Friday, 29 June 2012

From Dagenham With Love

These Ford Prefect cars were on the roads when I was a schoolboy – they seemed even then to be about as modest and unassertive as it’s possible for a motor car to be. A boxy shape and lack of body trim were just right for an age where nothing was more offensive than ostentation. This model was in production from 1953 to 1959 and despite its very English air of self-deprecation an effort was made to market a left-hand-drive version to the great American public whose taste in vehicle styling generally ran in the opposite direction. This included the two full page colour ads shown here from the pages of Life magazine in 1957-58. The unassuming looks appear especially incongruous in the affluent setting of a ranch-style lakeside property or the sophistication of a barbecue on a prairie-sized patio. I can’t see Don and Betty Draper taking to the highway in one of these, despite the appeal of “fine British craftsmanship” and a “curved windshield”. Clearly this was Ford’s response to the unstoppable advance of the VW beetle but for all its simple virtues the Prefect was destined for obscurity while the VW would become the object of a cult that endures to this day. The cover of Practical Motorist shows a Prefect in its natural habitat and in its natural condition – under repair. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Chesterfield Girls

Tobacco’s long Age of Innocence lasted through the Thirties and Forties when these bright and breezy ads appeared in mass circulation magazines. Smoking was more than just socially acceptable – in the business environment it was probably worth making the effort to smoke to avoid any suspicion of un-American tendencies. Chesterfield was a Liggett & Myers brand that enjoyed great popularity in the last century but has declined in visibility in recent decades. The name was taken, not from the Derbyshire town or the celebrated sofa, but from Chesterfield County in Virginia. In terms of mid-century advertising it was one of the three most publicised brands, along with Camel and Lucky Strike. Many campaigns were visually conservative and might endure, with minor variations for as long as 5 years. Celebrity endorsement and entertainment tie-ins were the default approach but there were occasional departures from trusted formulae when the battle for market share demanded some refreshment of the brand. The promoters of Chesterfield were more open to innovation than their competitors and in 1926 launched the infamous Blow Some My Way campaign that directly targeted the female smoker for the first time. Despite the chorus of disapproval, the female participant did no more than express a fondness for secondary smoking. But once the barriers were down it wasn’t long before women were shown, first holding packs, later with cigarette decorously held between the fingers and finally, irrevocably descending into impropriety with a cigarette between the lips. 

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Watford in Three Lines

Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) was an intriguing character who at one point in his career had a day job as a senior civil servant in the Ministry of War that he somehow combined with an active involvement in anarchist causes. Under another hat he wrote as an art critic noted for his enthusiastic support of Neo-Impressionism and the work of Seurat, Signac, Luce and Pissaro. In 1906 Fénéon was employed by Le Matin newspaper in Paris to entertain readers with a selection of stories from the day’s news rewritten in condensed form. An anthology drawn from the total of 1200 was published in translation in 2007 under the title, Novels in Three Lines

A recent discovery deep in the archive of this miniature newspaper (West Herts and Watford Observer) from March 15th. 1963 is a voice from a time when JFK was in the White House and Macmillan was in Downing Street. The back pages are full of employment advertisements for genuine full-time jobs in manufacturing. And Cliff Richard and the Shadows are performing at the local Gaumont. The news pages produced a rich harvest of dispatches from the foothills of Metro-land that seem to lend themselves to the Fénéon treatment and ten examples are presented below. 

Speaking of their 16 year old daughter, parents told a court that they had done everything for her but she had been a continual nuisance up to and including leaving the family home to live with a 20 year old man with whom she had been intimate. 

After a number of false starts, identical twin ginger haired brothers in late adolescence separately travelled by air to overseas destinations at the expense of the Royal Air Force. 

An aversion to abusive language induced a publican to arrange for a customer to be forcibly ejected from his premises. The said customer’s head impacted upon the pavement with such force that his earthly existence was terminated. 

A conscientious intruder successfully forced entry into six homes at consecutive addresses in the same street for the purpose of relieving the occupants of their most valuable possessions. 

Approaching the end of a lifetime of sorting letters and hand painting a collection of 1,000 model soldiers Mr. Harold Marsh was presented with an Imperial Service Medal by the Assistant Head Postmaster. 

Informed that he would be charged with dangerous driving and excessive speed, a van driver expressed his disappointment and requested the police officer to charge him with any offence but that. 

Noted for his ability to recall seeing swans wandering daily in search of food, Mr. Oscar Rees Gibbon died at the age of 93. For 53 years his home had been in Bushey Heath during which it had lost its rural character. 

The sum of £2 was extracted from Martin Card by way of punishment for his impudence in trespassing in search of game on land held in the possession of the Earl of Dudley who did not take kindly to this sort of behaviour. 

A performer who spoke not a word on stage during his act gripped the imagination of his club audience to such an extent that members were in turn reduced to a most untypical condition of prolonged silence. 

His second wife was a sister of his first but even the amputation of a leg in Cape Town was insufficient to extend his life beyond the age of 79, although he had in the past impressed many of his acquaintances with his intellectual stature. 

