From Poodles to Presley

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Bought for me as a present over ten years ago, this book remains the firm favourite of my entire collection. No matter how many times I look at it, I still discover something new and entertaining. This 350 page, hardback is packed, cover to cover with fantastic, full colour pictures, illustrating every aspect of 1950’s advertising. 

The book covers alcohol and tobacco, automobiles, food and drink, fashion, industry, science and travel. Each picture is so detailed that you can study it for hours and soak up the 50’s atmosphere. There are appearances from many well know characters such as Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Regan, Liberace and John Wayne. Ironically, the cancer victim is extolling the virtues of mild, Camel cigarettes. Beyond the immense visual impact of the book, it provides a brilliant insight into social norms and attitudes of the time. Smoking is particularly interesting; shocking even, as a picture of a toddler is used saying, ‘Before you scold me Mom, maybe you should light up a Marlboro!’ 

Other memorable slogans include, ‘They’ll know you’ve arrived when you turn up in an Edsel,’ and Wanted – More men like Mike!’ Film posters also provide a lot of fun with titles such as, ‘I married a communist.’ 

Another interesting theme is the role of women, who are always placed in a subservient role, often looking up admiringly at men like Mike. The best they can do is find time to look beautiful because modern appliances have made their lives so easy and full of leisure time. An advert with a woman opening a fridge in a full evening gown is such an example. 

Scientifically, it’s a bit of a hoot to see what typewriters and massive ‘super fast business machines’ look like. It seems to be an era of confidence and faith in the future and technology. This is epitomised by some sputnik designs and the beautiful rocket wings on Pontiacs and Cadillacs. Indeed, the car section is stunningly beautiful even to someone who is not an automotive enthusiast. 

Despite all of these fascinating social and design features, the book is above all something to simply look at and enjoy from Be-bop glasses to long-johns, scary shaped bras and curvaceous women, poodles to Presley, it’s all there with more kitsch than a Barbara Cartland boudoir. It is noticeable that the primary medium is illustration rather than photography and that the amount of written product information runs into paragraphs of pseudo-scientific jargon and schmaltzy, sales pitches. 

If you love advertising, if you love design, social history and would like to find out ‘how rayon makes your home say – come on in,’ then this is undoubtedly the book for you and it’s sure to bring you as much high octane, gas guzzling pleasure as it has me.

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