Getting to Know the Culture Industry

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Thomas Hart Benton, “Hollywood” (1937-1938). Image Credit: Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

A couple years ago in graduate school at the University of Maryland, I took a course on history and contemporary theory. It was pretty much a combination of philosophy, historical theory, and historiography. A difficult class, but I certainly learned a lot.

One of the projects in the class, as I can remember it, was to design a lecture for undergraduate students about one aspect of historical theory and create an accompanying book list for reading. Given my interest in popular culture and business history, I decided to write about the “Culture Industry” a theory that came from Frankfurt School historians/theorists in the mid 20th century (see also my blog post on War of the Worlds for more on this theory). I wasn’t able to give this lecture to an actual group of students, but I did film it and posted it on Youtube. If you’d like to see the lecture, click here.

A few people commented on the video saying that they’d like to see the slides, so here is a link to my power point: The Culture Industry_presentation.

If you’re interested in learning more, this is my recommended Culture Industry reading list, complete with a variety of primary and secondary sources that explore the commodification of leisure and entertainment from a variety of angles: Continue reading “Getting to Know the Culture Industry”

A Shopkeeper and a Historian

“Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.”

-Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The German Ideology, 1845.

Normally if you ask me which historians have influenced me the most, I would give you a list of scholars like Studs Terkel or Warren Susman who have written fascinating books and found helped me understand history and historical sources in profoundly different ways. But after encountering this quote from Marx and Engels the other day, I have to add an anonymous and imaginary shopkeeper to the top of my list. Continue reading “A Shopkeeper and a Historian”

So Much Nostalgia!

If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).

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This was what comfortable country life looked like in 1868, according to Currier and Ives. Image credit: Library of Congress.

If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century.  I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Tom Watson, Populist Leader and opponent of false agrarian nostalgia. Image credit: C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938).

Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:

“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”

Continue reading “So Much Nostalgia!”

Yearbook Ephemera Fun

You have read our modest production;
We trust it appeals to all.
Now read our advertisers,
And go to see them all.

I always enjoy reading old yearbooks, trade literature, and other “small run” publications from the past. Especially before the 1950s, the writers and editors of these works were really quite clever in their writing and it makes for a really fun and interesting time. It feels like the writers are free to be a little more honest and less scripted than usual. I wonder if part of the reason why the writer’s personality can really come out is because editing isn’t quite as rigorous or serious as it would be for a major publication that is circulated to a large group of people. Or maybe its because these types of publications aren’t created for the money and there is a friendlier relationship between writers and readers…Today I was going through old issues of the “Reveille,” yearbook for the Maryland Agricultural College (University of Maryland, College Park today). Here’s a neat little drawing that I found on one of the last pages, before the patron ads:

Ad Clown
Image Credit: 1913 Reveille
RV Truitt
Truitt was one of two “Humorous Editors” on the yearbook staff. Image Credit: 1914 Reveilee

I flipped through the yearbook and it looks like our clever poet (and perhaps artist?) was R.V. Truitt of the Class of 1914. According to his senior biography, he was a biology student from Snow Hill, Maryland. Involved in a dozen campus activities from yearbook to lacrosse and the Programme Committee on Junior Prom. He was also “quite a military man” and was a captain in the college’s military cadet program. “Although it took the Faculty a long time to realize Truitt’s ability,” his fellow students confessed the students were not so slow, judging by the positions of responsibility they have entrusted to him. We believe that his ability will place Truitt on top in his future undertakings.” Whatever happened to Truitt, I’m sure his creativity and clever writing served him well. Click here to read his full senior entry! Luckily, the University of Maryland University Archives has digitized most of their yearbooks, you can find more of them here. Happy reading!

Soap Sandwich

Radios became extremely popular and widespread in the late 1920s and especially the 1930s, in no small part because of soap operas. Writing a decade later, this is what writer James Thurber had to say about the new kind of entertainment that still dominates daytime entertainment:

“A soap opera is a kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.”

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Cast of the “Ma Perkins” radio show, a popular soap opera. Image source: otrcat.com
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James Thurber (right). Image source: xroads.virgina.edu

Thurber was a humorist and writer in the same vein as Mark Twain. He was most famous for his articles and drawings in The New Yorker, but my favorite work from him is The Beast in Me and Other Animals (1948), which features “Soapland,” the best history and commentary on the soap opera that I’ve ever seen. Definitely worth a read!

There is a section in Internet Archives called “Old Time Radio” where you can listen to thousands recordings from the early years of radio. There are tons of good soap operas available here too. Listen and see if you agree with Thurber’s description!

Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past

There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy…It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives. These wonderful things are the things. We remember all through our lives…

“Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, 1948

Currier and Ives has a special place in American society and our memory of the past. The prints made by the 19th century lithography company usually invoke fond memories today, which is exactly what they were designed to do. “Mention Currier and Ives and most people think of images of 19th-century home life — of lovers whispering in each other’s ear; elegant children holding fluffy kittens; idyllic farmhouses set in a snowy landscape,” a 1998 New York Times article wrote when describing a new museum exhibit of their prints. Back in the day Currier and Ives was called “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints,” though its rare to see original prints in homes today. But, they had an impact on home decoration and our ideas about what a “good home” looked like that I think are still relevant today. There is one print called “The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age” that I really like, and I think is a good example for understanding the wider world of Currier and Ives. Continue reading “Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past”

Advertising Battlefield: Cigarettes v. Candy

There are a ton of good stories about the advertising industry and their never-ending quest to sell things to consumers. Here’s one of my favorites.

When George Washington Hill became the president of the American Tobacco Company in 1927, the company was floundering a little bit. Long past its glory days in the 1900’s when it had a monopoly in the American cigarette trade, the company was losing sales to rivals like the R.J. Reynolds Company (makers of Camels) and Liggett & Meyers (Chesterfields). American Tobacco had its own brand too, Lucky Strike cigarettes, which it had been selling since 1917. But when Hill became president, he wasn’t satisfied with their sales numbers. Lucky Strike would be number one or bust!

fannie wardHill personally oversaw a lot of the advertising that was created for Lucky Strike (even though he had top advertising men like Albert Lasker in his employ). One of their early and more successful advertising strategies was to target women. Hill first tried hiring famous opera singers and actresses to endorse Lucky Strike saying that the cigarette was “light on their throat” or didn’t cause any coughing to try to make the brand seem more mild/enjoyable than others. That worked pretty well, but Hill still wasn’t satisfied. Women were a “gold mine” and he knew that more ads could convince more of them to start smoking Luckies. Continue reading “Advertising Battlefield: Cigarettes v. Candy”