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The Golden Age Of Advertising
The twenties and thirties saw a host of new ways to separate customers from their money. The methods have not been forgotten.
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
The major breakthroughs in both color and design occurred between 1924 and 1928. After Willys-Overland pioneered with the colored “Red Bird” car in 1923, General Motors, with the new Duco synthetic lacquers, introduced multiple colors in its 1924 models with gratifying results. Meanwhile, Fisher Body ads accentuated the association between automobiles and high fashion. The Parker Pen Company had recently demonstrated that consumers would respond to the attraction of a bold terra-cotta red barrel on so mundane and utilitarian an instrument as a fountain pen. The Crane Company began offering booklets on color in the bathroom in 1925, and Hoosier Kitchen Cabinets cautiously tested the market for color in late 1924 by coming out with units in “French Gray.” Meanwhile, academic psychologists analyzed color preferences—by sex and class, by the attention-getting power of certain colors, and by the “feelingtone” of various color combinations. By 1927 a writer in Printers’ Ink had enthroned color as the “sex appeal of business.”
The evolution of Cannon and Martex towels in the 1920s illustrated how quickly tentative ventures into color and style could kindle the flame of aesthetic sensibility into the raging fire of a full-blown consumption ethic. In the early 1920s a towel was still a utilitarian staple, an accessory to the Saturday-night bath, and was available only in plain white.
But in 1924 the Cannon Manufacturing Company cautiously initiated consumer advertising, and by 1926 it was trading heavily on style. Cannon produced a “class” towel at four times the average retail price and introduced not only color but decorative designs. It employed a professional designer from Macy’s to plan decorative motifs of whales, flamingos, dolphins, ships, and lighthouses. Meanwhile, Martex towels had already engaged René Clarke, an artist and designer with the Calkins and Hoiden advertising agency, to convert its plebian staples into images of exotic sensuality. Martex advertisements in those years displayed towels with feathery fronds and a band of clear blue water in a bathroom with a “sea-blue wall covering and green fish at the water spouts.” Cannon now escalated its merchandising drive. By 1928 it was subtly promoting increased bathing through advertisements that praised readers for their “wisdom” in adopting the habit of a bath a day. Ads even suggested more than one bath a day. They explained the benefits from such indulgence through a series of advice-laden “bathing recipes”: “Because the first towel absorbs impurities from the skin it must never (under any circumstances) be used again before washing.” The textile manufacturers were not alone in the color crusade to emancipate the bathroom from prim utilitarianism. By the late 1920s the Crane Company, the Kohler Company, and the American Sanitary Company were advertising color options in plumbing fixtures and tantalizing the public with luxurious full-color illustrations of model bathrooms. Freed from all connotations of shame and reticence, the bathroom rose to the status of a showplace of style and opulence. The American Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation dazzled readers with ornate depictions of its Roman-style bathroom with Pompeian motif and its neoclassic Pembroke Model in a Directoire setting. As early as 1927 a Cannon ad proclaimed that the “pistachio and orange” bathroom had supplanted older “plain vanilla affairs” in the public imagination.
The next color conquests took place in the kitchen, the bedroom, and the cellar. By the mid-1920s, color in low-cost kitchen items had been widely introduced. By 1928 the Hoosier Kitchen Cabinet Company was advertising the “new Hoosier Beauty” in such exotic tints as “Venetian green with Oriental red interior.” Early in that same year Printers’ Ink informed readers that the “humble gas range” was about to “blossom riotously in rainbow hues.” Several electric refrigerators appeared in 1928 in “four intriguing colors.” In the bedroom, advertisers found that the introduction of color and style could even increase consumption of items that usually were not visible. Sheets and pillowcases had previously been “bulk” goods, unbranded and undecorated. But the Pepperell Manufacturing Company brought out the Lady Pepperell line of color sheets and pillowcases in 1928, with an accompanying booklet describing “Personality Bedrooms” in which the sheets harmonized with a woman’s complexion. The “daintiness of Orchid,” for instance, made it “particularly suitable for the ‘feminine’ type of woman, the woman with delicate, fair skin, small features, and a figure of slight proportions.” It was suitable for “blue eyes, black eyes, and gray eyes —if the lashes are dark.” Within three months competitors had announced their own colored lines.
The crowning achievement of advertising’s emphasis on color, beauty, and style in the 1920s was its popularization of the idea of the ensemble. A passion for harmonies of color and style swept through one product area after another—including such unlikely items as galoshes, bedsprings, and automotive accessories—resulting by 1929 in a number of major merchandising successes.