- Historic Sites
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
Even if she passed the test of the “Hesitating Hand,” a young lady was certain to encounter many other fateful firstimpression judgments. In the episode of the “Open Door,” she and her husband faced the greatest social crisis of their five-year marriage: they had taken the bold step of inviting the vice-presidentin-charge-of-sales and his wife to dinner. For days the eager young wife planned the dinner menu. Her husband researched and rehearsed several topics for appropriate conversation. But both completely forgot about their tasteless front doorway, with its lack of beautifully designed woodwork. And neither realized how dreary and out-of-date the furniture they had purchased soon after their marriage had become. Thus, all their efforts at preparation came to naught, for their guests formed an indelible impression during “those few seconds” from the “touch of the bell” to their entrance into the living room.
Twenty years later, with the husband still third assistant for sales at the small branch office, they anxiously passed on to their children a hard-won bit of wisdom: “Your future may rest on what the Open Door reveals.”
These dramas from advertisements of the late 1920s suggest the pathos with which copywriters could recount the popular parable of the First Impression. According to such tableaux, first impressions brought instantaneous success or failure. In a relatively mobile society, where business organizations loomed ever larger and people dealt far more often with strangers, the reasons one man gained a promotion or one woman suffered a social snub had become less explicable on grounds of long-standing favoritism or old family feuds. One might suspect that almost anything—especially a first impression—had made the crucial difference.
Sensing their power in these circumstances, advertisers made use of the parable of the First Impression. Often they modified the basic formula of the tableau slightly to fit their particular product. Clothing manufacturers stressed overall appearance; makers of gum, toothpaste, and toothbrushes promised a “magic road to popularity in that first winning smile.” Williams Shaving Cream stressed that powerful initial impact of the “face that’s fit” for the “double-quick march of business.” All agreed that “it’s the ‘look’ of you by which you are judged most often.” One of the most important effects of preparing carefully for that crucial first impression, many ads suggested, was the sense of self-confidence it created. A lovely frock, washed in Lux, would enable any woman to overcome an inferiority complex and feel a “deep, sure, inner conviction of being charming,” Dorothy Dix counseled readers of the Ladies’ Home Journal . The House of Kuppenheimer confided to the up-andcoming young man that “someday your father may tell you how a certain famous letter k in his inner coat pocket … put confidence in his heart … the confidence born of good appearance. And so helped him land his first job.”
The parable of the First Impression taught that these impressions were being formed constantly and almost instantaneously. Only because she was constantly prepared could the heroine of a Dr. West’s toothbrush tableau pass the “Smile Test” during that moment when a handsome man picked her up from a fall off a speeding toboggan. A charming hostess who failed to obtain stylish new furnishings would henceforth be condemned to “lonely afternoons, dreary evenings” for being unprepared for acquaintances who called once out of courtesy but never came again. One ardent suitor completely destroyed the good impression he had built up over months “when she noticed a hint of B.O.” as he knelt to pop the question. There was no appeal from such judgments; no way to escape the constant surveillance. The Cleanliness Institute of the Association of American Soap and Glycerine Producers counseled: “Everywhere we go the people we meet are sizing us up. Very quickly they decide whether we are, or are not, from nice homes.”
Advertisers of home furnishings applied the “nice home” idea broadly. Johns Manville, for instance, argued that roofing shingles bespoke the “taste and standing of the family” and SherwinWilliams cautioned that “many a man has been rated as lacking in community spirit … even as a business failure —merely because of a paint-starved house.”
Advertisers of bathroom furnishings and fixtures boldly applied the parable of the First Impression to the innermost recesses of the home. If every room told a story, then this most hidden and intimate of rooms would clearly reveal family character. In “The Room You Do Not Show,” discerning visitors would find a quick index to your standards and “beliefs on how a civilized person should live,” a Kohler Company ad proclaimed.
The C. F. Church Manufacturing Company narrowed the focus ever further: “The bathroom, most of all, is a clue to the standards of the household and the most conspicuous thing in the bathroom is the toilet seat.” Little wonder that the man in the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company tableau, who had just learned of the impending visit of an influential business associate, thought first of the “old-fashioned wood toilet seat” as his mind’s eye quickly scanned his house for social flaws.