Friday, 22 June 2012

Postcard of the Day No. 55, Baling Havana Tobacco

This is another postcard trip to the island of Cuba – a soporific image of back-breaking manual labour from a century past. An air of lethargy and resignation hangs over the clearly posed workforce, captured in suspended animation. Cuban tobacco has always been a premium product generating enormous profits for producers and processors. Hand-formed into large cylinders, inserted between the lips and ignited, it endures as a marker of taste and status for connoisseurs everywhere (except the US). Before signing the US embargo on trade with Cuba in 1962, President Kennedy ordered a personal supply of 1200 Cuban cigars (H. Upmann Petit Coronas). Fifty years of boycott has had no notable impact on the Castro regime’s capacity for survival and tobacco remains one of Cuba’s principle exports. The bonus cards show a tobacco barn (where the leaves are dried and cured) and a plantation. 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Madison Avenue Still Life

Liquor advertising in American magazines followed some well worn paths and deviations from the familiar tried and tested formulae were unusual. But for a while in the late Forties, Kentucky Tavern Bourbon Whiskey turned its back on the Southern colonels and captains of industry, moved away from the golf course and polo field and placed their trust in the power of lifestyle paraphernalia and witty taglines. The trick was to surround the product with allusions to office life (architect’s drawing board, the box file filled with ice cubes) and the leisured class (via the repetition of The Aristocrat of Bonds and a dual association with financial markets and fine breeding). The artwork gets our attention by employing white space and then holds it with ingeniously contrived hyper-realist imagery and clever visual puns. The use of white space to distinguish the product was a high-risk strategy (later brought to a triumphant climax in the artwork for Life Savers) but in this context it works well by lifting the product off the page and into the imagination of the target audience. 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Tunnel Endings

A subterranean curiosity from one of the Twin Cities – twin postcard views of the entrances to (or exits from) the 1500 foot Selby Streetcar tunnel of 1907, operated by the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) that used to run underneath the city’s cathedral and emerge in what appears to be a leafy suburb and remains so to this day from what can be seen on StreetView. The tunnel has been out of use since at least 1954 and although the approach to the east entrance (shown in the lower view) can still be found, it has been sealed. Despite which, it seems that urban explorers have occasionally penetrated the mystery and returned with photos of the interior. The card below shows another service of the TCRT trundling past Gibbs Lake en route for the resort area at Lake Minnetonka. 

Monday, 11 June 2012

Mixed Signals

Postcard publishers were quick to see the rich comic potential in the image of the matelot. The saucy sailor with upturned moustache has an enduring fascination whether he clings to a flagpole or strikes a pose inside a lifebelt. Such jaunty images have generated much camp humour and all manner of innuendo. Advertisers have taken full advantage of another attribute of the mariner – the reputation for courage in adversity that has made them especially valuable in the marketing of tobacco products. I’m not so sure as to how far these attitudes persist across the Atlantic. The postcards below celebrate the immaculate uniforms associated with naval traditions. The notion of training sailors in the fine arts of needlecraft may have a practical application in mending their uniforms, or perhaps they’re preparing for a transition into the fashion industry after demobilisation. Relaxing with a Pepsi in the company of comrades from the other services seems a little tame for these notoriously serious drinkers but this is another of those postcard images where expressions of joviality are greatly exceeded by expressions of suspicion and downright hostility. 

Friday, 8 June 2012

Great Railway Stations Number 7: Hull Paragon

A few years ago, the ineffable Kirstie’n’Phil, Channel 4’s evil impresarios of property porn topped up their bank balances by hosting a cut and paste show entitled Britain’s Worst Places to Live. As an exercise in gloating over the victims of misfortune it captured the spirit of the times to perfection. When the countdown was complete the city of Hull was awarded the plume of victory in this gruesome contest. A travesty of course - even the worst features of Hull are never as devoid of human spirit as the hollowed-out, soulless Home Counties villages where Kirstie’n’Phil’s over rewarded clients from the world of business and finance are so desperate to locate themselves. Hull offers a remarkable number of substantial Victorian buildings of quality, many of which are quite exceptional, and the best way to arrive in the city is by train. 

On arrival your train will be engulfed by the last of the great Victorian-era barrel vaulted, wrought-iron and glass train sheds, completed in 1904 by the North Eastern Railway and maintained in good order. There are five vaults over the platforms and two at right-angles that shelter the station concourse. The postcard view shows the main station buildings positioned parallel with the platforms as they appeared around 1905. Extensive remodelling has followed, including infilling the porte-cochère and today’s buildings are difficult to match up with the postcard scene. The former booking-office, hand-crafted in wood is carefully preserved although lacking any obvious function it seems more of a museum exhibit – the original mosaic floor and internal glazed brick and faience decoration also remain in situ. The concourse provides an impressive space for the circulation of passengers and includes a bronze likeness of poet Philip Larkin – a generous gesture on the part of the citizens of Hull (who raised the cash to pay for it) toward a long-term resident who never went out of his way to befriend the locals. There must be a suspicion that the sculpture displays more animation than the subject would have exhibited in real life. 

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Postcard of the Night No. 8, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Night has fallen over the crossroads of the nation and the rival networks of bus and train offer the nocturnal traveller an easy exit from Cheyenne. An oversized Union Pacific flag is attached to the tower of the railroad depot. According to my 1949 timetable a train from Cheyenne can be in Chicago in 16 hours or go west to San Francisco in just under 24 hours. The indigent itinerant in search of free high-risk railroad travel would be making for the hobo jungle to compete with fellow vagabonds for a ride in a freight car. First hand experience of the delights of the Bus Depot is limited but I can still recall the odour of diesel, donuts and Lucky Strikes that hung heavy in the air of these uninviting facilities. My diary for 1966 records that I passed through Cheyenne on August 23rd. en route from Salt Lake City to Omaha in the air-conditioned confinement of a Greyhound bus.