Back in the 1920s, doctors could write you alcohol prescriptions, mothers bought cars to keep the family together, freckles were called “ugly masks” and long-johns cured influenza.
When I was a young kid, a game I played with my sister involved us cutting out items from a Sears catalogue and gluing them to paper to decorate a room or house we had drawn, or to create fashionable outfits on top of a person we had drawn. As I grew up and mentioned this game to others, I learned other Canadians had their own memories of games played with mail-order catalogues of different eras. Whether it was just cutting out wish lists near Christmas time, – or all year- or closing their eyes and pointing at an item on an Eaton’s catalogue page to pretend that was something you were getting or your only tool for an adventure, mail-order catalogues have left a strong impression on Canadian family life since the late 1800s.
Beyond facilitating consumerist dreams, looking through old, antique and vintage catalogues and magazines gives you a glimpse of the nation at other times. Among other insights, when I sifted through catalogue advertisements and marketing archives from 100 years ago last weekend, I could see a country shifting its economic, social and gender values, expanding its use of electricity, popularizing the household vehicle and slowly changing some of the roles women played in the home. There was a fear of freckles, healthy cigarettes and unusual uses for popular household products Canadian consumers likely still have in their refrigerators, purses and medicine cabinets.
For instance, flipping through historical advertisements in The Confident Years: Canada in the 1920s by Robert J. Bondy and William C. Mattys, you find hints of prohibition-era deceptions, shocking labour laws and otherwise creepy and manipulative marketing strategies found in magazine advertising of other eras in Canada. The book is part of a larger series called Canadiana Scrapbook that was published in the 70s, documenting snapshots of ads, slogans, factoids, news articles, brochures and posters from earlier times.
Popular American automobile manufacturer, Ford, was running advertisements in Canada’s Everywoman’s World Magazine in 1923 which featured artwork and text that guilt-tripped mothers into buying cars to keep their children from abandoning the family by flocking to the growing cities.
The ad begins with a large “Mother-” written out over a young country man or old boy painted peering out a fence after a car driving off down the road. A woman, clearly the targeted mother, sits at the bottom of the ad, on what appears to be a porch, knitting, and not noticing the boy or man looking out, scratching his chin, at the vehicle driving away.
“Nobody realizes better than Mother the tendency of the present day family to drift apart. In rural communities, the boy irks for a glimpse of town now and then – so does the girl. Sometimes the longing becomes so great they leave permanently. How many tragedies has that meant for Mother?”
After appealing to the common country mother’s deepest emotions and fears, the advertisement goes on to explain that if only these curious youngsters who desire going to town had a Ford car, they wouldn’t need to leave the rural landscapes completely and could come back home again after venturing out to the city.
It also includes the “agricultural production of Canada” and its “farm wealth” in its reasoning to convince Mother to buy the family a Ford. Additionally, the ad references the dangers of cities and towns that only the “healthful recreation” of a Ford car would guard against.
As well, in a 1929 Penman’s advertisement for, what the company called, “Health Underwear,” or the brand’s model Penman 95, long-johns are marketed as a means to protect yourself against influenza, described in the ad as “the unseen passenger in YOUR car” (emphasis not my own).
This advertisement, published in the Halifax Herald, states that “Many a long winter illness starts from a seemingly harmless motor drive. Drafts swish through the car. Your body becomes cold and shivery. Result: Influenza – or worse!”
Not only does the ad suggest that long underwear can protect against illness and that illness lives inside cars, especially your car, but it also offers viewers the chance to write in to receive a “free set of Penmans exercises,” which is described as an invaluable aid to health and robust physical development.
Another example of amusing yet irresponsible 1920s ads portraying cultural values at the time comes from a cigarette brand. According to the Museum of Vancouver, Rex Straight Cut Cigarettes were manufactured by Imperial Tobacco Company of Canada Limited in Montreal from around 1900 until the 1950s. They came in tins in the 1920s.
A Rex Cigarettes ad ran in the Manitoba Free Press newspaper in 1927, which showed an illustration of a man in a car accident which had resulted in ejecting his body to dangle from his shirt against barbed wire, with his foot hanging into the crumpled wreckage of the car’s hood.
The ad’s text reads: “Never Mind! Smoke a Rex,” implying that tobacco’s pain relief properties could get you through any of life’s discomforts and nothing else is worth a worry besides your next cigarette.
On the topic of vices found in the 1920s Canadiana Scrapbook, even though alcohol was not permitted during prohibition, if you were a doctor, or knew a doctor who liked you enough to write you a prescription, you were allowed to drink.
But only in the form of highly-concentrated alcohol “medicines.” Hall’s and Rexall’s had their own versions that were 43 and 18 per cent alcohol, respectively.
Another interesting time capsule from 100 years ago in the Canadiana Scrapbook is a teacher’s work contract for the 1923 school year. A teacher named Miss Lottie Jones who was to begin work at Middletown School had to agree to many unusual terms from a modern-day Canadian education perspective.
Teachers had to sign contracts agreeing that they were not permitted to “keep the company of men,” and had to stay home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Jones’ contract also stipulated that she could not: leave town at any time without permission, ride in a carriage or automobile with a man who is not her brother or father, smoke, drink beer, wine or whiskey, wear bright colours, dye her hair or wear make-up.
Teachers also had to wear “at least two petticoats” and were not permitted to wear a dress shorter than two inches above the ankle, according to this contract.
One of the strangest stipulations found in her teaching agreement was that she was not permitted to “loiter downtown in ice cream parlours.”
