Jewish World Review Dec. 12, 2002 / 7 Teves, 5763

Catherine Seipp

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Consumer Reports


The gift of time travel


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | (UPI) People who think time machines are impossible haven't spent, as I have, many happy afternoons poring over old magazine ads.

These ephemeral pieces of pop culture were never designed for the ages; by their very nature, they speak always to YOU, the consumer of the moment, to buy their products right NOW.

And so, by the eternal immediacy of the hard-sell, they miraculously transport you back to a lost world that -- just as long as you keep flipping the pages -- lives again.

So come on, Mr. 1943 Patriotic American, get yourself a Hickock belt -- it'll belt Hitler and Tojo right across the face! Look here, Mrs. 1957 Housewife, "tugging at a girdle is so awfully necessary" with ordinary girdles -- just see that pathetic creature clutching her behind in the grocery store aisle.

Imagine yourself instead standing in the middle of the store looking radiantly happy even though you're wearing nothing but Permalift's Magic Oval Panty. But that's OK, because it "can't ride up -- ever!" By the '60s, we're on to those famous "I Dreamed I Was a (fill in absurd occupation -- gladiator? Boxer? -- here) In My Maidenform Bra" ads.

The most effective way to achieve this sort of psychic time travel is via stacks of intact old magazines, complete with articles and tables of contents and letters to the editor. But Taschen, a German publisher that last summer moved its U.S. headquarters from New York to Los Angeles, has for the past year been releasing an "All-American Ads" series of thick coffee-table collections of old ads.

Besides making fine presents -- I've never met anyone who, once picking up one of these books, could put it down until at least half-an-hour had passed - these collections serve as a fine visual history of 20th-century American pop culture.

Last fall Taschen released two volumes, one on the '40s and another on the '50s, in which I saw the ads described at the top of this story. This month, the latest entry, on the '60s, hits American bookstores. At almost 1,000 pages, it's the thickest collection so far, a decision Taschen made because of the huge number of baby boomers attracted to their own personal past. The publisher expects that the '60s volume will probably be its best-seller in the series.

If you're a baby boomer -- and according to the demographic odds, you probaby are -- a warning: Flipping through the '40s and '50s volumes is a exercise in vicarious nostalgia, a virtual time travel trip to a world before you were born. But the '60s ads can hit you where you live.

For me, the surprise sucker punch came when I saw the 1969 ad for Love cosmetics, which I vividly remember reading, in a state of intense fascination and delight, in a magazine while lounging by my grandmother's pool.

Since I was 12 at the time, I was at just the age to actually believe the "hope in a jar" message of all cosmetics ads. And the Love campaign was particularly brilliant, with its clean, spare photography and sound-bite copy:

"Love's Fresh Lemon Cleanser has fresh lemon in it. Lemon that makes hair squeak. Makes Martinis shriek. Now makes your face shiny, sparkling clean. Yet soft. Refreshed. Less oily. Because of its fresh lemon. $2.75."

What a wonderful, glamorous world that ad promised to a credulous 12-year-old, especially with its implication of future, "That Girl"-like sophisticated martini parties. How differently things actually turned out, as they always do.

And how I wish Grandma were alive again, bringing me a big plate of macaroni and cheese out to the pool while I lazily read magazines in the sun, and that my five-years-older aunt (Grandma's unexpected late-life daughter) was still a snotty teenager refusing to go swimming with me, instead of bossily giving me sponge baths in the hospital like she did last summer, a place that at age 12 I never NEVER thought I'd ever spend much time ...

OK, I'm back from that rather bathetic little trip down memory lane. Look through these books, and I'm sure you'll find your own.

Anyway, back to Taschen. The art book publisher plans to release a volume on the '30s this spring, followed by a book of '70s ads in late 2003 or early 2004. Other planned volumes in the series include one on '20s ads, and then a collection of really old ads, from 1900 to 1920.

"The '70s is a really hard one for me to get into," sighs Jim Heimann, the Los Angeles graphic designer and Art Center of Pasadena instructor who edits the "All-American Ads" series, partly from his vast personal collection of old magazines regularly replenished at swap meets.

"I was already working in the design field by the '70s, and I've kept all the magazines I worked for -- Oui, Playgirl, California," says Heimann, who recently became Taschen's executive editor. "For me, it's revisiting life 30 years ago, and I don't always feel like I want to go there." Right. Who does?

