Friday, March 12, 2010

Something to Chew On: Scary Babies, Big Tobacco

Poetry & Popular Culture came across this goody the other day and initially planned to save it for later. Impatience has gotten the best of us, though, and so here it is—a 19th-century advertising trade card for Duke's Durham tobacco that features two of the scariest babies we've ever seen. One of the most popular forms of advertising in the Gilded Age, trade cards advertised everything from soap and coffee to sewing machines and patent medicines—Harvard's Baker Library has a collection of 8,000 of them which you can search here if you're looking for something special—and were collected, individually and in series, in the scrapbooks and albums which Ellen Gruber Garvey studies in Chapter One of The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture 1880s to 1910s (1996). If you know anything about baseball cards, then you know they, too, like the card pictured here, were also used to advertise tobacco and, in some cases—as with the famous 1910 T206 Honus Wanger—are worth a lot of dough today.

Some of these trade cards were "metamorphic" in design, featuring folded giveaways that opened and shut, oftentimes to demonstrate and physicalize the "before-and-after" effects of a particular item. With these types of cards, consumers didn't have to imagine the transformative effects that a product would magically have on them but could actually see it happening. Many trade cards included poems and, as with the metamorphic card here, used those poems to narrate the transformation taking place. Closed, the card reads:

Heavens! What will keep these children quiet?
People grow crazy at the riot,
And bring them candy, cakes and pie,
The more they bring, the more they cry.

But, courtesy of the Duke and his long pipe, people have a solution waiting for them at the local general store. Open the card, find the smiling babies clutching their own tins of leafy goodness, and read:

What can have brought from tears relief,
And caused these infants thus to smile,
The reason is in words quite brief,
"DUKE'S DURHAM," will e'en babes beguile.

Over the years, of course, big tobacco has made numerous claims about the restorative, health or beauty-inducing qualities of their product, but P&PC has never seen tobacco producers go so far as to make a play for the nookie market—suggesting chew tobacco as the perfect chew toy to keep your toddler from, well, bawling its lungs out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Poetry & Popular Culture Hits PMLA

If you've got a little time on your hands and are looking for a bit of extra reading about this blog's favorite subject matter, check out "The Business of Rhyming: Burma-Shave Poetry and Popular Culture" which is in the brand new issue of PMLA (not the issue pictured to the left). The Poetry & Popular Culture office has written about Burma-Shave before, but this new essay contains almost—almost—as much as we have to say on the matter. The fact that we get to say it in PMLA—that bastion of academic criticism—makes it all the more sweet.

So, as a teaser, here's the first paragraph, which follows a quotation from Gertrude Stein's Everybody's Autobiography.

[A]nd it was there I first saw the shaving advertisements that delighted me one little piece on one board and then further on two more words and then further on two more words a whole lively poem. I wish I could remember more of them, they were all lively and pleasing.... I wish I could remember them I liked them so much.

—Gertrude Stein, Everybody's Autobiography

The theme of the New York Times Crossword on Wednesday, 30 April 2003, begins with the clue for 17 across: "Start of a roadside verse." That clue and four others—23, 38, 47, and 58 across—link to produce a rhyming answer that staggers through the crossword's grid not unlike the way the Burma-Shave billboards being quoted from were staggered in sets of six along highways in the United States for nearly forty years in the mid-twentieth century, before regulations limiting "visual pollution" helped bring the shaving oeuvre to an end: "THIRTY DAYS / HATH SEPTEMBER / APRIL JUNE AND THE / SPEED OFFENDER / BURMA SHAVE." While the crossword is not exactly what William Zinsser had in mind in 1964 when he claimed that the poems in the then recently discontinued advertising campaign had become part of "the national vocabulary," it is nonetheless a compelling piece of evidence on his behalf. "No sign on the driver's horizon gave more pleasure of anticipation," Zinsser eulogized in the Saturday Evening Post. "Roads are no longer for browsing."

Happy reading.