Friday, 29 August 2014

Solitary Man

The figure of a solitary man (and it usually is a man) is not uncommon in the postcard universe. Often he’s there for an obvious reason – to display an unusual phenomenon. Such as the world’s largest cabbage, meteorite, lump of coal, boll weevil, coffee cup, etc. Or he has a custodial task, presenting an unusually fine horse, dolphin, alligator, dancing bear or tree stump for public admiration. Another figure might be demonstrating a skill – use of an ice axe or shovel, herding sheep, gathering fruit or flowers. There are exceptions, occasionally a child will be recruited though female figures are normally exhibited principally for their erotic potential. Such cards offer simple entertainment for connoisseurs of the absurd but more interesting are the single figures for which there is no obvious explanation. In an otherwise empty sea-front pavilion a single figure gazes soulfully at the distant horizon and suddenly a drab scene is relieved by the germ of a narrative. Some figures are accidental or incidental presences, others deliberately posed to enhance the scene with a sense of scale, sometimes hand-drawn in a desperate effort to alleviate tedium. Loiterers and loafers who just never got out of the way for photographers who couldn’t be bothered to retouch them out of existence. A minority are very well concealed – at the Postcard Memory Palace there’s a tag for “emptiness” and more than once a hawk-eyed observer has pointed out the presence of an infinitesimally small figure. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Bon Ami - “Hasn’t scratched yet!”

Bon Ami is one of those American consumer products that never crossed the Atlantic leaving us to gaze on it from afar. For a humble scouring powder the name has a Gallic flavour usually reserved for more sophisticated cosmetic or fashion related products. Launched in 1886, within ten years it was well established in the American market bringing a lustre of unprecedented brilliance to sinks and drainers everywhere. An image of a newly hatched chick served as brand character, accompanied by the slogan, “Hasn’t scratched yet!” – a phrase whose resonance has greatly diminished in step with the decline in keeping chickens among the American public. McCann-Erickson Advertising (slogan, “Truth Well Told”) handled Bon Ami promotion from 1904 and featured their achievements in a series of self-promotion ads placed in Fortune magazine. What follows is a small selection of magazine advertising, mostly from the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal. Domestic tableaux replete with gender issue sensitivities are a favourite. The concerned husband complete with pipe and apron, taking his turn drying dishes, expresses his sense of awe and wonder inspired by the dazzling splendour of the kitchen sink. Clearly puzzled that a spouse of such limited competence has scaled such heights of cleaning excellence, it comes as a relief to discover it’s all due to the amazing properties of Bon Ami. For the harassed housewife the message is that Bon Ami can extract an approving comment from the most severe taskmaster. In another, more extended dialogue, a young husband struggles to reconcile the physical attractions of his new bride with her high level cleaning skills. In a daring reversal of roles, she has to educate him by explaining the special character of Bon Ami in a syrupy exchange that only those of a strong stomach should read to the end. The truth is that a key part of a woman’s domestic responsibilities is advocacy for Bon Ami - even in parenting there is no escape as Mommy ambitiously engages the interest of an adorably curly-headed son and heir in the best way to maintain a clean and polished bath-tub. If this early introduction to domesticity was the prelude to a lifetime of obsessively cleaning sanitary ware, Bon Ami would have a lot to answer for.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Postcard of the Day No. 68, Grimaldi – Ventimiglia

Today’s card features the frontier between France and Italy near Menton. It’s a popular postcard subject, perhaps because of its proximity to Mediterranean resorts where international tourism first flourished. Frontiers are artificial constructs superimposed on the planetary surface continuity with mapping pens and straight edges. Ants, birds and bees can pass unhindered but human traffic is constrained and regulated. This border crossing, high on the rock-face overlooking the sea is largely unchanged according to Street View. The border guards have departed and traffic passes freely, courtesy of the Schengen Agreement. Checks were still in place at the time of this card. A chauffeur poses next to his limousine, his passengers seated in the back, their luggage stacked on the roof. It could be a storyboard for a cinematic life of Raymond Roussel, forever crossing frontiers with his devoted mother in a limo with the curtains drawn to exclude the world outside. We’ve visited this location before – follow this link to see. 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Hard Times, Soft Sell

When times are hard and money is in short supply, advertisers are forced to rethink their strategies and fight for every dollar of domestic expenditure. In the Great Depression, new upstart advertising agencies threw away the text heavy, grandiose styles of the 1920s and developed a pared-down model that borrowed the typography and layouts of the tabloid press to suit the mood of the times. This enabled the advertiser to purloin some of the authority of the press, creating the impression that their claims were facts and if the careless reader was confused between promotional and editorial matter, this was no bad thing. At the same time, advertisers became increasingly dependent on another format from the popular press – the strip cartoon. 

The onward march of the Funny Papers into the affections of the American populace generated a small army of highly skilled cartoon artists only too happy to enhance their earnings offering their talents to the advertising industry. Specialists in figure drawing, backgrounds and speech bubbles combined in an assembly line approach to the task as the workload expanded throughout the 1930s. Where artists worked on more than one campaign, great care was taken to conceal their identities. Raymond Rubicam (of Young & Rubicam) was an early adopter and coined the phrase “sequence-picture copy” to avoid the words “cartoon” or “comic” passing his lips. There was no television to compete with print media – only radio and the cinema offered alternative outlets for the advertiser’s message, simultaneously creating opportunities for cross-promotion with personalities from radio and Hollywood frequently migrating into print as cartoon characters. 

Best of all was the ability to address the consumer directly in his or her favoured medium with simple messages and undemanding dialogues delivered by a repertoire of much loved comic book characters. Children clipped them out and pasted them into scrapbooks, extending the reach of the message. For an adult audience they met another corporate objective by putting a human face on to an otherwise impersonal and monolithic corporation such as General Foods. Hostility to the activities of the giants of capitalism ran high in the course of the Depression leading to valiant, if not always successful, campaigns to promote a warm and cuddly presence in the marketplace. Stylistically these examples are very conservative – they display little evidence of the dynamic sense of movement to be seen in adventure comics that would find its way into the visual vocabulary of the 1940s and 1950s. But their two-dimensional quality and the curious blankness of expression offer a certain enigmatic charm all their own. An earlier posting on this subject can be read here