Sunday, August 14, 2011

Product Placement in Personal History

Modern personal history is to a large degree the history of technological advances. In the 1950's, when I was growing up, the culture of toys and "fads" tended to overwhelm child consciousness, in much the same way that it did "grown-up" life. Grown-ups (parents, authority figures) condescended to these "crazes" even while they themselves were bemused and delighted by the "mature" toys of a lifetime.

The consumer revolution of the post-War period in America coincided with the rapidly appreciating prosperity of that era. Everyone was swept up the celebration of gadgets and luxuries and labor-saving devices which flowed from the cornucopia of western inventiveness and entrepreneurial fervor. America embraced the new spirit of consumption with a child-like glee bordering on mild hysteria.

In that pre-digital age, word of mouth still functioned as a synergy of promotional awareness, and ambitious tradespeople and press agents figured out shrewd ways to capture the national attention network. Once the general public got wind of a new product craze, the effect on sales and distribution could be enormous. Today, such product placement and promotion is cynically exploited in the media. A sales campaign from a child-movie, say, like the Harry Potter phenomenon, involves billions in advertising, and dozens of spin-offs in varied "markets."

But in the 1950's, what most appealed to people was the relative cheapness of such objects. They enjoyed sharing a mindless extravagance which was delightfully diverting, but didn't cost a lot of money. Americans loved a smart, handy invention for the kitchen, or the workshop, but for their recreations, they desired pure fun. The further away from practicality a thing might be, the better they liked it. Excelsior!

In 1958, the Hula Hoop hit the national consciousness. Like almost every obvious contraption, the Hula Hoop had antecedents from history, but it wasn't until people began to hear about these new plastic doo-dads that sales began to rocket, and it seemed that every kid in America had to have a Hula Hoop.

The business of having to be one of "the group" was sort of invented in the 50's, too. If the "cool" kids were wearing something, everyone else was supposed to follow suit and get with the program. Being "in"--even if that meant only that you wore the uniform, talked and talk and walked the walk--was very important. If you weren't "in" you were "out"--or maybe had opted out of the equation completely. For kids intelligent enough to see through all the hype, that third option was a familiar place. I'm not sure which came first--Hula Hoops or The Twist dance move. In either case, the point was to move your hips back and forth, or in a circle, or both at the same time. In any event, Americans were gyrating around a good deal in those days.

Silly Putty was the symbolic stuff of the 1950's. It was a miracle substance--"better living through chemistry!"--which had been discovered accidentally by scientists working in rubber research at Dow Corning during WWII. Malleable, and flexible, it would bounce like a ball, or could be shaped into anything--though it wouldn't hold that shape, eventually flattening out. Flammable, and generally water-proof--it can be removed from surfaces and fabrics with an alcohol based solvent. It was safe, but I don't know if it was poisonous (probably) to eat. I accidentally took my Silly Putty to bed once, and it streaked all over the sheets, which had to be retired. Silly Putty was sold in a little egg-shaped container, the symbolism of which was not lost, I'm sure, on consumers, since Silly Putty was "born" during the great heyday of scientific optimism, when miracle substances were rolling down the pipeline of technological development.

Any super substance in the 1950's had a very curious appeal. Alec Guinness had starred in a tragi-comic quasi-science fiction movie [
The Man in the White Suit, Ealing Studios, 1951] in which a mad lab technician invents a fabric which resists dirt. Walt Disney produced The Absent-Minded Professor [1961], and Son of Flubber [1963] --two wacky teen comedies based around the invention of miracle substances.

A very young-looking Steve McQueen starred in The Blob [1958], another drive-in B movie in which an alien life form, arriving on an asteroid, begins to consume humans while expanding frighteningly in size. Appearing uncomfortably--or reassuringly, take your pick--like a huge pile of red Jello, it rolls around jiggling and jerking, terrorizing a little town, swallowing bodies, until it's picked up and flown to the North Pole, where it will lie dormant (and harmless)--at least for the time being. The North Pole was also where The Thing [Winchester Pictures, 1951], in which James Arness [the Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke], as the vegetable creature--nicknamed the giant carrot in the film--showed up, where he's discovered near an arctic outpost. When the scientists there plant the amputated hand of the monster (caught in a door), up pop a tray-full of little breathing crocuses! So much for genetic engineering!

