Today we have new commentary on advertisements from Katharine Kipp, graduate student in the History department at U.C. Davis
In searching through images to write a new blog, I wandered aimlessly through the thousands of ads that Roland Marchand expertly collected. I amassed a list of at least twenty that were entertaining, astonishing, and thought-provoking or sometimes all three at once. Ads for face creams, corsets, laundry services, laxatives, and cleaning products filled the pages but I remained stumped. Which to write about and what to say?
Taking the advice of the expert History Project teachers I have watched over the years discuss strategies for engaging students with primary documents, I stood back and looked at the list as a whole. I was struck by the obsession with health, youth, and beauty. Unable to put my finger on exactly how to define this phenomenon, I turned to textbooks and articles to help answer my questions. But they just did not get at the heart of what was happening in the 1920s. Finally, I turned to my fellow History Project bloggers for help and it was Patricia Cohen’s post, From advertising to middle age that was ultimately the key. She writes, “zeroing in on the physical body, the market whips up insecurities, creating a sense of inferiority, then sells the tools that promise to allay those fears.” And this explains precisely the ads celebrating health, youth, and beauty in the carefree and liberating days of the interwar period.
For example, this 1929 ad for Hinds Honey and Almond Cream “Don’t stare at me like that…” features a husband and wife whose leisurely day at the beach. Their outing is marred by the husband’s realization, “What’s the matter with your face?…Looks rough. Your face and neck used to be as smooth and young as your shoulders.” The ad narrates the horrified response of his wife as she realizes “If he had noticed, what about the critical world? Was that why other men seemed less interested—why other women were no longer envious?” Having established the problem, skin damage over time from exposure to the elements, the ad proceeds to provide the answer, in the form of Hinds Honey and Almond Cream that helps refresh skin exposed to the sun too long and even prevent sunburn.
Advertisers of health products utilized the strategy of identifying a new insecurity their merchandise could solve. For instance, Lysol Disinfectant’s 1927 ad “His empty shoes” is a startling and fear-producing ad. It advises mothers, “be sure—whatever may happen—that you have really done your best to protect your family against germ life.” Interestingly, this ad allows the reader to determine its meaning. For some, the empty shoes simply mean that at night, while children sleep, is the ideal time to ready their precious shoes for the next day of playing, doing one’s best to maintain healthy environments for children to grow and learn. For others, the empty shoes with laces untied, forlorn and forgotten, symbolizes the tragedy of losing a child. The ad cautions mothers that this tragedy is avoidable if they use Lysol as part of their daily cleaning routine. Regardless of how the reader interprets the ad the end message remains the same: “have you done your best?”
Look here for more 1920s ads.