I enjoy seeing Speedy Alka-Seltzer back on TV. Speedy was “born” in 1951 and was a prominent advertising character in the early days of American television. I hadn’t seen him on the tube for a few years and now he’s back promoting the speedy relief of the “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” over-the-counter product.
To the best of my knowledge, however, Reddy Kilowatt has not had a rebirth. Speedy Alka-Seltzer and Reddy Kilowatt were childhood acquaintances of mine and, if you’re over 60, I’ll bet you knew them, too. While Speedy was an animated spokesman for Alka-Seltzer pain reliever Reddy was a stick-drawing mascot for many electric utilities. Both were prominent in 1950s advertising.
Having spent a chunk of my career marketing and designing advertising, I enjoy studying ads from the past. Many are featured in the book, “Advertising in America, The First 200 Years,” by Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple.
In their introduction, the authors point out how society has changed over the years. An 1880 ad for Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic, for instance, promotes the fact that it “makes children and adults as fat as pigs.” To reinforce the claim, an illustration features a plump human face on a fat pig’s body. Not today! One can follow the development of technology by studying old advertisements. Goodrum and Dalrymple’s book provides a fascinating time-line with reproductions of ads for a variety of new products now taken for granted: Edison electric Christmas lights, 1890; Edison’s Vistascope, a forerunner to modern motion pictures, 1894; the Improved Victor Talking Machine, 1901; the Hoover Vacuum Sweeper, 1909; the Kennedy console radio, 1924; the Fridgidaire electric refrigerator, 1925; the RCA Radiola portable radio, 1926; the Hookless fastener, now better known as a zipper, 1926; a Toastmaster automatic electric toaster, 1927; DuPont Cellophane transparent paper, 1928; Carrier air conditioners, 1929; a Reynolds 400 ball pen (which sold for $12.50, by the way), 1946; a General Electric Disposall garbage disposer, 1948; 60-second photographs by the Polaroid Land Camera, 1949; and the Xerox plain paper photocopier, 1961.
Tobacco advertising was common in the first half of the 20th century. A 1912 ad for Tuxedo brand tobacco featured opera star Enrico Caruso’s photo and a signed testimonial: “Tuxedo does not irritate my throat.” Can you imagine Plácido Domingo doing a testimonial ad for Camels?
While today’s underwear ads leave little to the imagination, I had to carefully study an 1885 ad for “Dress Forms” to figure out that the apparatus was actually a precursor to the brassiere (which was invented four years later.) Apparently the Health Braided Wire Dress form was a one-size-fits-all contraption and the 75-cent device could “be adjusted by the wearer to any size desired.” I know, ladies, it was probably invented by a man. Humans have long desired good health and social acceptance and ads of the past addressed those desires. A 1925 Listerine mouthwash ad featured a large illustration of an obviously heartbroken woman whose fiancé had broken their engagement because she had halitosis. A 1931 ad for Scott toilet tissue displayed a prominent photo of a surgeon’s rubber-gloved hand reaching for a surgical instrument “often the only relief from toilet tissue illness.” The ad warned that inferior tissue could lead to rectal illness. A 1934 ad for Dentyne chewing gum told of an Indian fakir who held his arm motionless for ten years, pointing to Mecca, and through lack of exercise “his arm is withered… useless.” The ad implied that regular chewing of Dentyne would keep one’s mouth from becoming useless. Advertising often gives us a more accurate picture of what was on the minds of people of a given era than history books. When our great-great-grandchildren view the advertising of today I wonder what they will think of this era.