by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 17, 2009
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Nineteen-thirty-five was not that great a year for America. The country was still in the Depression. It already lagged behind other countries in health care. Women were far behind men in status, freedom, education and financial security.
At the flea market a few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the June 1935 issue of a magazine called Woman's Home Companion and learned quite a bit about America back then. For 10 cents, bless it, it offered its female readers love stories by such excellent writers as Kathleen Norris and Willa Cather.
Eleanor Roosevelt had a column. In this particular issue, she was concerned that maternal mortality in America was "a dark shadow on our national health record... We must remember that this is serious not only from the point of view of the women themselves, but that it is as well a definite social and economic loss causing insecurity for the children left behind and broken families."
But that's just Mrs. Roosevelt and her social conscience. What was really important for the hardworking women who were farming, typing in steno pools, raising children, teaching, nursing and generally struggling? In this alternative universe, it was body odor.
And no matter how many people were still standing on bread lines, thank God the country could still buy oxtail, chicken, mock turtle and mutton soup in cans. Yes, Campbell's Soup was "Double Rich. Double Strength."
"Just think of it!," the copy gushes. "Any member of your family has only to express a wish, any guest has only to reveal a preference for a favored kind of soup... and you have it on the table in a trice... as made by the world's greatest soup-chefs... as made by Campbell's." (Exclamation points theirs, and Madison Avenue was really in thrall to the three-dot ellipse back then, wasn't it?)
A lady's best friend? Lucky Strike cigarettes, of course. What kind of women do men marry? Women who have "the essentially feminine quality of freshness, immaculateness of person" - and the cash to buy Mum's Deodorant. The "true" magic of soap? "It's Ivory, 99 44/100 percent pure - it floats." (They neglect to mention that it floats because it's mostly air.)
In fact, I was surprised at how many products are still around today. Windex, for example. And Crisco. Drano. Franco American spaghetti. Johnson & Johnson baby powder. Lysol, which even back then was fighting "Infection... the sly and deadly enemy of every home."
And Shredded Wheat. Morton's Salt (same package as today, believe it or not.) Wesson Oil. Clorox Bleach. Ex-Lax, which back then was "The chocolated Laxative." Lea & Perrins, "the original Worcestershire." Armor and Company - "To make men happy give 'em corned beef hash!" Pyrex was already making ovenware that "cooks on an average of 20 percent quicker." And then there was Tangee lipstick, a brand that has been revived by the Vermont Country Store.
They had celebrities back then, too. A few came from the entertainment world - no movie stars - but a surprising number were the forerunners of Paris Hilton - they were "socialites."
Maybe the stock market crash was the reason that "the beautiful Mrs. Kendall Lee Glaenzer... member of the immortal Lee family of Virginia... noted for her beauty and talent... her reputation as a hostess in Paris and New York" was pushing Listerine Tooth Paste.
Or why the incredibly soigné Miss Mary de Mumm of Newport - "where she made her debut" - touts Camel cigarettes. "In fact, when I'm a bit tired from a round of gaieties, I find that smoking a Camel really rests me." Also listed as preferring "Camel's costlier tobacco" were Biddles, Cabots, Carnegies, Coolidges, Lowells and Posts.
Mrs. Howard F. Whitney, Jr. was touting for Dodge. "So smart... so luxurious... I thought it must cost twice as much."
The illustrations, the clothing, the furniture - all in an art moderne or what you might call middle-class deco style - remain extremely stylish today. But you can see that even back in 1935, these magazines only existed so that Madison Avenue could create a demand for things people didn't really need. And it was all hard sell: "Use this toothpaste or be an old maid forever."
No wonder these companies - we now call them "brands" - have eaten the world. They've had at least 74 years to metastasize.
As I flipped through the pages, a famous French quote kept running through my mind: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la mème chose."
For example the magazine has a piece called "Women's Ways in Politics" written by Roosevelt's main man, Louis McHenry Howe. In it, he comes to the conclusion that - 40 years after women have won the right to vote, mind you - one of them might make a very good president.
"If the issues continue to be as they are now - humanitarian, educational, and all of the other features of the so-called 'New Deal,'" Howe wrote. "It is not without the bounds of possibility that a woman might not only be nominated but elected to that office on the ground that women better understand such questions than the men."
Then he qualifies such heresy by calling it a "prophecy which will be violently disputed by almost every man."
That was 74 years ago. We haven't nominated a woman yet. You see, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.