Someone recently told me I was kind of like an urban archaeologist, finding clues and details about the past and reporting back about them for further examination. Maybe I am, kind of a scientist, an excavator, an explorer, rummaging through piles of old brochures and articles, finding the unknown and rare artifact and presenting it for the interests of others. Truth is, I just like looking for old buildings, movie theaters, gas tanks, bridges and the like, but beyond that, I do like to think I am finding things more meaningful, more revealing and more telling about how we have changed and who we have become.
Perhaps something as seemingly innocuous as a newspaper ad can be revealing in its own way. A deceivingly simple format, the right ad might say something more meaningful than a classroom history lesson or detailed explanation might. In an attempt to demonstrate, I present three unrelated old advertisements from the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s.
1. “It’s cool inside, Suh” (1933)
Racism throughout America is no doubt still with us, but imagine Amtrack or another major national corporation putting out an ad like this now. The showing of two black men, one carrying a white mans bags while the other talks in a southern drawl, the connotation is hard to miss.
Yes it’s deplorable, but in defense of the railroad company, I looked through quite a lot of Penn Railroad ads before I came across this one. The others were in no way offensive at all. Even so, to say that this ad is anything less than surprising would be inaccurate. Sadly, I doubt that a single red flag of protest was raised in reaction to this ad when it was printed.
2. “Eat Me” (1945)
In 1945 the Florida Tangerine Growers ran a series of ads using the simple catch phrase ‘Eat Me’ along with their fruits. The ads noted that tangerines were ‘wholesome and with a zipper like skin’. We have to assume that the ads were perceived quite innocently at the time and that not a single wise crack was uttered when they were printed. We have to also assume the ad campaign writers were simply promoting their product in a witty way and in no way trying to suggest anything involving oral sex. The authors had no idea that if we looked at this today it would essentially take on a totally different meaning, one that would effectively wipe away the original one from the ad almost completely.
When did the change in meaning take place? When did it become an expression that can’t be used in the form shown in the ad, at all? I have visions of the movie Animal House and a rogue parade float with these words emblazoned on the cake (the lettering is also eerily similar to that of this ad). The float was on its way to ramming the entire stand of distinguished guests, most of which would undoubtedly not understand the sexual meaning of the expression. Did we as a society lose some part of our innocence when the perception of the expression changed? Did something about us change when it happened? I’m not sure but I know we wont be seeing this ad or slogan again anytime soon in the newspaper.
3. “Polio Precautions” (1950)
Finally we come to polio and the precautions you have to take to avoid it in 1950. Since the vaccination will not be available until later in the decade, you have to rely on these and any other measures you can take. Polio is nothing to fool around with, it is very communicable and catching it means you might lose your mobility or even your life. Children are particularly susceptible, and they can get it from anyone. This must have greatly affected how comfortable we felt about letting them play with other children. Note the warning at the top of the ad, it says they should avoid new groups. The bottom of the ad goes on to mention that children should be ‘be kept away from people they have not been with before
Could you imagine today telling your child not to play with new friends? We no doubt still have much to worry about with respect to disease, and that other children can still be a threat, however I think most of us dont have to resort to that warning advised of in this ad.
I hope to continue in my archaeological search and reveal more about us through what I can find from our past. Maybe 30 years from now someone will find an ad of mine (at etoner.com) and prove it to be revealing of something unique or unusual about our time. Maybe the person presenting it will be me.