Product: American Optical Company
It’s 1948. The war is over, but for many Americans Pearl Harbor is still a raw wound. Just a few years earlier, Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the thousands, robbed of their property and sent to internment camps. Anti-Asian sentiment still runs high.
Out comes this ad with the headline, Whose eyes are better?
Shocked? Surprised? Nope and nope. Racism (and other -isms) are par for the course in vintage advertising.
It’s the next line that’s the jawdropper:
Neither. American eyes are no better than others.
Wow. I was definitely not expecting that.
I’m pretty sure the American Optical Company knew exactly what it was doing when it ran a picture of an Asian woman and a white woman side by side with a provocative headline. I’d bet money they figured to catch a lot of people who were confident they knew the answer.
Then that little word: Neither.
Pow. Stereotypes exploded.
It probably caught a lot of people by surprise, just as it caught me by surprise more than 60 years later, albeit for different reasons. Whoever penned that ad was a savvy copywriter, skilled at eliciting reaction.
Lately I’ve been having way too much fun on a new website called What Was There. The idea is simple: take GoogleMaps street view and layer it with old photographs. In the site’s own words, it’s like a “virtual time machine of sorts that allows users to navigate familiar streets as they appeared in the past.”
The coolest part is the fade slider, which lets you slowly fade from the old image to the new and back again. Somewhere in the middle, you get this ghostly image of people from 100 years ago walking down today’s streets. It’s enough to give a history buff goosebumps.
The content is entirely crowdsourced so it relies on people like you and me to scrounge through old family photo albums and antique postcard collections, and upload them to the site. Uploading, tagging and placing a photo is really easy and takes only a few minutes.
I’ve also been exploring the images other people have uploaded. I think this one of horse-mounted hunters riding down a muddy single-lane Bathurst Street is my favourite. The contrast with today’s view is phenomenal.
What are some of your favourite street scenes?
Product: None Such Mince Meat
During World War I, None Such Mince Meat advertised its mincemeat pie filling by encouraging housewives to serve their country by baking “war pies” — pies baked without the top crust to save on flour. Such exhortations to be patriotic, make sacrifices, and save supplies were common in that era, as well as during World War II.
Can you imagine any company–or even the government–making the same kind of request today? People would be up in arms. Pardon the pun.
Post-script: I’m currently reading Jeff Rubin’s book, Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, about peak oil and what it will mean to our gas guzzling culture. The price of energy is going to go up, along with the cost of food, clothing and other essentials — all of which rely on oil for production, storage and transportation. It occurred to me that we’re already seeing the kind of conservation requests that None Such was putting forth in 1918, just not in support of a war effort. Instead, the requests today beseech us to do our part for the environment.
As prices for just about everything rise in the coming years, we’ll see more and more information about how to save and stretch what we use. Who knows, maybe War Pie will make a comeback as Green Pie. What do you think?
Date: ca 1900
The description of this purse is an epic paragraph made entirely of awesome. I don’t even know where to begin in telling you how awesome it is. I guess you should just read the whole thing for yourself.
The Wizard’s Purse which has just been placed on the market is the most mysterious production of the ages, and is acknowledged by all the great professors of magic and legerdemain to be the greatest little wonder and mystery the world every produced. A marvel of Japanese skill that puzzles them all, makes ministers nearly profane, doctors neglect patients, lawyers forget cases, and affords everybody lots of sport, also furnishes never failing amusement for all, defies and baffles all, and deceives the sharpest eye. Can you open it? You may say you can, but can you? It is without a rival — delights and astonishes both old and young. For the seeker of curious and difficult puzzles, its mysterious method of manipulation invites the most careful examination and investigation. This purse can be filled with money, and, with perfect assurance of safety, you can offer anyone its contents (if not in the secret) providing they will open it without cutting, ripping, or injuring the purse in any manner. To those understanding the secret, it can be quickly and easily opened, while to the uninitiated it appears impossible. As the purse is tightly double-stitched all over by both hand and machine, nothing so tantalizing was ever offered to the public. Elegantly made of fine imported morocco leather in a variety of handsome colours, and beautifully trimmed with silk, a perfect beauty, sure to please all. Full directions accompanying each purse.
