It’s an image broadcast to millions every time the Packers play football.
It’s a yellow hat worn by fans, celebrities, politicians and American military members.
It’s silly and sort of stupid, but it’s also massively popular and, dammit, we’re proud of it.
So, what is a cheesehead?
Where did it come from? And who created it? Is it supposed to be cheddar? Why does it represent us as Green Bay fans and Dairy State residents? And is there a deeper significance to our re-appropriation of the initially pejorative term that perhaps speaks to our specific sensibilities and insecurities and offers a more profound understanding of us as Wisconsinites? Most importantly, is it possible to answer all of these questions without resorting to using any low-hanging cheese puns?
We’ve all seen the cheesehead hat and heard the name. But there’s much more to it than you think, so let’s indulge its history and embrace our identity. In celebration of Bears week, and because you’ll see plenty of them Thursday night, here are 10 things you need to know about the cheesehead:
1. The term predates the Packers – and Wisconsin
Historically, "cheesehead" was used by German soldiers derogatorily toward the Dutch during World War II because of the extensive dairy farming in the Netherlands. In the 1969 French autobiographical novel "Papillon," the term described the unsophisticated jurors that sentenced the main character to prison. As it pertains to Wisconsinites, anecdotally, the term was used tauntingly by Illinois residents, especially after the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985 and the Packers were mired in mediocrity.
2. The inventor co-opted the insult and owned it
In 1987, Ralph Bruno was working at his mom’s house while apparently gnawing on the concept of linguistic reclamation. He considered how Chicagoans – often while attending Brewers games – would call Wisconsinites "cheeseheads" to disparage them, and wondered why it should be offensive, since he liked cheese quite a bit and was proud of where he lived. With a fun-loving and self-deprecating spirit, he decided to turn the negative into a positive, to make sour milk into strong cheese. Or something.
3. The original one was made from a couch
It was while upholstering his mother’s sofa that day in 1987 that Bruno was struck with the creative inspiration to change the state’s sports fandom, as well as his life. He cut out a piece of couch cushion, burned some holes into the polyurethane foam and painted it yellow. After consuming some of Wisconsin’s other famous staple, he wore the thing at a Brewers game against the White Sox. At first people were taken aback, but soon they were approaching him in droves to ask about the weird cheese hat. Bruno, then 27, realized he had a big opportunity on his head.
4. It was a Brewers thing first
After that unpredicted preliminary success, Bruno began making more cheeseheads, bringing them to County Stadium in plastic bags and hawking them at games. Eventually, the Brewers began selling them, but when owner Bud Selig complained the oversized hats obstructed views, the team replaced them with cheese baseball caps. Bruno continued to manufacture cheeseheads, selling them door-to-door and at events like State Fair, and eventually trademarked the name. He founded a company, which is called Foamation and located in St. Francis, and later revealed that, unsurprisingly, a loan for his cheese hats wasn’t the easiest pitch to make to banks.
5. They’re now mass-produced and sold internationally
Over the next decade, as the Packers started winning, business increased sharply. When the team made back-to-back Super Bowls in 1996-97, Bruno and Foamation could hardly keep up with demand. According to Foamation, cheeseheads have shipped to all 50 states and more than a dozen countries. Though a representative of the company wouldn’t reveal sales numbers, he said, "If you took every cheesehead hat sold, put them end-to-end, they would now stretch across the United States and be making their way to Hawaii." That strains credulity because, at about a foot long, it would take nearly 15 million cheeseheads to span the 2,800-mile continental United States. But looking around the stands at Lambeau, sports bars across Wisconsin and watching games on TV, it’s clear a lot have been bought.
(PHOTO: Jim Biever/Green Bay Packers)
6. There’s a psychological element to cheeseheads
From our unlicensed couch – and surely from Bruno’s polyurethane-filled original – we can argue the cheesehead is a celebration of our humble Wisconsin attitude, of not taking ourselves too seriously. While perhaps an indictment of our collective self-esteem that we’ve accepted a silly cheese hat as our unofficial state symbol, it’s also a confirmation of our confidence that we’ve embraced it. "We often refer to 'the spirit of the cheesehead,'" said the Foamation rep. "We have no clue what that really means, only how it feels. The really simple understanding is that you can't help but smile when you put on a cheesehead hat." Or as Donald Driver put it in a 2011 ESPN article: "I think the fans' love is exactly what the organization stands for with the tradition behind that. They don't have a problem with showing their character. That's the biggest thing, your character, because if you don't have a problem wearing the cheesehead, then no one else has a problem with you."
7. They’re not licensed by the NFL
Speaking of being an unofficial symbol of Wisconsin, the cheesehead is not an official league product, either. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who knows how the mega-corporate, mono-control NFL does business, but it certainly fits with the small-town, community-based, process-over-profit Green Bay motif. Unconstrained by league licensing concerns, the cheesehead brand line has expanded to include pajamas, fleece blankets, socks, rubber ducks and more. Last year, Foamation even manufactured a "Deflategate" hat for a client. Cheeky over cheesy.
8. It’s not real cheese
Obviously, the foam hats are not made from real cheese. And yet, according to the Foamation representative, every New Year’s Eve, "a few over-exuberant folks take a bite out of a cheesehead, then call us to find out if they'll get sick from it." They won’t, he assured, but maybe we should all stop doing that. More interestingly, cheeseheads are also not based off of any one type of actual ("known or real") cheese, he said. It’s a unique design specific to the company’s creation, of course, but most fans would agree the cheesehead is a fairly obvious amalgamation of three cheeses – cheddar (the color), Gouda (the wedge shape) and Swiss (the holes).
9. Celebrities, they wear them, too!
Rapper Lil Wayne, a renowned Packers fan, has donned cheeseheads. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum put one on in 2012. That same year, Bruno was honored by the Wisconsin Assembly for creating the iconic product. Bucks player Jabari Parker and Packer B.J. Raji have worn them, as have members of the American armed forces. Last year, Foamation custom made headgear items for musician Weird Al Yankovic when he played at Summerfest. Weird Al is the perfect pitchman for cheeseheads.
10. The Bears are trying to kill cheeseheads
The hat, that is, not the people wearing them. Chicago fans, who unintentionally inspired the whole thing, hate cheeseheads. And in 2013, some (astonishingly capable) Bears fans designed and wore (surprisingly clever) "graterheads" to violently combat Packers fans’ lovable headgear. Graterheads have been sold online and even in the Bears Pro Shop at Soldier Field. Sadly, our brutish friends from Illinois seem to have as much tact in the stands as their team has talent on the field. Green Bay has won 10 of the last 11 meetings with Chicago. Call it a lack of good taste.
And – we couldn’t resist – call Ralph Bruno the big cheese.
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.