Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Attic Archaeology

No, this isn't about archaeology in Athens. This is archaeology in my own attic. (Sorry, James. I know you're disappointed.) One of the more interesting bits I uncovered while mucking about in the attic (other than that whoever built it didn't own a straightedge, plumb, or level) was an old magazine from the 1950s. The May 25, 1958 edition of the American Weekly to be precise, and apparently a Chicago edition from the subhead.

The impression one gets, on the whole, is of an reformatted Reader's Digest. You have the cute cover art, mildly interesting info-trivia, a patriotic piece, an interview with some celebrity of some sort, veiled politics, ads (of course!) and sections of jokes.

First, the cover.

A workman in the attic would surely have appreciated this image of a dog pulling out the ladder from under this guy.

You could readily surmise one of two things:

  1. Cute, situational-comedy illustrations were the de facto standard of the day; or,
  2. Norman Rockwell was someone to be emulated.
I tend towards the latter explanation. Which of these items is the chicken, and which the egg — that could be an interesting discussion.

On the patriotic front, right the inside front cover, we have the "Proud to be an American" series, where we're presented with — and I quote — "Another in a series of stories about how some obscure individual has given new significance to the principles that made this country great." We should have such helpful subtitles in our own day and age.

Homework was apparently a big issue of the day, given the impassioned response to a March article called "Let's Abolish Homework" by Junior-high principal Dr. Charles M. Shapp. The response, titled "Let's NOT Abolish Homework" by Jr. high teacher Stanley M. Levin, M.A., states that,

...if conscientious students had no homework, they would be depressed and anxious because of wasted time, lack of direction, unproductivity, and restlessness.
    It is a known fact among teachers that many parents and children complain about the small amount of homework that is given. It is also a known fact that conscientious children are the ones who benefit most from homework. And the Russians have reminded us that this is the time when we must allow our talented students to realize their highest potential.
Last week's TIME cover story on "failing our geniuses" and it's indictment of No Child Left Behind seems to indicate that this isn't a debate that's going to be solved anytime soon.

You can just about identify the time period from the drawing style alone. Given today's illustrations, this decade will probably be known as the time when "everyone had huge heads and tiny bodies."

In a perhaps-related article, "Truth and Myth about What you Eat" set out to debunk what were ostensibly common beliefs of the day, such as, "If you have some food left over in a can it is advisable to toake it out 'just to be on the safe side.'" or the idea that deep thinking requires as many calories as heavy labor, or, inexplicably, "carrots make your hair curly." These required debunking? Really?

The ads themselves are a fascinating bit in their own right.

"HALO glorifies as it cleans." The guy is, according to notes elsewhere on the ad, "Jimmie Rodgers, singing star of Roulette Records." There's no such credit to the girl, or even an entire face, so, presumably, "Use out shampoo, and (no matter who you are) you can get a guy like Jimmie Rodgers to look at you twice."

A number of things struck me about the ads in general:

  • There were a lot of food ads. Things like Hellman's Mayonnaise and Hunt's Tomato Sauce merited full-page coverage, and things like restraint, cholesterol, and calories weren't considerations. The photo of mayo being poured by the ladleful into hollowed and fancy-cut tomatoes (as containers for a vegetable dip, I think) turned my stomach. Likewise, the can of condensed milk being poured out onto what looked like english muffins topped with tomato slices struck me as... odd.
  • Properties of products were advertised that we wouldn't think twice about today. Wesson Oil takes the smoke out of frying. (Underline theirs.) This deodorant lasts ALL DAY. Wait, didn't it always? The latest thing on the runways of Paris is eye makeup — "Fashion magazines are showing mascara, eyebrow pencil, and eye shadow as basic parts of the costume, as necessary as gloves or handbag."
  • Scientific or exotic sounding names and features were selling points, many of which are still around today under different, usually more humble guises.
    • "NP-27" was the sure cure for athelete's foot. (This now goes by the brand name of Tinactin.)
    • "Incabloc" made your new watch more modern, more precise, and prolonged its life. (No details were given in the ad, but a little research uncovered that this was a shock-absorption system to protect the jewels commonly used as bearings. The company still exists.)
    • The mysterious and miraculous "Tefla" made bandages not stick, as demonstrated by two photos of a child smiling sweetly or scowling as the bandage came off her face. (Tefla is still a selling point for Curad.)

And, throughout, a sampling of jokes:

"Nick Kenny claims that there are 25,000,000 overweight people in the U. S. today. That's in round figures, of course."

Not surprising, given the mayonnaise ad elsewhere. I'm guessing 25 million today would be a cause for celebration, rather than alarm.

A young savage knocked cautiously at the door of Robinson Crusoe's hut.
"Good morning," he said politely.
"Well, for Heaven's sake!" gasped Crusoe. "Isn't today Thursday?"
"Yes, sir"
"Well, buzz off, old chap. You're not due here until tomorrow."

I don't get it. Maybe I should read Robinson Crusoe sometime.

Or, perhaps, the education system has failed me, as Robinson Crusoe was never assigned to me as homework.

If any of this brings back memories, or you have an explanation for some of these things, feel free to chime in on the comments!


Jonadab said...

Yes, you should read Robinson Crusoe, but plenty of people who have not would still get the joke. All you need is to know the names of the two main characters. The title characters is one; it's the other as is relevant. Considering that the name of this character has become an established idiom for a secondary character or sidekick (see for instance this movie), I suspect most Americans would get the joke, without having read the book.

Not that the joke is really all that funny, mind you.

jps said...


Too new to be archaeology, or maybe I'm too old and am a candidate for archaeology myself :)