Time travel: communists, cold wars and cancer

Vintage Summer: In the final part of the series, we compare a 1954 issue of Time magazine with one from today

The world the magazine continues to report on has changed irrevocably in the intervening decades: from left, Time in 1954; part of a prescient ad in 1954 promoting the rocket power of the Aerojet-General Corporation; and the issue of August 4th this year

The world the magazine continues to report on has changed irrevocably in the intervening decades: from left, Time in 1954; part of a prescient ad in 1954 promoting the rocket power of the Aerojet-General Corporation; and the issue of August 4th this year


In August 1954, Time magazine cost 1/6 in the “British Isles”, 95 francs in “French Possessions” and 100 fils in Iraq. The ad on the inside back cover of the August 30th edition was for the Aerojet-General Corporation’s rocket power. “Rocket power is the only means of propulsion that attains increased efficiency at extreme altitudes, permitting tremendous speeds, long range, and minimizing the possibility of interception,” it read.

Sixty years later, for its August 4th issue, the cover of Time bears out this prescient statement in the grimmest way. Russian leader Vladimir Putin is pictured striding forward, casting a shadow of a jet plane behind him, a reference to flight MH17, which was downed over Ukraine by a rocket missile, killing all 298 people on board.

I found the 1954 issue of Time at a flea market in Ennis, Co Clare, and bought it for €1. The cover features a painting of U Nu, then prime minister of Burma, a country described as “pulling itself out of chaos”. In the cover story, however, the reporter makes it clear that “Burma is still a land of violence, compounded now by some of the inevitable parasites of Socialism: graft, bureaucratic confusion, the arrogance of petty officials”. Decades of military dictatorship lay ahead.

In 1954, this was the only key news story in the magazine. In 2014 there are four: the cover on “Cold War II” about Putin and MH17; an article on Qatar as host of the 2022 World Cup; a piece on American rollercoasters; and a profile of the chief executive of US cable TV company Comcast.

Some things remain the same. Both issues retain the red frame on the cover. The font and size of the famous title haven’t changed, although now, of course, there is full colour inside, and writers have bylines, which they didn’t in 1954. But the world the magazine continues to report on has changed irrevocably in the intervening decades.

The word “Negro” – with a capital N – is scattered liberally through the 1954 issue. It is deemed newsworthy that “brainy Ernest Wilkins, 60, became the first Negro to attend a White House Cabinet meeting as the representative of a department”. Did “brainy” Wilkins dare to dream that one day the US would elect an African-American president? He never lived to see it himself.

A report on a Gallup poll states that 79 per cent of those interviewed across the US were “opposed to letting Red China into the UN”. China was referred to at all times as “Red China”.


The gossip in 1954

Time in 1954 also features a page of gossip, because, the column explains, “names make news”. Nothing new there: entire magazines now trade exclusively on gossip about personalities famous and not so famous. The difference is that the way gossip is reported in the 1954 issue would probably make lawyers hyperventilate today. This is decades before PR companies placed invisible shields between themselves, their well-known clients and the media.

Take this report on a divorce hearing: “Appearing in a Swiss court for a divorce hearing, glamorous socialite Joanne Connelly Sweeny Patino, 23, told a sympathetic judge that her husband, Bolivian tin heir Jaime Ortiz-Patino, was ‘a real sadist, who often beat me.’ Matter of fact, complained Joanne, things got really rough on the Isle of Capri: ‘On our honeymoon he beat me so much I had a miscarriage’.”

In medicine, the lead story wonders how bad the polio epidemic of 1954 is going to be; that year, 12,699 cases have been reported in the US alone, it reveals. By 1979, the US would be polio-free, but this must have seemed an unattainable goal 25 years earlier.

The other main story in medicine that week is “Emotions, sex and cancer”. Reading this story from a distance of 60 years is like reading terrible fiction. Nobody is a “patient”; they are all “victims”. Readers are told that “medical men are turning up more and more evidence that there is a connection between the emotions and cancer”. Research teams across the US have apparently “found that the average victim of breast or prostate cancer was unable to express such basic drives as anger, aggressiveness, or sexual impulses”.


Cancer research

Another team of researchers, at New York Hospital, “compared 100 women with cancer of the cervix and 100 with cancer not involving the reproduction system. They found that sexual adjustment among the cervix cancer victims had been poor long before they developed the disease: they had had less intercourse than the others and rarely enjoyed orgasm.”

Those with cervical cancer, the article suggests, owe its cause to “emotional stress”. Furthermore, many of them are also “divorced, deserted or separated”. So the message in 1954 appears to be: if you’re happily married, you needn’t worry about ever getting cervical cancer – it only happens to women who don’t enjoy sex or have been deserted.

One column that has been lost in time is the glorious Miscellany, a ragbag. It was ahead of its time: similar snippets now thrive and are widely shared on the internet via social media.

“In La Ports, Ind, Louise Cooper, 48, complained to police that she had been abandoned at Clear lake by her husband and brother after a fishing trip on which she tangled her lines, caught nothing,” runs one snippet.

Another reports: “In Atlantic City NJ, Mrs Mary Clark, 39, pleading guilty to a charge of drunkenness, explained that she followed her dentist’s advice and gargled some whisky to deaden the pain, ‘but some must have spilled down my throat’.”

The Milestones column remains a regular feature of the magazine today, marking key events in the lives of well-known people. The August 4th issue for this year profiles actors Elaine Stritch and James Garner, both of whom died recently.

In 1954, one of the deaths recorded in the August issue is that of Francis Mariotte: “(alias Frank Diamond) 61. Al (Scarface) Capone’s muscleboy during the racketeering heydays of the ’20s and ’30s; of a shotgun blast (triggerman unknown) fired as he was opening his garage in Chicago’s West Side. Swarthy, hotheaded hoodlum Mariotte made a fortune as manager of Capone’s far-flung network of brothels; since 1948 had been a Chicago contractor.”

Now there’s a death notice of a kind you’re not likely to see now.

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