Magazine Ads of 1921: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, and Meh

I’ve looked at hundred-year-old ads from a lot of different angles over the years: admiring their artistry, seeing how they rang in the 1920s, expressing total befuddlement, and planning my perfect 1919 summer morning and dream 1920 vacation. One thing I’ve never done, though, is evaluate them in terms of their fundamental purpose: getting people to buy stuff.* So I decided to look at the ads in the June 1921 Ladies’ Home Journal and decide what does, and what doesn’t, capture my fancy.

Thumbs Up

Turns out that you can use this soap for laundry, dishwashing, and cleaning around the house. No mention of washing your hands, surprisingly. (UPDATE 7/2/2021: As Susan of witness2fashion points out in the comments, naphtha is a petroleum product and not suitable for use on the skin.) I don’t know how the ship fits into the story, but the illustration is appealing. I’ll take it!

Mmm, a can of fat! But look at those baked goods. Plus, you can send away for a free book of recipes by Mrs. Ida C. Bailey. I’m in!

I love this cozy scene, complete with a bedside bookshelf. The text brags that “wamsutta” made it into the dictionary, which sounds to me like the first step toward losing your trademark, but if Wamsutta’s happy I’m happy. I’ll take a set of percales!

I’m not sure why the owners of this mansion need a fold-out sofa, and if they do why it needs to go in the doorway, but this one is nice-looking as sofa beds go, and I’m impressed that it opens by one easy, well-balanced motion.** Yes, please send me handsome illustrated booklet and name of nearest dealer!

I’m a little freaked out by the clown, but real food, what a novelty!

I’m not QUITE convinced that the men looking downward in their dinner partner’s direction are admiring her vanilla dessert. But look at that cake! I’ll go to my grocer and insist on Burnett’s.

More cake? It would be rude to say no!

I know I’m supposed to be focusing on the products, not the ads, but I looked at this, said, “Coles Phillips!”, zoomed in, and saw his initials under the seat of the rocker. I’ll take the polish and buy the white shoes later.

If I were in D.C., I would be saying, “Are you out of your mind? It’s 95 degrees! I don’t even want to THINK about black stockings!” But I’m in freezing Cape Town–well, in the 50s, but no one here has central heating–so bring on the hosiery!***

Thomas Edison is offering $10,000 to whoever can come up with a phrase of no more than four or five words to convey the idea that his phonograph is not a mere machine but “an instrumentality by which the true beauties and the full benefit of music can be brought into every home.” That doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, so I can see why he’s looking for help. I’ll get on it.

If it’s not a corset, I’m all in.

The small print says you have to send them a name of a new LHJ subscriber, and I usually balk at selling out my friends to corporations. Plus, I already have a copy. Still, I love the idea of this giveaway.

I’ll take all the gingham! And sure, what the hell, send me the free book about Mrs. Prentiss’s humorous gingham-related experiences.

Can I skip the camera and buy the dress?

The Meh

Brown soap is so 1919.

Sure, I WANT an olive spoon and a pickle fork. But do I NEED an olive spoon and a pickle fork?

This bedspread is the definition of meh.

Thumbs Down

No! Nooooo! Traumatic flashbacks of the awful government-issued furniture that I had in my Foreign Service housing, and that my friend Emily once took the desperate step of jamming into a spare bedroom. Granted, they’re not selling furniture here, they’re selling Congoleum. Which, as attentive readers will remember, is actually tar paper.

This canned meat picnic might be fun for Mother, but it’s not going to be much fun for anyone else.

No offense to exploding fairies, but this is “fragrantly Parisian” and I have fragrance allergies.

Ditto for giant perfume bottle worshipers.

Not buying the “corn syrup is health food” claim.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not conditional on what kind of soap you use.

As an expert on Italy–as in, I’ve never been there but I’m taking a beginning Italian class–I take offense at this.

“They are fresh peaches…” Yeah, and I’m a debutante.

This one almost made “Meh” but was a victim of its placement in the magazine, right next to this story,

which made me wonder why she’s living the laundry dream all alone.

Speaking of helpful husbands, this one is so beguiled by this cabinet that he comes to the kitchen to give his wife a hand with the dishes. “What matter a few smashed pieces? Think how quickly he will learn.” Not even the nifty flour dispenser would make me willing to put up with this nitwit.

If I were judging artistry, this one would get kudos for the surprisingly modern graphics. However…prunes.

I don’t believe judging anyone by their appearance, let alone a baby, so I’m strictly commenting on the skill of the artist in replying “That it has a nice personality?”****

squiggle

*Well, there was the time when this ad left me desperately craving bread.

Welch Grapelade ad, Ladies' Home Journal, January 1921, grape jam on white bread.
Ladies’ Home Journal

**But frankly a little skeptical given my life-endangering experiences with ca. 1970 sofa beds at childhood sleepovers.

***The guy with 34 children who provides a testimonial for Durham Hosiery turns out to be real.

****Hideous-looking kids were surprisingly popular in 1921 advertising.

6 thoughts on “Magazine Ads of 1921: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, and Meh

  1. Susan

    I enjoyed seeing rival ads for white (P & G ) naptha soap and and “golden” (actually, brown) Fels Naptha soap. My mother used Fels Naptha soap on laundry, especially on my father’s work clothes, which might be soiled with motor oil or paint or creosote. Naptha is a petroleum product, akin to mineral spirits (aka “Paint thinner,”) so you wouldn’t want to use it on your skin. As a chlld, i heard its name as “Nap the Soap,” like “Smokey the Bear” and “Bozo the Clown.” Bon Ami kitchen and bath powdered cleanser is another old friend. We called it “Bonn ammy.” I liked the fluffy chick on the label and the slogan “Hasn’t Scratched Yet.” In our house, Bon Ami was for cleaning pots and pans and the grout between tiles. It makes sense that some used it to clean their white canvas shoes, but the advertiser’s suggestion of using it on white leather.made me cringe. Thanks for another trip to the past….

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Mary Grace McGeehan Post author

      Susan, you always have such great insights and memories about these products. Bon Ami pronounced as “bon ammy” rings a bell. I’ll add a footnote about naptha soap not being handwashing-friendly.

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      Reply

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