August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
Soap was more than a cleansing agent, and an automobile gave you more than a ride. Here are the ideals of the 20’s in the slightly bent mirror of the
The Twenties brought us modern advertising, partly a curse, partly a side-show looking glass in which to catch a kind of distorted image of the new society. It exaggerated our needs, anticipated our dreams, banished the lingering reticences of gentlefolk, and prostituted a great section of the American press. But it also served an economic purpose. The economy was booming: new products spewed from factories, and people had the money and the urge to buy them. Moreover, advertising had become respectable to most people. Bruce Barton wrote a best seller, The Man Nobody Knows , revealing that Jesus Christ was really the greatest salesman of all time, and Calvin Coolidge declared, to an enthusiastic business convention, that “advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade.”
After only a few decades, old advertisements become the stuff of history—a little untrustworthy, perhaps, but nonetheless social documents. A glance through old copies of The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazar, Vogue , and upstarts like Time and The New Yorker , can even evoke great waves of nostalgia for that fast-moving decade. Immediately noticeable, for instance, is the accent on youth—not flaming, necessarily, but certainly glowing. The fact that the young man in the Arrow collar ad could have been a stand-in for F. Scott Fitzgerald- whose first fame came before he was twenty-five—didn’t hurt sales a bit, and the lady displaying her Holeproof hosiery was obviously of the same generation.
She was more than that, however. She was daring, for she was exposing, in the most casual way, more of the female form than Americans had ever before considered decent. Only a couple of years earlier a shoe company ad had quoted a gallant: “I don’t need to see a girl’s face to know what she is like; I can always tell by her shoes.” The general aim was good, but the elevation was off by approximately twenty inches, for skirts were going up, and would not stop until, among the “collegiate” set, anyhow, they reached knee level.
The ad men took full advantage of that, and of many other aspects of the revolution in morals. There was a new freedom of expression: copy writers could talk about all sorts of things that in earlier days had been considered too intimate lor public attention. The pursuit of happiness had become largely synonymous with the pursuit of the opposite sex, and a thousand products were boosted on just that assumption. Soap, cold cream, shampoo, shaving cream, toothpaste, hair tonic, disinfectants, deodorants, depilatories—all, it turned out, were indispensable in the logistics of love.
Sex appeal aside, the emphasis in advertising was openly hedonistic. Everyone wanted to get more out of life, and get it faster. Smart was the key word: if you were smart you would rapidly acquire as many of the new products as your income would allow—or even more, since in the Twenties nearly everything began to be sold on the installment plan. There was free entertainment in your living room every night- if you had a radio. There were self-heating irons, refrigerators that made their own ice, furnaces that almost operated themselves, and new brands of cigarettes so scientifically made that they were good for you. You could send for Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book and get a liberal education almost overnight, and you could keep your hair neatly parted in the middle with Stacomb, joyfully unaware that it was greasy kid stuff.
And then there were the motorcars—ah, the cars of the Twenties! There were nearly all the makes we know today, plus a fascinating score or so that have, alas, disappeared except from antique car rallies: the Essex, the Franklin, the Kissel, the Cord, the Maxwell, the Marmon, the Oakland, the Stutz. Many oE them had rumble seats, and romance and the automobile would thenceforth remain devotedly if sometimes illicitly joined together. It was, indeed, an ad for the Playboy, a Jordan sports model, that became possibly the most famous in the annals of Twenties advertising. “Somewhere west of Laramie,” it began, “there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. …” Clearly, a car was more than transportation, and soap was more than a cleansing agent—as the following sample of Twenties ads suggests.