Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Mad Men

Coney Island, 

The fifth season of the television series “Mad Men” will begin on March 25. Despite leaving you with an unsettled feeling at the end of each episode, this soap opera about New York’s advertising industry in the 1960s is addictive. You keep wanting for everything to just return to normal, but the drama never works out that way, mostly because the constant philandering only serves to further compound the problems. The two-hour debut is sure to deliver a double dose of dysfunctional behavior, leaving the viewers in the same disquieted mood as when the show last aired seventeen months ago. Therefore, we should take advantage of this tranquil interlude and return to the beginning of the last century, remembered in popular culture as a time when life was simpler and more wholesome, perhaps even for those working on Madison Avenue.

In 1896, eight advertising men in New York began meeting for lunch on a regular basis.1 Calling themselves the Sphinx Club, the group grew to the point where they began to hold larger meetings, as reflected by the menu shown below from their midsummer dinner at the Oriental Hotel on Coney Island in August 1902. Looking at this menu, you can almost envision the men arriving from the city on a hot afternoon, relaxing on the veranda with a glass of lemonade before dinner, enjoying the sea breeze while chatting with colleagues about some of the recently-introduced products like King Gillette’s safety razor and Kodak’s Brownie, the first camera for amateurs. All that would be needed to complete this idyllic scene is a group out on the lawn singing “In the Good Old Summertime,” the popular new song from Tin Pan Alley.

It appears that at least one of the small cartoons reflects a current event. Situated next to the Porterhouse steak, the safe with the inscription “Beef Trust” may refer to the high price of beef at the time.2 In fact, the National Retail Butcher’s and Meat Dealers’ Association was meeting in New York that week, proposing to loosen the grip of the beef monopoly by having the tariffs removed on meat and other food products.

Some of the small vignettes seem to be based on inside jokes, making them hard to decipher. For example, what is going on between the man and woman shown by the little neck clams?

The tipsy men hugging a bottle are easier to understand, being reminiscent of the heavy-drinking executives in the television series.3

And then there is the corn-cob character looking up at the tall buildings of the big city like a rube from the sticks. Does this cartoon simply refer to the summer vegetable on the menu, or is it also a reference to one of their advertising clients?

Perhaps most revealing is that the club was named after the mysterious Sphinx. Its spirit is reflected by this caricature, depicting one of the ad men as a Sphinx, wearing an enigmatic expression not unlike the characters on “Mad Men.”

1. In 1906, the group incorporated as the Advertising Men’s League, eventually becoming the Advertising Club of New York in 1915.
2. On May 15, 1902, there were riots in New York over the sudden increase in the price of kosher beef. Hundreds of women in the Lower East Side raided butcher’s shops and smashed windows, engulfing the neighborhood in violence.
3. Möet & Chandon White Seal Champagne is prominently shown in the middle of the bill of fare, suggesting that George A. Kessler, the clever importer of Möet & Chandon, may have been closely associated with these advertising men.

1 comment:

j. bowers said...

My guess is that the corncob figure is a play on the meaning of the word "green." "Green" can denote naivete as well as the color--that corncob man looks pretty green to me!