This vintage ad for a cockroach racing game is a great reminder that what seems normal isn’t necessarily natural or inevitable. Most Americans today would grimace at the idea of playing with cockroaches, as the insect is held up as an icon of filth and disease. But sometime in the ’40s, someone at the International Mutoscope Reel Company thought this was a good idea! Or, then again, maybe times haven’t changed so much; the company went bankrupt in 1949.
In the Pittsburgh of my youth many decades ago, Rolling Rock was an ordinary, low-priced local beer – like Duquesne (“Duke”) or Iron City. (“Gimme a bottle of Iron,” was what you’d say to the bartender. And if you were a true Pittsburgher, you pronounced it “Ahrn.”). The Rolling Rock brewery was in Latrobe, PA, a town about forty miles east whose other claim to fame was Arnold Palmer. The print ads showed the pure sparking mountain stream flowing over rocks.
That was then. In the late 1980s, Rolling Rock started expanding – geographically outward and socially upward. Typically, when ideas and fashions diffuse through the social class structure they flow downward. Less frequently, the educated classes embrace an artifact of working-class culture. But why? Their conspicuous consumption (or “signalling,” as we now say) is saying something, but what ideas about themselves and the social landscape are they expressing with their choice of beer?
I had an e-mail exchange about that question with Keith Humphreys, who blogs at The Reality-Based Community. He too grew up in western Pennsylvania, and we both recalled being surprised years later to see Rolling Rock as a beer of choice among young stock traders and other decidedly non-working-class people. But we had different ideas as to what these cosmopolitans thought they were doing. Keith saw it as their way of identifying with the working class.
Those of us who grew up near Latrobe, Pennsylvania are agog when upscale hipsters who could afford something better drink Rolling Rock beer as a sign of their solidarity with us.*
I was more skeptical. I saw it as the hipsters (or before them, the yuppies) trying to be even more hip – so discerning that they could discover an excellent product in places everyone else had overlooked. Rolling Rock was a diamond in the rough, a Jackson Pollock for $5 at a yard sale. The cognoscenti were not identifying with the working-class. They were magnifying the distance. They were saying in effect, “Those people don’t know what a prize they have. But I do.”
I had no real data to support that idea, so I asked Gerry Khermouch, who knows more about beverage marketing than do most people. His Beverage Business Insights puts out industry newsletters, and he writes for Adweek and Brandweek. He’s also beverage buddies with the guys who changed Rolling Rock marketing. Here’s what he said,
[F]ar from expressing solidarity with the working class, urban drinkers far afield regarded it as an upscale icon in much the way that Stella Artois has claimed today — a triumph of pure marketing.
One ad campaign in the 90s, “Subtle Differences,” aimed directly at the drinker’s connoisseur fantasies. Here are two examples:
It’s the little nuances that make life more interesting. Rolling Rock uses slightly more malt than other domestic golden lagers for a refreshing taste that’s got a little more body, a little more bite. If you’ve noticed, we salute you.
Words like nuance were hardly an appeal to solidarity with the working-class. Neither was the strategy of raising the price rather than lowering it.
To the marketers, the nuance, the malt, bite, and body didn’t count for much. Their big investment was in packaging. Instead of stubby bottles with paper labels, they returned to the long-necked, painted-label bottles with the mysterious “33” on the back. Apparently, the original packaging, the “Old Latrobe” reference, and the rest added notes of working-class authenticity.
As for the actual beer inside those bottles, it may have once been what the ad copy said. The brewers had tried to overcome the “watery” image from the beer’s early water-over-the-rocks imagery. But when Anheuser-Busch bought the company in 2006, they closed the Latrobe brewery, and Rolling Rock became a watery, biteless product indistinguishable from the other innocuous lagers that dominate the US market.
The New York Public Library posted a page from the first issue (September 1941) of Design for Living: The Magazine for Young Moderns that I thought was sorta neat for bringing some perspective to the increase in the amount and variety of clothing we take as normal today–but also, to my relief, the acceptance of a more casual style of dress. The magazine conducted a poll of women at a number of colleges throughout the U.S. about how many of various articles of clothing they owned. Here’s a visual showing the school where women reported the highest and lowest averages (the top item is a dickey, not a shirt):
Overall the women reported spending an average of $240.33 per year on clothing.
Hats for women were apparently well on their way out of fashion:
Can you imagine a magazine aimed at college women today implying that you might be able to get away with only three or four pairs of shoes, even if that’s what women reported?
At the end of the article they bring readers’ attention to the fact that they used a sample:
I can’t help but find it rather charming that a popular magazine would even bother to clarify anything about their polling methods. So…earnest!
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
The marketing for beach-related vacation destinations often capitalizes on the association of foreign beaches with (partly) naked bathing beauties. This intersection of race, gender, and sexuality that positions the “ethnic” woman as particularly sexually accessible have deep roots in our colonial past in which foreign lands “open” to conquest by the Western world were conflated with foreign women “open” to conquest by Western men.
The “Hula Girl” is a case in point.
Hawaii was colonized by the U.S. and, when the islands became a tourism destination, Polynesian women were transformed into Hawaiian babes ready and waiting to please tourists from the mainland.
One transformation was the hula. Widely understood to be an “authentic” Polynesian tradition, the hula was actually originally mostly a man’s dance. It was religious. It involved chanting and no music. There were no hip movements, just gestures. Basically, it was story-telling.
Today, the men take a back seat to women, who are scantily clad in grass skirts (not authentic, by the way), and perform exaggerated hip movements to music. So the hula is an invention, designed by colonizers and capitalists, to highlight the appeal of “foreign” women.
