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If a 1943 copy of Life magazine were to land on your desk, you might spend a fair amount of time with it, but it would likely not be time spent reading the articles. A random mix of commentary from some miscellaneous week does little to elucidate a lost era. And yet that old Life does manage to crystallize a moment in time—via the pastiche of life and longing found in its advertisements.

Ads have long been a fascinating, if distorting, lens for viewing the past. Although their images have never reflected reality, they do manage to tap into a sort of consensual ideal. Their creators are feeding the reader a vision of life as it should be. And this vision—though often out of sync with the true desires of the viewer—has greater purity in advertising than in any other art form. Even the small-town splendor of the hokiest Mickey Rooney film, the glorified sentimentality of the sappiest pulp romance, depends on conflict and resolution. Only ads—particularly ads created before the mid-’60s—present a vision of life in perfect, crystallized moments.

Fans of advertising have never had to look far to find books that feed their passion. The advertising and graphic-design fields—aligned as they are with publishing—have long produced professionals with both the skill sets to produce and the appetite to consume a seemingly endless series of printed monuments to the field. Most often, though, when ad-makers look at their own history, they focus on the campaigns that have had the greatest influence. The first two volumes of art publisher Taschen’s American ad series promise a different approach. Weighing in at 768 and 928 pages respectively, and devoting virtually all of their space to examples of the vin ordinaire of print ads, the books attempt to offer a survey of American advertising. The series will eventually encompass the ’20s through the ’70s, published in decadelong chunks.

Unfortunately, the first two volumes do not quite live up to their ambition. Each offers hundreds of delightful period ads, and each successfully demonstrates the graphic range of its decade. But much of the pleasure of old ads comes from subtext—whom they were aimed at, what was going on historically when they were current—information that is eliminated or undermined in both books. The volumes’ usefulness is also reduced by the choice of ads for inclusion, which come principally from the editor’s collection; the selection seems to have been guided mainly by two questionable editorial biases. The first is in favor of ads most likely to seem farcical to a modern reader—an ad from 1941 says that “women and carrots have one enemy in common”; an ad from 1952 points out that “Television waves travel better on the world’s tiniest ball bearings”; another, also from ’52, invites the reader to make “every voyage a gay cruise.”

The second bias is in favor of categories that may broaden the appeal of the books but narrow their range. Dedicating 188 pages of the ’50s volume to stupefyingly similar auto ads may sell a few extra copies to the muscle-car set, but much of that space could have been more usefully employed in any number of ways. Advertisements for women’s clothing, personal products, toys, books, nonprescription medicines, and luxury goods, to name but a few categories, all seem underrepresented.

The editorial problems with the books are most obvious with the ’40s volume. America started the decade in depression, suffered a wrenching war midway through, and ended it at the beginning of an unprecedented wave of prosperity. The nature of American life changed several times during 10 short years—and advertising changed with it. But who could tell from All-American Ads? Because the book is organized by topic, with ads from the entire decade mixed up within each section, the ’40s is reduced to a uniform soup of corporate communications. Although individual ads are dated, they are not ordered; ads from the beginning, middle, and end of the decade are commonly combined on the same page.

And the rationale for the category approach remains mysterious, because of arbitrary and inconsistent choices. In the ’40s volume, for example, movie ads are combined with ads for television sets under an “Entertainment” rubric. (This odd juxtaposition is corrected in the ’50s book, where TVs are more logically placed with other appliances.) Also in the ’40s book, wartime product ads appear in a special section but are also scattered throughout the remainder of the book.

But worse, the overwhelming emphasis on ads for available consumer goods over the corporate-sponsored odes to the good fight misrepresents the character of the first two years of the war. World War II comes across not as a time of national sacrifice and unity, but rather as a biggish Vietnam—fought in the background of a thriving domestic economy. Misleading choices include two ads for the B-44, an Oldsmobile model that appropriated a military theme. These are interesting documents but hardly typical. Automobiles were essentially unavailable during the conflict; until well after V-J Day, it was almost impossible to get a new tire, let alone a whole new car.

Similarly, because most of the included ads from 1941 through 1944 have a war theme, readers might infer that most manufacturers were draping routine sales pitches in the flag, using patriotism to flog consumer goods. One ad, for Mor meat—a Spam-like product—pictures a soldier saying, “Now that’s Mor Like it.” Another shows a soldier thinking, “Howdy friend” when confronted by a sign for Coca-Cola. In truth, food rationing made such ads practically superfluous—and they were relatively scarce. Advertising efforts were more often aimed not at garnering immediate sales but at building long-term good will and maintaining the value of dormant brand names—accomplished by keeping those names in print and by affiliating them with the war effort. The book does include a few ads of this type, for unavailable brands such as Cadillac, Belmont radios, and International Harvester.

