stranger things have happened at sea.
It's also worth pointing out that although the Bel advert was spot on for the first Moon landing (20th July 1969), it may not have been the first appearance of the promotion. If it was reordered, perhaps the promotion ran earlier (albeit without ads appearing in Pilote)!
As Finas were advertising their Space promotion, Bel were advertising a Mexico Olympics offer (here from Pilote 463 & 466, 19th September & 10th October 1968):
Finally, you will be wanting to see what all the fuss is about. I'm afraid we only have seven of the eight sheets, but you can certainly get the idea:
The Apollo sheet on the right is duplicated to show you what the sheets look like with the backing paper behind them. And here's a backing sheet on its own:
So that you can at least get a partial glimpse of some of the missing sheet, below is an edited highlight from the Pilote ad:
Picture Credit: The SPLAT Scan Archives
© Tom Vinelott 2020