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Tuesday, 26 May 2015


Canadian advertising photos from the 1950s
 “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”
William Bernbach

A collection of Canadian advertising photographs, of everyday household objects, of stuff. They were taken in the 1950s, something the packaging tells us at once. They tell us things we don’t think we need to know but are the very fine details without which we couldn’t understand the past, such as what products Mr and Mrs Average Canadian bought at the supermarket and what did they keep on the shelf behind the bathroom mirror. This is a world so ordinary it looks alien.

 Madmen was set in the same period these photos were taken, when the middle classes became prosperous in a way they hadn’t been able to for a generation, when ad agencies started making serious money, and when advertising became associated with a kind of ruthless creativity. At least that was the way it was in the top end magazines like Esquire and Vogue, who pushed the notion that brands mattered to the modern man and woman, as though they might as well be be naked without Johnny Walker in one hand and Philip Morris in the other. But same time, different world. Down in the real world of mid level incomes and struggling aspirations, advertising was still about product more than image. TV dinners, deodorants and lingerie could be depicted according to the same formulae because there was no need to vary. (Most of these photographs would have ended up in catalogues or newspaper ads.) 

 Whatever Madmen might suggest, the accounts that photographers have left us suggest most of them treated advertising as hack work, done only to pay the bills. A handful achieved a glamorous status but most disavowed the very idea. Technically all that was needed to fulfill the Bionet contract was knowledge of the basic rules, mainly what the lighting set-up should be. Madmen is actually about people in our contemporary TV world. Acutely, even cynically aware of how dull and shallow that place is, they are trying to sell the image of glamour, not to us but to themselves. 

 A stamp with the name Jack Markow appears on the back of two of these prints. The Markow studio address was at 1827 St Catherine St Montreal. The building still stands, now occupied by an art supply store and a martial arts gym.  Some quick research reveals that Markow was born in Montreal in 1921 and died there in 2001. As with a lot of commercial photographers, his legacy is scattered throughout various archives yet it tells us little about him. A man on hire who prolifically photographed medicinal products, bar mitzvahs, evangelical meetings, Quebec nationalists and new buildings in the CBD will tell us less about himself than someone whose output was narrower and in shorter supply. To understand Markow, we need to find the snaps he took of his family, but maybe they don’t exist. Maybe the busman’s holiday didn’t appeal to him; the mere thought of picking up a camera became physically painful for Jack Markow. Would you be that excited if you had just spent all week photographing diuretics.  

It is just coincidence that so many of the two dozen photographs bought in this collection are of pharmaceutical products, yet it may not be. The 1950s were the beginning of the modern age of the pharmaceutical industry, when there was not only a product for every minor complaint but it had the imprimatur of various government departments. This was a time when the side effects of drugs were often discovered once they had been on the market a few months. Today, conscientious doctors advise us that a little pain is not necessarily a bad thing but in the 1950s discomfort of any intensity was something to be avoided. We can thank the war for that. Firstly it had necessitated a series of pharmaceutical breakthroughs, and also the postwar peace encouraged the avoidance of pain. It was as though the Government was leaning over and asking, in a kindly voice, haven’t you suffered enough?


But back to the original point, the one about stuff. Those of us born too late to experience the 1950s can be persuaded that things were better back then, and by things we mean stuff, not politics or lifestyles. Well it’s true that in the 1950s cigarettes didn’t give you lung cancer and Coke wasn’t responsible for diabetes, and we’re always being told that a new packaged pie tastes like pies used to, which means like they ought to. When we look at the Steinberg’s ‘kitchen fresh’ (whatever that means) chicken pie, do we not wonder if it would taste more like a chicken pie should to our jaded senses? You can bet it was horrid: a sludgy confection of artificial pastry and gravy surrounding some pink cubes of former chicken, but at a time when the world feels harder, more insecure and less generous place than it was when these photos were taken, nostalgia for a non-existent taste sensation stands in for other illusions as well.

 So, did all the things we see here come about because we wanted them, or was it because advertisers told us that we did? Was BO a problem before deodorants appeared or did it become one only after a solution had been found? In 1957, contemporaneously with these photos, Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, which didn’t just expose some of the tricks advertisers used but argued that the real danger was that political machines were beginning to use them. Half a century of wonder drugs and lotions later, the question is more refined: have we become inoculated?