As well, in the 1920s, popular Canadian magazines that were targeted to women, such as Cosmopolitan and The Home Journal, ran much more advertisements than articles and stories.
Every page of text was bordered by anywhere from one or two to over 20 different ads. Like women’s magazines of today, including the contemporary Cosmo issues we still see on newsstands, the main ad topics included health and beauty products, fashion items, jewelry and accessories, as well as programs or books regarding romance and getting a husband.
There were also, however, advertisements about household appliances, education services and some cryptic mail-order ads that hinted at a broad concept like love or confidence which didn’t quite articulate exactly what the buyer would be receiving in the mail if they sent a letter.
Many of these 1920s Cosmopolitan advertisements had similar themes as the ones documented in the Canadiana Scrapbook series: products and services that were marketed to make one become a better mother, wife and – generally speaking – woman, condescending language toward women, and selling wild claims of health and wellness in products we know today do not have those benefits (and are in, some cases, actually quite dangerous).
A Campbell’s soup ad took a particularly belittling tone about women with its sales pitch:”Of course women are sensitive to every criticism or comment, however slight or trivial…” and “The home is their special responsibility and delight.”
But the advertisements weren’t always so clearly demeaning to women. Some were not so much insulting as non-factual.
Cigarette manufacturers like Marlboro claimed in the 1920s that their smokes were “mild as May,” and were marketed specially to women who played bridge.
One advertisement that ran along the length of a 1927 Cosmopolitan magazine story offered to send out free “Marlboro Bridge Scores” to any ladies who both smoked and played bridge.
Another cigarette manufacturer, Lucky Strike, had advertisements in 1920s Cosmopolitan Magazines that stated the wild claim that their cigarettes actually protected throats since a New Jersey senator, referred to as a powerful orator in the advertisement, preferred the Lucky Strike brand.
Other tobacco companies, like Edgeworth, took a different approach with their marketing by using what they claimed to be true customer letters as something of an editorial. This one tells a narrative of a man who was lost in a cave in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
In his letter, the pipe smoking customer claims that he had a “mania for crawling through a number of unexplored caverns” and got lost inside one for three hours with a dead flashlight. He was eventually rescued by a search party and was just in the process of telling them that he would not go back to the cave “for love nor money” after that experience, when he reached for his can of tobacco and realized he must have dropped it back in there.
He circled back to the cave that had trapped him for hours, risking the same outcome, just to get his tobacco.
While many of the advertisements in 1920s Cosmopolitan magazines were cosmetic or feminine-focused, one sub-category of feminine products I found most interesting was feminine hygiene products.
Not only did these products in different forms than we see today (one such product was called the Hickory “sanitary belt,” that would hold something akin to a washable, fabric menstrual pad in place like a thong) but the ways they were marketed nearly 100 years ago were, surprisingly, a bit more informative than ads we see today for feminine hygiene products.
Yes, the language was quite indirect and oftentimes belittling – such as when Kotex used the phrase “women’s most trying hygiene handicap” to refer to menstruation. In fact, the word “handicap” seemed to come up a lot in these ads. So, did words like “offending.”
Speaking of handicaps, this kind of language was common in 1920s advertising on topics that you might think would have very little need for it. One example that comes to mind is the way a toothpaste by the brand Ipana marketed their product in that same magazine.
Never before seeing this ad had I heard the phrase “dental cripples” so it was quite jarring to read, especially knowing that this ad uses that term in a quotation that was supposedly attributed to a dentist at the time.
The advertisement also puts a lot of emphasis on how massaging one’s gums, eating less soft foods and chewing more slowly while eating can cure painful and bleeding gums.
In other questionable health advice and products from 1920s Canadian magazines, you will find: facial creams that claim to remove freckles, peppermint Lifesavers that were meant to cure indigestion, a cereal called “Zo,” olive tablets marketed to provide “youth” to consumers, Listerine for dandruff and a saline “effervescent” that would supposedly cure families of their poor “temper” as a laxative.
Besides peppermint-flavoured Lifesavers, another interesting 1920s advertisement for a product most Canadians have likely all purchased at some point in their life, is Fleishman’s yeast. The only thing is that the yeast was not being marketed as an ingredient to make bread. It was intended as a health remedy, informing Canadian consumers that ingesting three cakes of yeast daily would solve various ills like indigestion, pimples, constipation and boils.
In the 1920s, there were also advertisements in Canadian magazines for a germ-killing mint tablet that was marketed as preventing illness. It was described as “continuously” bathing the throat in an antiseptic of “proved germicidal power.”
There was also product called “Zip,” written with a flashy lightning bolt font far ahead of its typographic time, that claimed to not just remove hair from women’s arms but make it unable to ever grow back through destroying the root. It claimed to make women have “arms that charm” because hair was “out.”
There was even a contraption one would wear on their face to sculpt “the perfect nose. It looked something like both a hockey mask and a jock strap, that would squish the nose into the correct shape that M. Trilety, an American “Pioneering Noseshaping Specialist” from Binghampton, New York had decided is the perfect nose.
And there was even a book that would teach women how to get a husband if they cut out the ad, wrote their name and address in the margin and mailed it away with a dime. “Fascinating Womanhood” would teach magazine readers how to “multiply their attractiveness” and “enjoy the worship and admiration of men.”
These 1920s magazines showed the products that were available in Canada and to Canadians at the time, and what their value was both economically and socially. It gives a clearer understanding about what a day-in-the-life might have been like to someone in Canada 100 years ago, and what the experiences of reading magazines, being a consumer -or simply being a woman- might have been like.