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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
Women’s apparel led the way in the ensemble parade with the sale of purses, for instance, increasing fivefold between the start and end of the decade. In women’s hosiery, so rapidly did shades and textures expand to enable precise matching with other elements of the clothing ensemble that the number of separate items produced by the Holeproof Hosiery Company grew from 480 in 1920 to 6,006 in 1927. A Printers’ Ink writer noted in 1928 that expensive jewelry had largely given way to the preference of women for a large variety of rings, bracelets, and necklaces to harmonize with their various ensembles.
By 1930 advertisements for lipsticks, compacts, watches, and even cameras were promising color and style choices that would contribute to the harmony of the consumer’s ensemble. Elgin advertised women’s watches in several “Parisienne” styles. Each was designed by one of the “great couturiers of the Rue de la Paix to join your hat and your handbag, frock and flower, shoes and shingle, in composing the perfect ensemble .” Although the watch still had a functional value, its preeminent role was to provide the “fashionable touch that emphasizes your entire smartness as an exclamation point accents a sentence.”
Meanwhile, the idea of the ensemble spread to the automobile, the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bathroom. With Corona’s offer of a choice of six typewriter colors for “perfect harmony” with the user’s environment, it even invaded “that little nook of a study where you write.” The Ternstedt Company introduced the ensemble into automotive fashion with built-in “ensemble sets” of vanity and smoking cases. It urged consumers to notice how perfectly the paneling and the “theme design wrought into the metal” of the cases harmonized with each automobile’s “interior color scheme and appointments.” Du Pont, the manufacturer of Duco refinishing paint, beckoned the “gypsy-hearted motorist” to reflect on the changing natural hues of Indian summer. “Your car—it too can change its garment”; it could harmonize with the “golden orange of the hills or the soft gray of the fields.” Hupmobile Motor Company went further. One of its advertisements asked: “Does the [car’s] contour reflect the modern mode for restrained and governed grace? … Are the accessories placed where they accent the design as tellingly as the correct shoes, hat, and handbag point a costume? … Are the metal trimmings chosen to touch the ensemble with brilliance as skillfully as you choose your jewels?”
Since women sometimes carried cameras as well as handbags, the Eastman Kodak Company reasoned, why should this additional accessory be allowed to disrupt the unity of the ensemble? In 1928 the company brought out the Vanity Kodak, a “highly ornamental and intensely personal” camera “designed to echo the color scheme of the particular costume.” These came in five colored leathers—“Sea Gull (gray), Cockatoo (green), Redbreast (red), Bluebird (blue), and Jenny Wren (brown).”
Silverware might appear even less amenable than cameras to the new strategy of merchandising on the basis of color harmonies, but Oneida Ltd. remained undaunted. They introduced a line with colored handles to form a tasteful ensemble with other table accessories. The handles had the “translucent rose-red of rubies, the clear blue of sapphires, or the scintillant green of emeralds” and would blend with the silverware “in chords of color.”
Reason might suggest that the rage for color ensembles could go no further. The B.V.D. Company perhaps reached the limit in urging a wife to “keep [her husband] decorative even in his underwear”: “Make him a better boudoir decoration.”
While the idea of the ensemble unquestionably appealed to advertising leaders on aesthetic grounds, its virtues as a merchandising strategy were at least equally attractive. In some industries the ensemble provided a welcome solution to the “bugaboo of market saturation,” as Printer’s Ink expressed it. For the woman who aspired to a stylish image, the purchase of a new dress now involved the additional purchase of matching shoes, hat, handbag, and color-coordinated hosiery and jewelry. She might even realize a need for new shades of underwear, makeup, lipstick, and fingernail polish as well. Once accepted, noted a writer in Printers’Ink , the prepackaged ensemble idea was a perfect tool for the smart retailer who “wants to sell a customer as much as he can in the shortest time with a minimum of floor and counter space.”
A flush of anticipation colored the cheeks of the beautiful young lady as her escort seated her at the elegant table. It was her first important dinner among the city’s smart set. But as the butler served the first course, her excitement turned to terror. “From that row of gleaming silver on either side of her plate, which piece shall she pick up?” Suddenly she sensed that her chance of being invited to such an affair again—in fact, her whole future popularity—would be determined by this first impression of her “presence.” As her social destiny hung in the balance, “she could feel every eye on her hesitatins hand .”