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New Book Looks Back at 1940's Ads

The Forties are a fascinating era for many reasons, and that’s illustrated by a new book from Taschen, “40s All-American Ads,” edited by Jim Heimann.

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The Forties are a fascinating era for many reasons, and that’s illustrated by a new book from Taschen, “40s All-American Ads,” edited by Jim Heimann.


One source of interest is that they straddle two important periods — World War II and the beginnings of postwar prosperity. What stands out at first glance is the heavy pitch the ads are making for happy families — half of all the appliance ads seem to feature attractive young couples, often with the wife wearing an apron.


There are lots  of wonderful car ads, nearly all of them in brilliant color. Another interesting feature is the clever and effective use of illustrations — now almost entirely replaced in advertising by photographs. And everything — not just cars — provides an excuse to position an attractive young woman in an evening dress nearby. Of course, an ad for wooden doors needed one. Many of the advertisements are funny, sometimes intentionally, but more often, inadvertently, with a subtext legible only to modern eyes. For instance, why does the drawing of a young boy just out of the shower and barely wrapped in a towel show a grown man bursting through the medicine cabinet?


The ads are frequently focused on the future, particularly those of airlines, which point out that the air routes and airplanes now being flown in war would soon be flown by vacationers. (“Tomorrow thousands will go to Europe by Clipper.”   — Pan American World Airways. And they did.) Meanwhile, other ads mention that the goods they  promote — say, socks or junior dresses — will not be quite as available at the moment as they have been in the past, because either they or the materials they are made out of are needed for the war effort. Some urge consumers to buy war bonds and stamps, as well. There is also an intriguing section showcasing products and materials in the context of their actual function in battle.


Heimann put together much of the book by doing research in his own collection, an extensive one that covers a variety of printed ephemera. “I had all these things, and Benedikt Taschen was aware of it,” he said, referring to the publishing firm’s founder and owner. The editor has been working for Taschen since 2000 (“it’s kind of a dream job”) and has done a book on every decade of the 20th century except the Nineties; the original version of this book came out in 2001. He owns enough printed ephemera to have a separate building for it at home and employ an archivist.


“One of the reasons Taschen was behind it is that Germans and Europeans had nothing like this — the consumerization was so pervasive here,” he notes. Some of Heimann’s favorite ads are from Bohn, which shows unorthodox vehicles and other inventions that are intended to be ideas for transport or communications devices projected into the future. A Bohn ad is on the cover of the book. He also points out that the vintage car ads, which are almost all illustrated, scale down the size of the people to make the vehicles look more impressive.


Meanwhile, in the classes he teaches at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Heimann tries to impart to his students the effectiveness of using old-fashioned methods of doing business in a world preoccupied with e-mail and texting. “You have to make a phone call to set up an appointment to show your portfolio,” he says. “And after your appointment, you have to send a hand-written note. When you send a hand-written note, you’re communicating on a whole different level.”

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