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Why does all the good stuff belong to the past?” asks a character in the recent film Funny Bones. It is, of course, a specious question, but understandable to those whose youthful bloom is in high fade mode. With its luscious photographs and reproductions of the everyday paraphernalia that defined earlier generations, A Stiff Drink and a Close Shave: The Lost Arts of Manliness lends that query some weight—at least for the Eurocentric, phallophilic portion of the population. It is a handsomely packaged compendium of that square, Rat Pack world that the boomers rejected in favor of communes and tie-dye. Looking over such casual coolness as propeller tie-tacks and lion-tamer cuff links, many might regret the choice.
In defending their premise that the world was once filled with manly men, authors Bob Sloan and Steven Guarnaccia make comparisons with artifacts recovered from lost civilizations. What we think we know about King Tut has been pieced together from the stuff he left behind. Similarly, the authors detect manliness in the leather, chrome, and burnished wood tools and toys of previous kings of the house. Will future archaeologists be able to reconstruct such a colorful model from laptops and pagers? Will they know to attach the baseball cap to the skull backward?
The book adopts Sinatra-style lingo, speaking with almost religious reverence about the “sense of play” that went into making even the most basic household or personal items, and about the designers who took time to create “subtle contours” for Bakelite and stainless-steel shaving brushes. An ordinary accouterment like a lighter was not meant to be a last-minute, disposable purchase at the checkout counter. “Your lighter reminded you of things you liked to do,” say Sloan and Guarnaccia.
Yet so much of what men—and women—liked to do, and what A Stiff Drink revels in, is now considered either bad for you or just plain bad. Smoking, cocktails, sexism, gambling, thick porterhouse steaks on the grill—this book offers a litany of guilty pleasures whose recitation can precipitate a full Homer Simpson drool: “Meat, martinis, babes…aaarrgglll….”
Beginning—appropriately enough—where most men start their day, the authors contend that the modern man doesn’t really know how to shave. They helpfully detail this “last bastion of manliness,” which they insist should be the “genuine experience of grooming, instead of simply getting rid of your whiskers.” The correct process involves bristle brushes, double-edge blades, and a slow, steady hand. “Rushing a shave,” they maintain, “is like rushing a putt, a good cigar, or sex.” Not to be ignored is after-shave, which, by the power of “Smell Gravity,” draws women into the “Male Scent Vortex.”
And of course, no smelly man of the past was complete without his hat. Even if the job didn’t require it—and so many did—custom demanded that one was not fully dressed without a chapeau. Amid vintage illustrations of headgear options, we are told that “the way a man wore his hat could tell you his whole story.” Legend blames President Kennedy, who let his wavy hair fly uncovered at his inauguration, for the demise of the hat industry. Today, even police officers and mail carriers generally go hatless. This sad fact further supports the authors’ belief that we have degenerated into a sorry state of general slovenliness. In 1964, those girls screaming for the Beatles in the Ed Sullivan Theater were dressed in their Sunday best—for a TV show. Now, even the adults at a Letterman taping look like they just came from the beach.
In matters between the sexes, A Stiff Drink portrays the manly man —for all his “sophisticated” trappings—as a “lascivious, ogling fool.” Is there any point in arguing with that? Such a fellow read Gent and Nugget, admiring the “girlie girls,” whose most revealing attribute was a come-hither stare. In this case, A Stiff Drink hits home, literally. Opening to a double-page display of “racy” book covers, I experienced a bizarre kind of visual déjà vu. Side by side were vivid jackets for the scandalously manly yet utterly obscure tomes Ladies in Hades and Give ‘Em the Ax—exactly as they hang on my bedroom wall. An odd coincidence, or evidence that, in some quarters, the arts of manliness live on?
Proving that nothing is too trivial to be considered art, Miles Beller and Jerry Leibowitz have produced Hey Skinny! Great Advertisements From the Golden Age of Comic Books: full-page, full-size reproductions of ads that appeared in comics from the mid-’40s through the mid-’50s.
Perhaps because co-author Beller is the TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter and Leibowitz founded L.A. Funnies and hosts a cable- TV cartoon show, Skinny‘s text is overcompensation for relatively lowbrow occupations. Adopting proper coffee-table-book tone, the authors refer to the comic ads as “emblems of the collective culture, enshrined like sacred tableaus,” and try to outdo the reprinted ad copy with such overheated phrases as “pulp pitches pounced on the libido with gleeful ferocity.”
Well, yeah, but mostly this book of grainy photos and pen-and-ink drawings of insanely happy white people is not really a coffee-table book. It fits more naturally into a comics collection, printed as it is on a coarse, matte-finish paper approximating comic-book style. Besides, the material is hard to act serious about. Copywriters and art directors had to work overtime to sell products as tenuous as “Nutty Putty.” Certainly someone got a raise for deciding to market recently available WWII surplus gas masks with the come-on, “BOYS Look! A New Toy!” Was it the same huckster who came up with “FREE—10 Hitler Stamps”?
The images here have been copied by postmodern ironists and other wisenheimer designers as often as hiphoppers have sampled James Brown licks. The authors characterize the ads as “in your face.” But today’s definition of that term translates as a deliberate poke in the eye. These old ads were in your face like a carnival barker desperately calling, “Sensational! Startling! New!” But the payoff is hilariously absurd: “Invisible Helmet!” “Jet “Rocket’ Ship!”
Before signing on to the current Gingrichian craze to deregulate everything, consider this ad, invoking “medical doctors” to claim “It’s FUN to Reduce with KELPIDINE CHEWING GUM!”
But don’t become a chewaholic, for the U.S. Nature Products Corp. warns that “Skinny Girls Are Not Glamour Girls!” USNPC claims to know the secret of “How to Add Glamorous Curves to Your Figure.” What right-thinking gal would not send away two bucks after reading such heartfelt testimonials as this: “Please send me another bottle of NUMAL—it has helped me wonderfully. I have gained some weight and feel fine now.”
Anxious females weren’t the only targets for scare tactics. Besides the titular Skinny, several headlines aim directly at the comic reader’s deepest insecurities: “Wow! What an Amazing HE-MAN Tony is Now!” Another ad hollers, “SAVE YOUR HAIR.” Uninspired Romeos are pitched the book How to Write Love Letters, while jittery Juliets are advised “Be Lovely to Love.”
Once the whole love thing is mastered, there is so much to do: “Play Bingo at Home! Exciting! Some FUN!” “Make your Lamps into Christmas Trees.” Or, my favorite: “If You Can Carry a Tune, You Can Play the Gahoon!” Though the illustration indicates otherwise, the copy sternly explains that the Gahoon is “not a humming toy. Not a whistling gadget.” And not, alas, yet rediscovered by David Byrne.
In short, Skinny is a worthy browse despite Beller and Leibowitz’s lofty introduction. And as arcane as these advertisements may seem, their products are not entirely a thing of the past. In early May, I walked out of the Wheaton Toys “R” Us with a brand new Giant Ant Farm. True, it cost nearly six times as much as the 1958 advertised price of $2.98. Hey, times change.