When I moved with my family to Chicago at the turn of the millennium, we were not without misgivings. Ex-New Yorkers returning to the States after a decade in Europe, we packed most of the predictable prejudices about the Midwest: Were we abandoning the cultural riches of Mitteleuropa for the banality of Big Brats and the Bears? Were we trading a global center for a provincial one? Was “the city of big shoulders” just an overblown cow town?

The cows did not help. In the autumn of 1999 Chicago’s city center was littered with life-size, kitschily painted cows: cows in dinner jackets, aprons, funny eyeglasses, and rhinestones. There were cows bearing the faces of Mayor Daley, Kurt Cobain, and Dora Maar. There were checkerboard cows, polka-dot cows, starred and striped cows. We had just left Berlin, a city in which public space was understood as a complex and contested domain, embedded with historical legacies, political overtones, and economic conflicts. Chicago’s cows, with their cheery obliviousness to divisive ideologies or past tragedy, seemed bizarrely—even suspiciously—dumb. We questioned the natives: Why cows? What did they signify in Chicago? Was this a subversive allusion to the slaughterhouses that helped build the city’s fortunes? Surely, we thought, they must mean something?

But they didn’t. The purpose of the Cows on Parade, it turned out, was not to provoke scrutiny of Chicago’s urban fabric, but to bring crowds into the city’s premium retail strip and (secondarily) to raise money for charity. The idea had been borrowed from Zürich, where in 1998 some 812 fiberglass cows had been painted by local artists and installed throughout the town at the behest of the city’s tourism office. (The Zürich event was itself a recapitulation of a 1986 project which had employed lions, the city’s emblem.) A Chicago shoe shop owner named Peter Hanig had seen the Zürich cows while on holiday, and convinced his hometown merchants’ associations and city bureaucracy to import the idea. Cows on Parade was thrown together in a few months, using Chicago area artists and the same models of fiberglass cow as in Zürich.

There was, however, one big difference. In Switzerland, cows are icons of rural Alpine life: Swiss tourist shops are chockablock with carved wooden cows, Edelweiss-bedecked cowbells, silver cow charms for bracelets, verdant cow postcards. The Zürich exhibition had been called Land in Sicht (Countryside in Sight), suggesting an interpenetration of urban and rural modes. In Chicago, however, the cow carries no such iconographic weight (especially as these cows are recognizably Swiss—most American cows are hornless.) The importance of the cows in Chicago was, as Hanig once said, that “they are large but non-threatening, maternal, nurturing and friendly,” and they provide a lot of area for paint. So they really were dumb.

That dumbness has been key to the phenomenal subsequent spread of the CowParade. The Chicago cows were not, as we feared, symptomatic of a local insipidity: the Chicago event was followed by CowParades in New York, Paris, Florence, Monaco. There have now been more than 50 CowParades around the world; they have appeared on every continent save Antarctica. All are organized by CowParade Holdings, a Connecticut company that supplies the cows, the trademark, and the organizational expertise.

As in Chicago, the cows are painted by local artists selected through an open call and paid about $1,000 per head. This cost is born by the cow’s “sponsors,” mainly local businesses, who frequently select designs that call attention to their firm. Though there is an injunction against “blatant advertising,” it is common to find aproned waiter cows in front of restaurants, broker cows (with The Wall Street Journal) in front of investment firms, and camera-toting tourist cows in front of travel agents. Over the years thousands of artists have painted thousands of fiberglass bovines, which have been viewed by millions of passersby. After the cows are exhibited for a few months, they are auctioned off for charity.