Meanwhile, the three volumes available offer an irresistable look at mid-century consumerism in its innocent, optimistic prime. The vanished society of those times still amazes Heimann.

Bare-bottomed soldiers could be shown cavorting in a pond in the '40s without any thought of homoeroticism, he points out, while men could be pictured racing after bottles of Schlitz at a company picnic in the '50s without any suspicion that maybe these guys have a bit of a drinking problem.

"It is a loss of innocence," Heimann says of how we see these things now. "People weren't concerned with lawsuits."

So companies could have beer at their annual picnics, which in any case pale besides '50s ads of babies being handed cups of 7-Up, or sadly suggesting to their nicotine-addicted mothers, "Before you scold me, Mom, maybe you'd better light up a Marlboro." Not until the '60s does the first anti-smoking ad appear.

And what a change from the war years to comfortable, kid-centered '50s and '60s America these old ads reveal.

A Rosie the Riveter type announces in 1944, "Whew! Imagine the dishwashing in a war plant without Dixie cups!" Ten years later, Mom's well-manicured hand isn't riveting anything; instead it's doling out cups from a kitchen-size Dixie dispenser (which "ends between-meal clutter") to happy kids dashing in from a suburban backyard.

There weren't any Dixie cup ads in the new '60s volume, but under the same consumer products category you can see the social changes that decade brought. "When dad says he's weird 'cause he wears a beard," announces an ad for Oneida flatware, speaking to a young woman who's evidently moved out from her parents' home and is introducing them to her rather goofy-looking bearded boyfriend.

"Invite him over for dinner," Oneida advises. "Let Dad see for himself what a groovy guy he is ..."

The '60s ads show, for the first time, blacks who aren't servants. Instead they're regular little girls with matching black Chatty Cathy dolls, or women in glamorous Pucci-patterned dresses that need to be washed in cold-water detergent.

"In the '40s, they were still always servants, or Pullman porters," says Heimann. "And I don't know how many permutations of Aunt Jemima I've seen in the '30s. But you know, in some ways, this really hasn't changed so much. In my Art Center classes, I always ask my illustrators, 'Does it HAVE to be a blond, white person?'"

"And go through Vanity Fair or GQ and count how many black or Asian models there are," Heimann added.

The Taschen ad books show how 1950s America was a world of optimism and plenty, with cheerful scenes of California patio parties featuring Swift's "table-ready meats," and everything from refrigerators to typewriters available in pink.

Ad agencies in the '40s, on the other hand, had to acknowledge privation and sacrifice. Inconvenienced travelers were told they might be giving up their seats for soldiers; housewives counting ration points were reminded that skinless franks are a "no-waste food."

The unlikliest products were linked to the war effort. "Just ask a Jap what it feels like to be up against men who are fortified with Vitamin C," announces an ad for canned grapefruit juice.

By the '50s, foods revolved around kids. A fat-faced boy happily forks down canned spaghetti so "light, white, fluffy" it's "like eating cake." By the '60s, astronauts and the Space Age were used to sell everything from Popsicles to (of course) hideous dehydrated drinks like Tang. And even the venerable Campbell Kids went psychedelic.

The Taschen series also hints at how dreadful American food used to be, a fascinating topic in itself. In a fit of kitsch appreciation a few years ago, I decorated the kitchen cupboards of my 1942 house with a collage of food ads clipped from 1942 issues of Ladies Home Journal.

"Take a BIG tip from Hattie the Hackie!" reads a Derby Foods ad hawking "tender and tangy" lamb tongues in a jar. "Why not skip the lodge tonight?" a woman asks her husband. "Spam and beans?" he responds happily. "Er, well, I might."

But perhaps no food of yore is as revolting as the 1969 ad in the Taschen '60s book for "The Metrecal Steak," which shows a woman's hands trying to cut into a bowl of Pepto-Bismol pink soup with a knife and fork.

Strawberry-flavored Metrecal in a bowl. Yum! Still, it does take you back.

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JWR contributor Catherine Seipp, who writes the weekly "Cathy's World" column for UPI, is a columnist for Pages, the books magazine and has also written features, commentary and media criticism for Mediaweek, American Journalism Review, Penthouse, Forbes, the Weekly Standard, TV Guide and Reason. Comment by clicking here.


© 2002, UPI