Monday, February 2, 2015

Gone With the Hogshead Cask and Demijohn

Over the last week I have breezed through about twenty issues of The Outlook, a national magazine published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Outlook had broad appeal as a general interest magazine, but paid particular attention to the social ills of the Industrial Revolution.  I had a special interest in getting a good feel for life in America in the opening years of the twentieth century, and had acquired on eBay a cluster of issues ranging in dates from 1898 to 1908. 

It only takes a few hours to get drawn into the old century.  Queen Victoria died in January 1901, the end of an era.  President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo nine months later.  The Boer War raged in South Africa.  America struggled with what to do in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, how to deal with Hawaii, and whether to pick up work in Panama on an abandoned French canal.  The Outlook detailed the so-called "Japanese problem” and “Chinese problem,” wrestling with how America could assimilate tens of thousands of immigrants whose cultures seemed so different.  The lynching of blacks in the South and West was becoming more violent and pervasive.  Labor and “capital” were at each other’s throats from the mills of Pennsylvania to the textile factories of New England to the mines of Colorado.  There were features on skyscrapers, the nascent automobile industry, women’s education, and the ten greatest books of the nineteenth century (with the consensus #1 being Darwin’s Origin of the Species followed closely by Goethe’s Faust).

Nobody mentions the incredible leap
Goodyear made from horses to autos
The Outlook was chock full of advertisements for books, private schools, vacation homes, trips and cruises, pianos, hand finished underwear, and Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory Soap.  America had plainly developed a consuming middle class, one that might be in the market for hair tonic, cigars, toilet powder, arch supports, breakfast cereals, typewriters and even an Edison Mimeograph.  There were ads for rubber horseshoes to help negotiate city streets--just a few pages away from ads for automobiles of all descriptions, from the new Model “M” White Steam Car to the Atlas Runabout.  Henry Ford was toiling away quietly for much of this period; the betting man believed that Edison would deliver an electric car that would meet the growing demand for road transportation.

The single most remarkable advertisement in the twenty issues, however, was called “The Village That Became a Suburb.”  The ad was sponsored by the Magazine Press, a consortium of thirty periodicals, in the October 24, 1908 issue.  From a modern perspective, I found this ad to capture the times better than anything else I read in those twenty issues.

It tells the story of a village more than an hour’s ride from New York City that had a typical country store.  The store sold “bacon by the side, sugar and oatmeal in bulk, pink candy at fifteen cents a pound, and yellow soap that was thought to be as good for the toilet as it was for washing dishes.”  One day a real estate man appeared and farmers sold their land, moved into the village to live on their new wealth, and watched suburban homes arise in their old fields.  Soon city people arrived, bought these new homes and remodeled old ones.  The village was becoming a suburb.

Large Experience and Trained Minds

That’s when an enterprising city chap arrived to open a new store.  All of his stock, the ad said, was “city stock in clean, sanitary cartons, tins, glass jars.  He asked eighty cents a pound for candy that wasn’t even pink.   He got twenty-five cents for a pesky little cake of toilet soap.”  The owner of the old country store was appalled at the prices and the extravagance of the customers at this new store.

What caused customers to engage in such scandalous spending?  Magazines, of course!  Magazines that could address a merchant’s selling problems with “large experience and trained minds."  The new customers, the ad explained, “read more, that’s all.”  Magazines taught them about the quality, purity and real economy of the better products they purchased.  Clearly, merchants were told, prices were higher and profits better when quality goods were advertised in magazines.  

Soon, in fact, the new store in town was selling three kinds of soap, for the toilet, hair, and babies.  It was not long before the more progressive of the old villagers began copying their city neighbors.  They, too, wanted “soap at a quarter and bacon in jelly glasses.”

While reading this, I could not help but think of the opening scene of The Music Man, when the salesmen are riding the Rock Island railroad:
A demijohn, in case you were wondering
3rd Salesman: Why it's the Model T Ford made the trouble, made the people wanna go, wanna get, wanna get up and go. . .seven eight , nine, ten, twelve, fourteen, twenty-two, twenty-three miles to the county seat
1st Salesman: Yes sir, yes sir
3rd Salesman: Who's gonna patronize a little bitty two by four kinda store anymore?
4th Salesman: Whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk. . .
5th Salesman: Gone with the hogshead cask and demijohn, gone with the sugar barrel, pickle barrel, milk pan, gone with the tub and the pail and the tierce. . . .
Here, then, in a single 1908 ad was a snapshot of the early twentieth century: the extraordinary impact of the auto and train in creating new communities; the flight of middle class and upscale Americans to the new suburbia; the emerging influence of mass media and its ability to create a common culture; the reliance on engineering to standardize products; the emerging focus on providing customer service; the growing affluence of Americans; progress over tradition; the new attention to health and hygiene; and most of all, the creation of the American consumer.

A classic example of a new, hygienic,
standardized product
The creation of the modern consumer.

Queens died, Presidents were shot, canals built and wars fought.  Americans stumbled over immigration, labor relations, and race while worrying about private schools and breakfast cereals for their children and whether to vacation at Niagara Falls or California.  Horses and autos collided on the streets of New York as technologies changed.  That was all made clear in The Outlook.  

But the single most profound change was this: a people whose millennium-old tradition of frugality--to "acquire for need"--were rapidly learning to "demand for desire,"  and to pay more.  In other words, Americans were being marketed to buy stuff because they wanted it, not because they needed it.  And magazines knew it was working.

Without this fundamental shift in early twentieth century consumption, the nineteenth century's mass production and mass distribution have nowhere to deliver their standardized, hygienic products.  The Industrial Revolution grinds to a halt.

That's why I love this ad.  In a very important way, the fact that an American could be marketed into purchasing a sealed package of flour in 1908 instead of dipping a scoop into a barrel--as had been done since flour and barrels existed--would say more about the future than all the Queens, Presidents, canals and skyscrapers combined.

Whaddaya talk?