More often, though, readers are invited to laugh at the strained connections between product and victory effort. Although the majority of ads are reproduced without comment, at the end of each loose section a single ad is declared the “winner” (who knew there was a contest?) and briefly described. At the end of the war section is an ad for Scotch tape with the headline “If War Gas falls from the sky…HE’LL BE READY.” The ad, which outlines tape’s role in a newfangled gas suit, would seem not to require external ridicule. Nevertheless, the award commentary reads:

They’re Sealed With Your Old Friend “Scotch” Tape Throughout the 1930s, as manufacturers advanced research and development, the most common of products were declared miraculous solutions to everyday problems. In one of the more dubious wartimeclaims, the newly-developed clear tape purported to help in stopping poisonous gases from harming military troops. Bring on the gas. Scotch tape is here.

Of course, there are a number of reasons to be cynical about both the ’40s and ’50s, and much advertising from that period was silly. But a lot of contemporary advertising is silly, too—no doubt today’s sparse ’60s-chic ads for the new Beetle will one day seem quaint as well. It is misleading to focus on ads that suggest that a reader in ’40s America was a bigger sap than a modern consumer.

Ad design was more homogeneous in the next decade, making the section approach less jarring in All-American Ads of the 50s. Still, the minor evolution that occurred after the war is therefore all the harder to discern from the historical soup of the pages. During the immediate postwar years, advertising research started in earnest. Armed with new information about how people read and responded to ads, Madison Avenue started to create layouts based on the shocking discovery that the industry’s characteristic long blocks of sales copy were often ignored by readers. The efforts designed to combat reader fatigue resulted in some of the ugliest ads since the dawn of display advertising. Agencies more and more frequently produced a kidnap-note style, in which many, often incompatible, typefaces were used to get attention, and copy was broken up into supposedly digestible chunks and scattered all over the page. This trend is hard to discern without a sequential organization.

The ’50s volume is undeservedly longer; the book relies on vast quantities of filler. In addition to the aforementioned car ads, there is an equally dreary 60-page selection of to-the-trade interior-design ads, which overlaps stylistically with much of the industrial section. Although some of these ads are unusual in that they use photography—illustration was still preferred for most of the decade—they have much less whimsy and are less visually engaging than ads aimed at consumers. One wonders why the ’40s volume, with the romance of hard times, a good war, and a righteous victory, wasn’t the bigger book.

But the most unfortunate bias in both books is an overwhelming emphasis on ads aimed at men. Except for a tampon ad or two—included for snicker value—and a smattering of fashion ads, ads aimed at the female consumer are largely MIA. Both decades were a time of renaissance for women’s magazines. Publishing high-quality fiction and articles on a variety of topics well beyond the hearth/home and sex articles of today’s gender mags, women’s magazines were general-interest publications with a feminine slant. And their ads reflected the interests and roles of their readers as the times changed.

It’s regrettable that these ads are missing, because the shifting image of woman they represent makes for a far more interesting story than the wonderful world of building supplies as shown in American Ads. In the ’30s, that image was one a modern reader would recognize: relatively well-rounded, social, industrial, sexual, and domestic. In the early ’40s—beyond Rosie the Riveter—women were shown typing, nursing, manufacturing, and variously doing the work of the nation. After the war, there was a radical backlash. The image of woman became increasingly housebound, and decreasingly able, as modern products purported to replace traditional homemaking and mothering skills. One of my favorites ads from this period, which appeared in Ladies Home Journal but does not appear in the book, features the story of “Poor Little Laggard—[who] tries so hard.” The text tells the story of a child who does poorly in school despite his and his mother’s best efforts. The solution to an apparent learning disability? An over-the-counter cold medication.

Notwithstanding their lapses in editorial judgment, both the ’50s and ’40s books are valuable graphic resources. They are lovely to look at, and despite significant shortcomings, I find myself looking forward to future volumes. But even so, the visceral pleasure of the books is undermined by fast, careless production. Commonly, pages are printed with text and other elements cut off, and occasional layout errors call into question the integrity of the minimal annotations—for example, a Waldon “Colortones” pajama ad from 1947, printed on Page 340 of the ’40s volume, is reprinted (and misidentified) on Page 350. The overall effect of the books is like nothing so much as a bound Web site—the well-meaning but slightly misinformed efforts of a fan.

In fact, there are several Web sites that cover the same territory as well as or better than All American Ads—most notably adflip.com—and that, taken together, give a more balanced view of the transition to modern advertising that happened between the end of the Depression and the early ’60s. Still, until someone attempts a more scholarly survey, these books are probably the most thorough in print, and they will find a useful place in the libraries of many of us who do not have the room for the complete runs of a dozen or more magazines. CP