Product: Bell Telephone long distance
Date: ca 1952
Think your cell phone rates are high? Or that long distance costs too much? Then thank your lucky stars you don’t live in 1952. Back then, Bell Telephone was trying to convince people to make long distance calls by touting these “low” per-minute rates:
|Pittsburgh to Cleveland||$.45|
|Boston to Philadelphia||$.70|
|Atlanta to Cincinnati||$.85|
|Dallas to Denver||$1.10|
|San Marino to New York||$2.00|
And these were the off-peak rates for calls made after 6pm or on Sundays! To put those rates in perspective, I ran them through an inflation calculator to see what you’d pay for the same calls in 2011 dollars. Here are the staggering results:
|Pittsburgh to Cleveland||$3.63|
|Boston to Philadelphia||$5.73|
|Atlanta to Cincinnati||$6.95|
|Dallas to Denver||$9.00|
|San Marino to New York||$16.36|
Can you imagine paying $16 per minute? I don’t think I’d be making too many calls to the grandkids at those rates.
Product: Waterbury Watches
*scratches head* You kinda have to wonder what the folks at Waterbury watches were thinking when they ran this 2″ x 2″ plain text ad with its small off-center headline in 1893. Though, honestly, the layout seems to be the least of their worries. I mean, who wrote this??
Maybe their target market was grumpy old men who found the acerbic retort of Charles Lamb, a British essayist and lifelong bachelor, to be the height of hilarity.
And maybe if you lived in the 19th century, you wouldn’t have to read the ad three times before understanding what the hell it meant.
Yeah, that must be it. I’m just not their target market.
Product: Ohio-Tuec vacuum cleaner
Don’t you just hate it when your man leaves his cigarette butts on the good carpet?
I collect postcards for the images on their fronts. Most people do. But every so often, the message penned on the back is far more interesting.
Take this linen postcard of the George Washington Bridge. Here’s the front.
Nothing too exciting. But flip it over and read the back, postmarked Oct 21, 1943.
This is a new set of New York City views and everyone seems to like them. Hope you have been well. What is your part in the war effort? I’m making ship plans for Henry J. Kaiser to use on the West Coast. Thanks for church view. - HWN
Henry J. Kaiser owned seven major shipyards along the American west coast. Together, these yards made more ships for the US war effort than any other company, including many of the famous Liberty ships.
And our postcard writer contributed plans to those yards. Pretty cool, huh?
Product: Dental Graphic Art
When I was editor of my high school newspaper back in the 1980s, in addition to collecting all of the content, I was also tasked with laying out each edition.
Luckily, I had professional mentors, graphic artists who worked for the same company as my mom and helped me out with tips and materials.
They let me pore through their huge catalogs of clip art — you know, the stuff you actually had to clip out and paste onto your page — to pick out images that would liven up the newspaper.
I remember choosing a pair of sunglasses to sit at the top of an interview we’d done with a local rock DJ. The same image came in multiple sizes, from tiny to big, so you could pick the one that fit best into your layout.
I hadn’t actually thought of those clip art catalogs in years, not until I came across this page advertising graphic art pieces for dentists to use in hawking their services.
I think the dentist selected the image of his choice at the size he wanted, and then probably received it as a wood cut or metal engraving (anyone know for sure?) so he could print all those lovely teeth on his marketing material and letterhead.
This one would make a nice tattoo, don’t you think?
Somebody had a sense of humour here: A banner promising “painless” dentistry from the fictitious O.I. Payne on Forcep Avenue.
But dentists, may I make a humble suggestion? Piece No. 8, with all the forceps, wrenches, picks, knives, corkscrews and whatnot on display? Not really selling the whole dental experience.
Product: Niagara Squirter
Date: ca 1900
Bedbugs got you down? No problem. The Niagara Squirter is a “great thing to kill bedbugs with.”
Plus it’s nickel plated.