Patriotism is the last refuge of the advertising executive. The freeways of the United States currently blossom with rather unsavoury billboards bearing fluttering Stars and Stripes and such heartwarming messages as “God bless America – from your friends at Dakota Mortgage”. The capacity to shoehorn patriotic sentiment into virtually any commercial context is not a new phenomenon, as roughly half the contents of All-American Ads of the 40s attest. Firms in the 1940s never missed an opportunity to reinforce the part they were playing in keeping the world free – however tenuous. “America’s health is vitally important to victory,” ran the blurb for Dr West’s “Miracle-Tuft” toothbrush. And another copywriter explained that “Schenley’s distilleries are now on a war footing – turning out vast quantities of war alcohol, needed by the nation.”

The advertising man’s tricks may be the same, but no-one flicking through the thousand vividly reproduced adverts in this book could confuse them with the output of today’s “creatives”. For one thing, everyone was incredible well turned-out back then. For another, there was plenty of good old-fashioned racism, sexism and general politically incorrect derring-do. Wartime restrictions may have affected many things, but it seems there were never any shortages in the area of Tom and Jerry-style histrionic black housekeepers or “Uncle Tom” cocktail waiters. And while women may well have donned overalls and brandished rivet guns during the hostilities, they never forgot their place. “My husband says Ford’s beauty comes from ‘baked enamel’,” vouchsafed one lady driver. “Maybe that’s why the finish has that wonderful feel of my pet service plates… and they were wedding presents!”

For those who enjoy a supercilious giggle at the people of the past and their slightly dated lives, there is plenty of material here. What schoolboy could fail to titter at the advert reading “Give Dad gaylord for his shaving and after shaving requirements”? Who could not raise an indulgent smile at the sight of a chipper five-year-old visiting her GP, with the suspect tagline “More Doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette”? Ah, how little they knew!

One suspects that Jim Heimann’s face, as he compiled this volume, veered constantly between the smirk of kitsch connoisseurship and the sneer of condescending hindsight. But these images are worth more than that. This was advertising as an art in its own right, not the plagiarising magpie industry of today. And its ceaseless sunny optimism in the face of adversity is something from which we jaded cynics could learn – the Stars and Stripes, it will be noted, does not appear in this book.

First published in World of Interiors issue 236. Reproduced with permission.

All-American Ads of the 40s

ed. Jim Heimann  (Taschen)

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