Thursday, 7 May 2015


Postcard views and their written messages
 “I don't film messages. I let the post office take care of those.”
Bernardo Bertolucci

Usually the correspondence on the backs of postcards is perfunctory and not worth a second glance. Someone has arrived somewhere and the weather is fine, or not. (What is this peculiarly English compulsion to start a postcard by describing the weather?) The very public face of the postcard discouraged people from revealing too much and serious correspondence required the traditional sealed letter. Occasionally however a card turns up with a written message that enhances, contradicts or otherwise changes the way we look at the image. This one, to a Mr. T. P. Carson of Polk St in Minneapolis, was posted from Hague, North Dakota on the 14th of July, 1911 and reads:
Dear Brother;
I am sending you just a glimpse of myself, my old man and my buckskin pony. You must excuse me for not writing but I have been so busy. Will write you a long letter soon. Hope you are as well as we both are. Love to you from us both.
Your sis, Mrs J Berg.
We can hear a rural Midwestern accent in her phrasing, and that odd mix of familiarity – ‘Sis’ – and formality - ‘Mrs J Berg – is also found in the image. The photographer was most likely a friend and the Bergs look like they are on their way to church; all dressed up with the wide and empty plains of North Dakota behind them. Image and text tell us a lot about the relentlessly long and dull struggle the prairie farmers endured at the turn of last century.

Around the same time and across the Atlantic an unidentified woman wrote from West Hill House in Hastings to ‘A’. West Hill House is a listed building, which in the 1930s was occupied by the popular author Catherine Cookson. With the resources of the Hastings library at hand it wouldn’t be that hard to track down the author of our card, which reads:
Thanks very much for the P.C of last night it came as a pleasant surprise. I am sorry Eva could not see you last night I have not heard from her so I do not know if she has gone to her new place or not. I had a postcard from Frank (Eva’s brother) this morning he wanted to know if I got home safe last Wednesday night & said he was sorry he did not see me again (Don’t laugh) I am sorry it is ended with your girl through us but still if your not worrying it doesn’t much matter does it I’m afraid there’s not much love lost between you.
The absence of punctuation, the sloppy grammar and the catty tone point to someone in her late teens or early twenties. Note her acknowledgement, even the faint boast, of the part she played in breaking up the relationship between A and his girl. A few years later she could be cast as one of the flippantly cruel young socialites in Evelyn Waugh’s novels. Notice that ‘A’ sends her a P.C but Frank sends her a postcard. I suppose casual abbreviation was one way she distinguished friends from hopeless dolts. Note too the otherwise straight topographical view she has chosen. West Hill House is probably visible in this image, which is why she selected it, but she is unaware that her choice of image reveals how prosaic and suburban her outlook really is. 

 To Germany on September the 13th 1909, where Ella writes to Miss Alice Duvet in Dorchester and in three brief sentences tells us a lot we may one day find useful.
Wouldn’t this stop a clock? In 7 days we start sail for America and if possible will land in 12 days. Most likely it will be 14.
The expression, to have a face that would stop a clock, was current at the time and referred to someone who was particularly ugly. Ella sounds too polite to brand anyone else that bad looking so we can assume she is the woman in the photo. Is that her father with the camera? The person who took this was most likely another family member or a local photographer working the tourist market. The most interesting detail is in regards to the time needed to cross the Atlantic. There’s quite a discrepancy, a whole 48 hours between 12 and 14 days, even for the mechanized and technological 1900s. If a face could stop a clock, heavy fog and storms could halt an ocean liner. 

As previous posts have claimed, Fred Judge was the quintessential British photographer, meaning not just that he photographed the life and the land in detail but it is also hard to imagine him working anywhere else. A couple of sentences in a Hastings newspaper from the 1910s suggest he may have taken a brief trip across the Channel to Calais. That, for Fred, was about as exotic as the world got. The number of the card indicates the photo was taken circa 1910 and the scene is somewhere along the south coast of England, most likely between Brighton and Hastings. So far there is nothing remarkable to say. But read on …
Dear Femihan
I received your letter of April 9th and enclosed a page on May 3rd, yesterday May 27th. I am thrilled by this news! “CHEERS”! But dear, do come quickly, before I go … It will be tragic if you arrived when I’m gone!! … I leave Cairo for Dhour el Choueir, Lebanon; (that’s my address) at the beginning of July. Won’t you be here before? I hope & pray. I rang up the Diara (?) today, your uncle could not give me any news as he knew none! Hoping to see you with all the longing of “long absence” Yours, with love, Leila.   
Leila Mestrick has posted the card from Cairo, Egypt to Femihan, who lives in the Maltepe district of Ankara, Turkey. The punctuation and underlining for emphasis are all Leila’s. But how does a very English postcard get mailed from Cairo? Leila has also dated the card May 28th ’45, which helps explain things: this was during the weeks of progressive surrender by the German forces and Britain would have been in control of Cairo. Leila’s surname is also English, so presumably she married an Englishman. Notice how her English is impeccable though she emphasizes ‘cheers’, a very British idiom, indicating that English is her second language. Femihan speaks it too, demonstrating what we can already read; both women are from educated, prosperous families. Interesting that although we know the photograph was taken on the English coast there isn’t a single detail within it to indicate that. It could have been taken anywhere. Leila’s choice of card was deliberate. She didn’t want one showing a distinctly British scene, of castles or sheep in the fields. Is it too much to see the image of waves crashing on rocks as an allusion to powerful emotions that Femihan would get even if the English hubby didn't? And was there a newsagent in Cairo selling English papers, stationery and postcards or did Leila bring a supply of postcards over from England? Both possibilities tell us something about the British colony in Cairo during the war.


