Servitude, sex and slavery: decoding old magazine ads
A Vintage Summer: A trawl through old ads is funny, but also a jarring reminder of past social truths
Clockwise from main, the Caribbean bath ad (1973); an ad for Wondermash, a kind of piped concentrated mashed potato, from the same magazine; an ad for a Chin Strap (1948); and an ad for a Formica kitchen (1965)
One of the most fascinating ways social history becomes visible over time is through printed advertising. Ads capture the zeitgeist. They reflect what was popular at the time, be it avocado- coloured bathrooms, concentrated mashed potato, or a truly terrifying 1948 contraption called a “Chin Strap” that promised the wearer “amazing new loveliness to throat and chin”.
Ads in vintage magazines can be more interesting than the articles. I have spent some time mining my collection of old magazines for ads to show to Eoghan Nolan, founder and owner of Brand Artillery, an advertising and branding agency. He was the creative genius behind the One Million Dubliners poster advertising Glasnevin Cemetery.
We start with my 1948 copy of American Cosmopolitan. I’m struck by how wordy most of the ads were; long pieces of copy. “It was a type of long-form short-form writing,” says Nolan. “Lots of novelists started out in copywriting.”
We look at the 1948 ad for Bell Telephone System, which reads more like an essay about the marvel of the telephone: “Stranger than any Jules Verne fiction is the trip your voice takes by telephone . . . The wonder of it is that the words sound like you and are you, with your own tone and mood and personality.”
“It evokes that childlike fascination with the future that America really embodied,” says Nolan. “It’s sweet and naive. We’re too sophisticated for this now. But there used to be an expectation that copy would be quite poetic, gazing in wonder at the new. There’s not much wonder in advertising now. It’s all about selling things to you.”
In the same magazine is an ad for a product that is still sold in 2014: Tampax tampons. “I’m surprised enough that ad is there in 1948,” says Nolan.
The copy begins: “How would you like to feel many years younger, and twice as active – like a schoolgirl on holiday in the spring?” I react to this ad by laughing at the bizarre suggestion that use of a personal sanitary item would make you feel years younger. “It says, ‘Invented by a doctor’,” Nolan points out. “That’s giving the ad a medical authority figure.”
As for the chin strap that promises a “lovelier profile”, we both howl into our sandwiches. “She looks like Hannibal Lecter,” says Nolan. The ad comes with a coupon at the bottom. “Coupons were the first examples of early direct marketing. The US had a history of distant purchasing, due to the size of the country, which is why Amazon became so successful so fast.”
Both of us are charmed by the ad for KLM in Time magazine in August 1954. “Cocktail hour on the skyway to America,” reads the caption.
“The three-martini lunch was already popular by then,” says Nolan. “The connection between alcohol and sophistication was very high, and when you add the glamour of air travel at the time, it becomes very desirable.”
In a 1965 edition of House and Garden is an ad for a Sleepeezee bed, with a woman in a fur coat standing alone, yawning suggestively beside it.
“It’s hinting at the sexual revolution that’s coming,” says Nolan. “This ad for a bed is about a bed and rumpy-pumpy. I think she’s very scantily dressed under that fur coat.”
We read the text about the Sleepeezee’s many merits. “An unbelievable, almost sinful, comfort lulled in the arms of zephyr-like pocketed springs and gossamer-like upholstery, all of which conspire to weave an enchantment about your limbs.” We giggle. “Take your husband now to see the Sleepeezee.”
“The reference to the husband in that ad is clarifying that she’s married, and they’re not advertising a high-class knocking shop.”
There are other ads for beds in this magazine. One is for a single bed. “What is the most important piece of furniture in your husband’s career? Not his desk. His bed. His responsibilities are heavy. At work and at home. He worries about them, and so do you. Both of you are often tired. Both of you really need your sleep,” reads the copy.
“So this bed is not about rumpy-pumpy,” says Nolan. “This bed is about work and sleep. It’s aimed at a wife, and it’s suggesting they have a single bed each, for the purpose of sleep.”
As well as beds, I look through scores of ads for curtains, carpets, and kitchens. This 1965 magazine has a grim ad for a Formica kitchen, with a mother and daughter baking together. “Woman’s work is never done. A woman’s day starts in the kitchen and the kitchen light is often the last she puts out when bed at last beckons. No room in the house knows more of her time; nowhere can planning do more to lighten her life.”
“This seems old-fashioned even for the time. It’s kind of horrible,” says Nolan. “Stating that a woman’s work is never done is assuming a certain social truth about the era. Women were captive in the home in the 1960s. The ratio of car drivers was six to one, male to female. So the woman was stuck in the home, in the kitchen, and all these kitchen ads are about making that prison as bearable as possible. It’s also making it clear this is work, not pleasure.”
He reads out more copy. “The beauty of Formica surfaces gladden a housewife’s heart.” Even in the colour ad, the brown Formica surfaces look about as beautiful as pools of congealed gravy. We look at the mother and daughter baking. “That’s the replacement woman for the next generation being trained up,” Nolan says. “And what’s creepy about it is that they’re making gingerbread men.”
A 1973 copy of House and Garden has an ad for a Vogue bath called the Caribbean, with a Caribbean-looking woman in it; the only non-Caucasian-looking woman I notice in any of the magazines. The headline invites us to “Take a dip in the Caribbean”. We look at it in appalled silence.
“You wouldn’t see that today,” says Nolan. “It’s crude on so many levels. Terrible. It’s technically crap as well as being wildly morally dubious, because initially I didn’t even realise it was advertising a bath.
“So you have one kind of woman being treated as a modern slave in her kitchen, and then there’s another woman, not many generations away from actual slavery, being used to advertise a bath.”
Another ad in the same magazine, for the marvellously named Wondermash, cheers us up again. “Wondermash and the excitement of real French cooking,” runs the headline over a vile-looking dish of piped concentrated mashed potato, decorated with grapes, and surrounding some indeterminate white food that resembles used tissues.
“Ah, Wondermash,” Nolan sighs in recognition. “I’d forgotten about it.” It soon fell victim to the runaway success of Smash, he says. He draws my attention to the grapes. “Grapes were very expensive in the early 1970s and only bought for sick people in hospital. They signal wealth and sophistication.”
So, if you wanted to show off to your dinner guests in 1973, you bought grapes (connotations: France, wine, sophistication, wealth) and used them to decorate “the best mashed potato you can buy”.
Frankly, the “wonder” of Wondermash in 1973 is that anyone ever thought there was anything wonderful about reconstituted mashed potato.
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