Even with the many dramatic events happening in the world today, most of us spend our time talking about mundane things—the weather, the score of last night’s game, the restaurant down the street that just opened, the cost of a loaf of bread. When writing The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy—and yes, the first chapter of the final entry has just been completed!—I have incorporated just such conversations in order to make the characters as real as possible, and the best way to find out what mundane events folks were talking about is to peruse periodicals and magazines of the time. I did this recently with the July 17, 1944 issue of Life magazine. The lead article was entitled, “Task Force 58” about the Navy’s “great cruise to break the Japanese power in the Marianas.” The cover story was about the fashion trend of young women wearing peasant clothes. Ironically enough, there was also a story about the Japanese beetle invasion, which had begun a mere 28 years before, as well as other features. Looking back 74 years, however, the most interesting thing in Life are the advertisements.
Almost every ad had a war theme. Bell Telephone, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, Borden’s, and Sanka coffee urged readers to conserve. Indeed, Borden’s noted that while cheese was a rationed commodity, “Elsie [the cow] says, ‘If your husband was good today—do this . . . if he’s bought an extra war bond on the way home . . . Or if he’s been working in your victory garden since suppertime . . . SHOW YOUR APPRECIATION, LADY! Give him some of that swell Borden ‘s Cheese that he’s been hankering after!’”
Dot Fasteners, Stromberg Carlson, Statler Hotels, Chrysler, and Scotch Tape reminded readers that life would be better and their products and services would be more readily available, once the war ended. Indeed, NBC ran a full-page ad explaining that once victory had been achieved, the development of television would be renewed. Some companies proudly pointed out the manner in which they were contributing to the war effort. These included Plymouth, Veedol Motor Oil, Shell Oil, Grace Line Steamships, and Sperry. Mobil ran a two-page color spread touting its contribution to the war effort, as well as how things would be better once victory had been achieved. “War-Power For U. S. Planes Today—Driving Power For Your Car Tomorrow!” reads part of the copy regarding “Mobilgas.”
Even an ad for Hollander Furs, which featured an elegant woman descending a staircase, and clearly not wanting to remind readers of those sacrifices already made and those yet to come, contained a tiny tag that read, “. . . next to WAR BONDS, the best loved gift . . . FURS.”
Other advertisements for Ansco Film, milk, Gaby Suntan lotion, and Pequot Sheets reference in some way the soldiers themselves.
The old ads are fun—“Jeff” the husband in a Colgate ad when informed by his wife that he has bad breath, says, “Zowie! No wonder you’ve been glum, chum! Mister Dentist, here I come!” They are colorful. They tell stories, some containing more plot than half our modern movies, and one can sense a growing optimism that the war would be won.
Still, the old ads make me sad, for they also suggest that, unlike today, there was only one demographic to whom these diverse ads were meant to appeal: Americans.