Thursday, 5 February 2015


Postcards of Edwardians at play
“The English are not happy unless they are miserable.”
George Orwell

 Barely a week goes by without the BBC trotting out some sentimental panegyric to the Edwardian era; documentaries about the grotesque excesses of the royal family or the precarious health and hygiene of the working class, soap operas about life at Carbuncle Manor and dramatisations of classic novels, where actual drama was often in short supply. The crusty old stereotypes are rarely disturbed. Upstairs, there will be one sexually repressed woman and one cad, usually her brother. Downstairs, a scullery maid will have to leave paid employment on account of getting pregnant to person unacknowledged, while a footman regularly spends his half day off getting plastered with one of a dozen girls down in the village. But the most predictable element is that the middle classes will scarcely get a walk on part. Office clerks, schoolteachers, nurses etc aren’t considered to have anything interesting to contribute to our knowledge of that period between the death of Queen Victoria and the First World War. It seems their lives were monotonous but neither sufficiently horrid nor indulgent to hold our attention. Fortunately, we have thousands, possibly even millions of postcards that tell us otherwise. The Kodak was a social machine. Dressing up suddenly became a lot more fun with a camera on hand, but wherever there was a party, an outing or anything more interesting than the day job, the Edwardians were diligent about recording themselves.

 During the 1900s photographic companies and department stores regularly held competitions for amateur photographic postcards. It isn’t unusual to read of organizers overwhelmed by several thousand submissions. Kodak was after sales, the department store wanted customers, and the photographers wanted to see their work on a wall. Call that ‘everyone goes home a winner’: high art was never the point. Cute kittens, flower arrangements and what we think of as human interest were more likely to catch the judges’ eyes. They would have jumped at a scene like this; People sitting outside of a bandstand at a seaside resort: the young, the old and the in-between. Several people dozing, one woman knitting, another reading, a boy looking bored as, like everyone else, he waits for something to happen; it’s a snapshot of English society. The curious thing here is how everybody has turned up to hear the band. It seems that taste in entertainment had little to do with age back then, but maybe the music didn’t matter. Heading off to the bandstand after lunch was one of those things you did as a matter of ritual.

  Every town and village had its amateur dramatic society. In the popular imagination the local ADS was a beehive of eccentrics and misfits, any one of them mad enough to kill, and consequently a staple for writers of stolid whodunits. This was taken by Arthur Burgess of Folkestone. An Arthur Burgess worked as a wood engraver for John Ruskin in Folkestone during the late 1880s and it could be the same, but we are more interested in the result rather than the photographer. It looks like a dramatisation of Kipling’s Kim or another of his stories set in India. At the time this was taken Kipling was probably the best known writer in Britain and adaptations of his stories a natural choice for dramatic societies. The Indian tales were colourful and exotic and he was the unofficial voice of Empire, which in the first decade of last century was widely predicted to go on long into the future. Later scholars would realize Kipling was one of the few who foresaw that cruelty and ignorance would hasten the demise of the British Raj but such nuanced thinking was probably lost on the Folkestone Amateur Dramatic Society when a stirring tale of spies in far off India guaranteed an audience.

  The girls look to be in their final year at a ladies college, with a headmistress very proud of her charges, and her terrier. One of the persistent clichés of contemporary cinema is that during the Edwardian era ladies colleges produced just that; girls whose education was dedicated to French, poetry and the cello and who wandered about the schoolyard in a haze of ethereal loveliness. Crass behaviour of any description never reared its ugly head. Look at the student wearing the kimono in the middle. She has applied tape to her eyes to orientalize them. This was acceptable in an age when the British were told they owned half the world.

Another cliché of the era is that work was all drudgery and employers were nasty and uncompromising. All the evidence describes a much more complex society but social complexity rarely makes for good television, or more likely there aren’t that many in the business with imaginations sophisticated enough to pull it off. We can’t say for certain that either of the two women front and centre are employers, but clearly the female staff in this household were expected to have fun now and then, even if a couple look like they’d rather be scrubbing the floor with caustic. The back of the card has a stamp for Polden and Hogben, 16 Tontine St Folkestone. Research indicates that Polden and Hogben did not call itself a studio but a ‘postcard gallery’, whatever that was.

