Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No.2: Small Ads.
OK, small ads are not exactly extinct. There’s still Exchange and Mart, I suppose, and various trade publications, but you don’t see pages and pages of little illustrated ads like you used to - daily papers, magazines and comics all crammed with the most strange and unlikely products aimed at the casual reader. TV and the internet have long taken over as the big advertising mediums. It’s a pity. I really don’t know where you’d go, nowadays, if you wanted to buy some X-Ray Specs or a C-Back-O-Scope.
I love small ads. They offer a great history lesson. You can gauge the state of a nation by the tone and content of the advertisements in any given period. UK women’s magazines during the second World War were understandably full of ideas for making the rations stretch a bit further: ‘Buy Brown and Poulson’s Cornflour! (And look! You can turn the box into a pretty little hat!”) Quite. And then paint your legs with the remains of the gravy browning before you go off dancing at the Alhambra.
Some time ago I managed to pick up a bundle of 1930s magazines from Depression era America, and you can smell the desperation in the content of the small ads: ‘Sell Suits On Our Easy Credit Plan!’ ‘Train For Radio and Electricity’, ‘His Salary Raised While Others Fell’, ‘Play Hawaiian Guitar and Earn Big Money! (One Week home tutor course shows you how.’) I can just imagine some poor hungry cracker spending his last few bucks on a Hawaiian guitar. “Kids, our troubles are over!” Then there were the adverts for liver pills, asthma pills, backache, belly-ache and heart-ache pills…
Most of the superhero comics I read as a boy were from the States. This was during the late fifties/early sixties, by which time the small ads at the back told of a land far wealthier than our own. Why, over there, for just a few weeks of summer fun delivering said comics, you could get yourself a wonderful new bike! Free! And look at the thing – it had E-Z-Shift gearing and whitewall tyres and dynamo lights! Crikey, the whole family could probably sit round it of an evening warming their hands on the glow of the paintwork.
And if you were a lazy sod, like me, who’d far rather be reading comics than selling them, you could just work a little less and go for a BB gun instead. (Whatever that might be.) Even a totally wheelchair-bound kid with leukaemia, like my friend Spiggy down the road, could probably earn himself a Real Working Telescope – simply by flinging comics out of his bedroom window into the neighbouring porches.
Well maybe the reality wasn’t quite so simple. Maybe it would have actually taken a bit longer than the projected few weeks to sell the necessary quota of comics (about fifteen million, if I remember rightly) in order to get that bike. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if there are ancient grey-bearded men hobbling around Montana even now, still trying to shift enough copies of Green Lantern to qualify for a Daisy air rifle.
But it was the dream, you see, that was important. I think that when the era of small ads died away, a lot of good dreams died with it.