Despite the constructed nature of the hula girl, she’s been used to market Hawaii for over 100 years. Here is an image of hula girls sent back to the mainland way back in 1890:
A Google Image search for “Hawaii postcard” in 2013 reveals that about half include the figure of a woman:
The phenomenon is a common one: women are treated as objects of beauty and aesthetic pleasure — exotified, in the case of “foreign” or darker-skinned women — and used to embellish a place or experience. While lots of things have changed for women since the beginning of this particular example in the late 1800s, their role as decoration resists retirement.
Larry Harnisch, of the Los Angeles Times blog The Daily Mirror, sent in this image, published in The Mirror in 1959, that illustrated how women’s bodies were judged in the Miss Universe contest:
ALL FIGURED OUT–This chart is used by judges as [a] guide in picking Miss Universe. First six show figure flaws, seventh is perfectly proportioned. (1) Shoulders too square. (2) Shoulders too sloping. (3) Hips too wide. (4) Shoulder bones too pronounced. (5) Shoulders and back hunched. (6) Legs irregular, with spaces at calves, knees, thighs. (7) The form divine, needs only a beautiful face.
(I had no idea that I have irregular legs until I saw figure 6. My self esteem is taking quite the hit. I can’t tell if there’s anything wrong with my shoulders, though–I’ll have to ask someone else for an opinion.)
First, some people like to suggest that men are programmed by evolution to find a particular body shape attractive. Clearly, if judging women’s bodies requires this much instruction, either (1) nature has left us incompetent or (2) cultural norms defining beauty overwhelm any biological predisposition to be attracted to specific body types.
Second, the chart reveals the level of scrutiny women faced in 1959 (and I’d argue it’s not so different today). It made me think of my years in 4-H. I was a farm kid and I showed steers for several years and also took part in livestock and meat judging competitions. I was good at it, just so you know. Anyway, what the beauty pageant image brought to mind was the handouts we’d look at to learn how to judge livestock. Here are some examples, from Kansas State University’s 4-H judging guide (pdf here):
This poor pig has a low-set tail–how dreadful:
It’s almost as if, like superior livestock, beautiful women are a desired cultural product in which we should all invest and be invested. You might compare these to some of the images in our post about sexualizing food that come from Carol Adams’s website.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
I still remember when the female characters on the sitcom Friends started the trend of visible nipples:
As long as I’d been alive and paying attention, hard nipples were embarrassing. Then, suddenly, they weren’t. I even remember hearing that women could get the all-hard-all-the-time look by buying those tiny rubber bands (that I only associate with the plastic bags aquarium fish come in) and fitting them tightly around your nipples. Nipples are still big, if measured by mannequins (Wicked Anomie noticed too).
It turns out this comes in fits and starts. This vintage ad (no date on the source), for example, features a bra with built-in hard nipples! (Apparently it had been a trend before I’d been alive and paying attention.)
In the comments, Dmitriy T.C. added a link to the patent for this device. I can’t resist adding this particular paragraph explaining why a bra with fake nipples is important:
…simulated nipples for a brassiere would offer an acceptable compromise for ladies who do not wish to go without a brassiere and a welcome release from the subconscious effects of the suppression brought on by wearing brassieres of the types variously available, which obliterate the nipple.
Didn’t anyone ever start to wonder why these women’s nipples were ALWAYS hard? And what if their real nipples (realistically probably located somewhere a bit lower than the bra’s) ever poked through, creating a quadruple effect?! Horrifying.
I find this whole thing especially funny, since, while shopping recently, Katie and I were making fun of these bras with built-in “modesty panels” that provide extra padding so that the nipple will never make an appearance. Times sure have changed.
Except times haven’t changed in the sense that women’s bodies still aren’t allowed to just be. Their nipples either must show, or must not show, or they should show in some contexts, or are allowed to show, but in other contexts they better not show. (Remember the outcry over Hilary Clinton’s “cleavage”? Can you imagine if she’d shown some nip!?)
So apparently we’re supposed to have nipple bras, bras with “modesty panels,” and a couple rubber bands in our pockets just in case. The one thing that is clearly less than ideal in all this: actual nipples doing what they do.
My best friend’s car has four cup holders in the front seat. FOUR. I would ask what a person does with four cup holders, except I’m too busy feeling jealous. I drive with a measly two.
Cup holders, or what the US News and World Report quaintly called ”crannies for drinking cups” as late as 1989, weren’t considered an automotive necessity until the ’50s. That was when, reports Bon Appetit, “drive-ins and drive-thru windows became mainstays of American eating.” Before then, people were expected to stop for food and drink and then be sated. Can you imagine?
It took a long time, though, for the automobile industry to figure out exactly how to deliver us our cup holders. First there was a “snack tray for car,” as pictured in a 1950 newspaper ad:
Companies also sold between the seat inserts that held cups and Cadillac sold a limousine with magnetic cup holders:
The cup holder as we know it today came to us in 1983 alongside another innovation: the mini van. The first cup holders ”sunk into the plastic of the dashboard” were installed in the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager. It would be a decade, though, before cup holders came standard in essentially every car.
Inequality by (Interior) Design, a blog by sociologist Tristan Bridges, turned one-year-old last month and it is quickly becoming one of my favorites. In a recent post, Bridges featured a product that reminds us all why history is awesome: the “portable baby cage”:
As I discussed in a previous post, with industrialization came cities and with cities came crowded, cramped living quarters. The baby cage kept infants out of harm’s way and gave the family a bit more space. As Bridges discusses, it also coincided with the idea that babies needed a lot of fresh air to be healthy. The baby cage seemed like the perfect solution.