Let’s leave dressing up and head to transport, and one of the great romances of the age: the love affair between the bicycle and the camera. The development of the safety bicycle occurred as the Kodak was coming on to the market, a coincidence our ancestors were not slow to pick up on. On weekends during the 1910s groups of bicyclists swarmed across the countryside in search of picturesque views to photograph. The ruin of a Norman church outside a small village – snap! A creek slowly meandering through the marshes – snap! The chaps having breakfast before packing up and pedalling off in search of that day’s discovery – snap! To think of amateur photography back then without the bicycle is to think of, well, the cowboy without his horse. You’ll notice that everyone is wearing ties. They really were a different species back then.

What was Edwardian leisure without the charabanc, the most bombastic road vehicle ever built? From the beginning the intention behind the charabanc was recreational. People piled on – there are nineteen on this one, which was not overcrowding – and head off to the seaside or the village inn, not to church. Postcards of people in charabancs are common enough, and all of them tend to suggest a journey undertaken in great disorder. If you wanted a quiet ride admiring the spring flowers you bought a bike. The name Barrington’s indicates this one operated out of Southport Lancashire. Though a seaside town – it has the second longest pier in Britain – apparently one of the big attractions in Southport was the Leeds to Liverpool Canal that passed through Scarisbrick, about five miles distance inland. That was probably where this was taken. Why would the Edwardians be interested in a canal? They were all over the place by then. More likely it was a useful distance from Southport for a day trip. Canals were great because you got to make a lot of noise on the way out to see them and a lot more on the way back when you’d stopped by the local for a couple of hours.

Another fun activity at the seaside was the ferry trip. Along with the concert at the bandstand and the obligatory walk along the promenade, this made for a full day of action. The pier in the background is long enough to also be at Southport though Southend Pier in Essex (one and three quarters of a mile long) would be another candidate. Everyone is looking at the camera. The photographer has it mounted on a tripod and when they return a batch of postcards will be ready to buy for a penny a piece. Ferries always went to a place, not simply out to sea and back, and this one could be going out to the end of the pier. The piers were long because the water was shallow. Still, you read of ferry disasters in the 1910s and dozens drowning, you look at this photo and you can see why. Fortunately the pilot and his young son look like nothing much would bother them. 

  During the first decade of the twentieth long rambles were as popular as cycling. Some rambling clubs could have a hundred members wandering across the countryside on a weekend. In this card, postmarked October 6, 1906 and sent to a Miss K Fernie of Jerusalem Cottage in Falkland, Fifeshire, a J Page identifies the man second from the bottom as her brother, the bottom one a friend she stayed with in Glasgow and the other two “belong to Glasgow”. It is postmarked Menstrie, a village just outside of Stirling. They are out on a walk in the country, and the fact that they are wearing three-piece suits and watch-chains should not persuade us otherwise. It seems a lot of men during that era did everything in a three piece, from ploughing fields to entering accounts in ledgers to wandering along muddy paths and climbing rickety stiles. What makes the image is that none of them are smiling. Fun is always best when taken seriously. Ms Page writes upside down, a common trick to deter postal workers from reading cards. 

Finally, one of those photos where nothing special is happening yet it hints at a lot. The woman in the middle has her coat, scarf, hat and gloves on: she is leaving, not coming, and her long coat was the fashionable wear for driving long distances in the 1900s. The woman at the right, let’s call her Mother, will go back inside once she has said her goodbyes. The woman at the left also has her hat and scarf on, which would suggests she is also leaving except that she is sitting. Before we read too much into that, it’s important to remember the other person in the picture: the photographer. The photograph was taken for his or her benefit, not ours, but knowing who it was could change the whole reading. There’s a difference between a photo taken by someone who is staying and one who is leaving. There are other things to think about. It’s doubtful the two younger women woke up one morning and thought, “Victoria is dead, Edward is King and it is the beginning of a new century”. If anything it was: “I shall turn on the electric light, call Mother on the telephone and drive down to see her in my motor car. Tonight we may go into town and watch a moving picture, and thank God we have a cure for smallpox.” They are well off and the problems that bothered them were largely in the abstract, and in a real way distant: Germany was a danger, anarchists were about in London’s East End and the economy was weak but not crippled, but these were all troubles that a good government could sort out. They have cause to relax, or more accurately, they don’t have cause not to. To be comfortably well off and living in the south of England in the 1910s was sufficient to be convinced you were among the luckiest alive in the world at that time.