Thursday, 14 March 2019

Empty Chairs

The image of the empty chair has a potent symbolic value for artists and photographers. It denotes both absence and an imagined presence. When Van Gogh was immersed in his personal identity crisis in the Yellow House in Arles he employed the subject of the empty chair to stand in for himself and his reluctant companion, Gauguin, in a pair of symbolic portraits. These postcards have no explicit symbolic content but that doesn’t stand in the way of what the viewer can read into them. Some seem to anticipate the imminent arrival of an animated crowd while others suggest abandonment, a sense that they may never again be occupied. A few are enveloped in a deep melancholy suggesting they won’t be adding to the sum of human happiness any time soon. The ultimate in empty chairs is the Electric Chair, built with a single purpose, temporary occupation and no reason for consideration of human comfort.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Fresh From Battle Creek

We begin with a postcard from 1958 on which an impressed visitor from South Africa writes home with an account of a visit to the Kellogg’s factory in Battle Creek, Michigan. Unlike many of its competitors, the Kellogg Company has retained its independence and still resides in Battle Creek, where it was founded in 1898. As the postcard illustrates, it has a global presence and there are very few countries where its products are not on sale. It operates in an ultra-competitive market and pioneered the inclusion of free collectable figures and toys in its packages. Offering modest books of pictures and stories for children in return for a nominal sum was another successful strategy in popularising the product with children. Brand characters played their part from Snap! Crackle! and Pop! (Rice Krispies) to Tony the Tiger (Frosties) while established cartoon characters such as Yogi Bear were drafted in on an as-required basis, all to embed themselves in the affections of juvenile consumers. Their efforts were probably more effective on television than they were in print. The logo has been regularly and subtly remodelled but remains recognisable as the signature-based original from 1900. And there’s a Kellogg’s Sans font to support the corporate identity. Movie tie-ins are the staple of today’s promotional activity.

Kellogg’s print advertising is unspectacular but persistent. Sometimes directed exclusively to the junior end of the market – at other times focused on the needs and anxieties of adults. The message to adults is often designed to exploit fears about physical health with a special emphasis on regular bowel movements. Mothers are frequently reminded of their parental responsibilities for child welfare with an implication that a child without Kellogg’s in her diet is a victim of neglect. The use of slogans and taglines is functional but not especially imaginative – few, if any, have passed into popular culture. This survey is concentrated on the period 1930 to 1960 and the only slogan with any staying power seems to be The best to you each morning. Efforts such as The Grains are Great Foods or Mother Knows (Kellogg’s) Best are justly forgotten. The invention of the Variety pack – 5 types of cereal, 10 small servings, all wrapped in cellophane was a masterstroke. Smaller quantities and increased packaging boosted margins while the direct appeal to children made life difficult for parents in the supermarket.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Sunny Side of Life

Written as a hymn by prolific Christian song writer, Ada J Blenkhorn, it was made famous by the Carter Family in their 1928 recording, issued on the Victor label as Keep on the Sunny Side. An uplifting sentiment with a strong undertow of foreboding – perfect for the imminent financial crash and subsequent Depression. The phrase sets the tone for this promotional brochure from 1934, published by Kellogg’s in 1934. On the cover a hyperactive family, supercharged by solar energy (and a generous intake of Kellogg’s products), orbit a sundial. Inside, we are quickly introduced to a world of anxiety about constipation – the enemy of happy family life. The man of the household waves his hat as he sets out on the Road to Regularity. Then comes the undertow of foreboding – the passage of food through the body is described and illustrated, leading to a graphic timeline of the alimentary journey. Medication is dismissed in favour of a healthy diet with plenty of “bulk”. Happily there is a natural remedy in the form of Kellogg’s range of breakfast cereals. And so it goes on, and on, revealing a touching faith in the power of the written word. It serves as a reminder that the business we know today, infamous for the quantities of sugar and salt loaded into their cereals, had its origins in the wilder margins of dietary obsessives and the congregation of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Postcard Havana

Walker Evans was a lifelong collector of postcards – by the time of his death in 1975 he had acquired more than 9,000 examples, all filed away in shoe-boxes and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Evans expressed a strong preference for cards produced before 1925 and held a very low opinion of cards produced after that date. It’s unlikely that his Havana trip of 1933 added much, if anything to his collection, and some of those shown here would not have met with his approval. For a longer discussion of Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard from 10 years ago, please follow this link.

The city views of Havana show a neat, tidy and well mannered colonial capital with a fine stock of Spanish Baroque buildings and pre-date Evans’s visit by about three decades. Widespread civic neglect and a rising tide of corruption and criminality later left their mark on the city. What Evans saw and recorded in 1933 was blistering paint, crumbling plaster and networks of subsidence cracks. The final postcard shows the famous Hotel Nacional which opened for business in 1930. In October 1933 it would sustain serious damage as a result of gun battles between pro-Battista and anti Battista factions, following the deposal of Machado. Still more postcards from Havana can be seen by following these links, Havana Deserta, Calle Obispo and Baling Tobacco.