The Ghosts of Advertising Past

The art of advertising as we know it was invented in the 1930s. Class envy and B.O. would never be the same.


A. Kam Napier
My brain has moved to the 1930s.

It's all because of a book I got for Christmas. It's called All-American Ads '30s, and it's just 768 pages of full-color 1930s ads, for everything from Plymouths to mothballs. The publisher, Taschen, specializes in art books and restored the ads to like-new brilliance. Reading it is like falling back in time, into both the elegance of the early '30s and the penny-pinching pragmatism of the Great Depression.

People often talk about how cheap things were in the old days, and at a glance, these ads confirm that truism. But people also forget that paychecks were tiny in the old days, too. So I ran some of these prices through an online inflation calculator for a more accurate read. Some things we buy now really are more expensive than they used to be, but others much cheaper. For example, before TV came along, families gathered around handsome, wooden, floor-model RCA Victor radios. In 1938, you could pick one up for just $89.95. Sounds cheap, until you realize that's the same as spending $1,172 dollars on a radio today.

Tired of scrubbing clothes by hand? In 1931, one alternative was the Wardway Gyrator Washer, the deluxe porcelain model cost $155. That's $1,875 in today's dollars, and for that price, you'd still have to run each garment through the built-in wringer to squeeze dry them.

Automobiles were works of art, even the lowliest economy car sculpted with an aerodynamic, Art Deco flair. But the ads teach that not even shapely auto bodies ensure success: Franklin, Packard, Pierce Arrow, La Salle, Marmon, Oakland and Reo-all these common 1930s rides are just rust and history now.

In 1931, the automotive "value sensation," was a two-door Essex, at $595, or almost $7,200 in today's dollars. One of the cheapest new cars you could buy in 2004, the Chevy Aveo, lists for about $12,000, considerably more expensive. But the Aveo, unlike the Essex, actually has seat belts. And dual air bags, air conditioning, shatter-proof glass, a built-in alarm and an optional MP3 player. OK, the Aveo is butt ugly compared to the Essex, but I guess you can't have everything.

Hats were another stylish element of the 1930s. But I had no idea what an investment a hat was. A crisp fedora, the Stetson "Casino" in pewter gray, sold for $10 in 1937-that's about $130 contemporary dollars worth of hat. No wonder men went chasing after their hats when the wind snatched them. In the Depression, I guess men hung on to their one good hat, even when going hat in hand.

Vices were sold in the '30s with a zeal we'd find unseemly now. With Prohibition repealed in 1933, booze ads exploded. How odd to see some familiar brands in an unfamiliar context, though. Take the ad for Budweiser-a single bottle towers over a big-city skyline, while in the foreground, men in suits dance with women in ball gowns to the accompaniment of an orchestra. What a decline to "Whats-UUUUUUUUUP!" and talking frogs.

Then there are the cigarette ads. I tend to think today's anti-tobacco movement has crossed over into hysterical Puritanism, but even I can't swallow such text as: "Healthy nerves and good digestion enable you to glide over trying incidents and get the full enjoyment out of working, eating and playing. No wonder that so many who make their mark in the world today are steady Camel smokers!" That digestion thing is very likely untrue. (The emphasis on workplace success, however, is distinctly Depression-era, appearing in ads for all kinds of products.)

One of the hottest toys in 1939 was "the sensational new Daisy 1,000-shot Red Ryder Carbine." In other words, a BB gun. Just $2.95 ($39), and, "Boy, what fun! What a gun!" Now the issue of giving toy guns of any kind to children has become a, er, loaded one. (Daisy's slogan these days is "Teaching America to shoot safely.") But interestingly, Daisy now sells a nostalgia edition of the Red Ryder, for about $38. Same design, same hardwood stock, but in some kind of kiddy arms control, its ammo capacity has been reduced to 650 BBs.

Who the heck is Red Ryder, anyway? The old ad tells me that he was "America's favorite cowboy," star of a syndicated comic strip. "He's six feet of red-headed trigger lightning. Courageous. True-blue. Friend of the poor. Foe of the wicked."

Red Ryder may be a '30s character, but he sounds like a man for our times.

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