A familiar contraption from that decade was the Slinky toy, or "Lazy Spring"--an irresistible invention with no particular use, except as a slightly sophisticated play-thing. Like Silly Putty, the Slinky was invented by scientists, accidentally, who were researching spring devices for ships during the War. The Slinky would "walk" downstairs in a series of "leaps" or transfers, and it was fascinating to watch. Novelty toys had never been so much fun. They were like mechanical worms, expanding and contracting with mathematical (or geometrical) precision and regularity.

In the 1950's, nearly every American boy wanted to be a scientist. Erector sets, chemistry sets--you name it. Science was the pathway to the future, and the future was going to get better and better. Even atomic energy, which had produced The Bomb that had leveled two whole Japanese cities in the flash of a few seconds, was just a down-payment against its probable "peace-time" uses. In 1959, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, which embarrassed the West by seeming to have advanced scientifically beyond us. The Sputnik phenomenon led to a whole generation of anxiety and ambition, to make American kids smarter, more intellectually ambitious, and devoted to winning the Cold War against the "evil" empire to the East. "We will bury you," remarked Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev, removing his shoe and pounding the table at the United Nations General Assembly. It was good theatre, and it worked. We were scared.

Yo-yos came into their own in the 1950's. Yo-yos had been around since the Greeks, but had pretty much been forgotten until they made a big comeback in the Fifties. By the time I was in the 5th grade, in 1956, there were school-sponsored yo-yo contests. The star yo-yo champion in our school was a girl, Beverly Smith. I haven't heard of Beverly in at least 50 years--sorry, Bev, for reviving your old rep, if you're still out there in the world. Bev could do the "walk the dog," the "loop-the-loop," the "around-the-world," and could hold a spin for about 30 seconds before jerking it back up to her patient palm. Nowadays, yo-yos are high-tech, with Swedish-engineered ball-bearing models, models in platinum, double-sprung versions, clutched, multiple stringed models. Some new models are even programmable! But in my day, the standard plastic or wooden Duncan@ model worked off a waxed nylon-cotton wind, and the string was twisted as you worked it, so it had to be "unwound" periodically to prevent the loop from seizing up the spin at the end of the throw.

The Rubik's Cube was invented in 1974 by a Hungarian sculptor and architecture professor Emo Rubik. For those in my son's generation (he was born in 1969), it was the smart kid toy. Eventually, Randy was able to "solve" the Cube within about 45 seconds. The Rubik's innovation was its infinitely adjustable tic-tac-do six-sided, nine-squares to a side, grid. The mathematical permutations possible with the Rubik's is great. The memorized sequence of moves that has a desired effect on the Cube is called an algorithm, and the world record for solution of the standard configuration (with all squares aligned by color) is--unbelievably--5.66 seconds, set by some bloke named Feliks Zemdegs at the Melbourne Winter Open 2011. Larger Cubes, with more squares to a side, have been made--so it's anyone's guess how far this puzzle-mania will go.

Each age--each generation--seems to have its symbolic objects. Toys tell us what the preoccupations and ambitions of each era were, and the relationship between the nature of the "play" and the character of the society in which they appeared. The toys of the 1950's weren't particularly practical; indeed it was their impracticality, their pointless indifference to application, which made them appeal.

Two-piece bathing suits had been known as far back as the Third Century AD in Sicily, where they were pictured on wall art. Through the late 1940's and the 1950's, the two-piece versions were progressively shrinking in size. Invented (or designed) by a French automobile body engineer Louis Réard in the mid-1940's, the "bikini" had begun to be popular by the late 1950's. There was a popular 'teen market tune released in 1960 called Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polks Dot Bikini, which described the modesty of a girl who wore a yellow bikini but was reluctant to be seen in public in it.

Of course, these photographs are for documentation purposes only. I myself long ago learned to remain completely objective with respect to the probable salacious content of visual imagery, and have established this base-level modesty under truth serum and lie detector tests.

Sexual morés in the 1950's were conservative, at least publicly. But it was also the age of the pin-up. Private men's clubs, mechanics' garages, working-class bars, and urban newsstands were filled with tame pornographic pin-up imagery. In the following decade, the notorious 1960's, a lot of the plain brown wrapper of prudery would come off, liberating a generation of sex-hungry adults, who welcomed the new era of permissiveness and indulgence.

In my youth, I was never much for swimming parties. I was not a great swimmer; I was skinny and pale. The guys with dark tans, body hair, and charming self-confidence got the girls, and consequently had more developed sex-lives in adolescence than guys like me could even dream of. Growing up in California, it was almost expected that you would spend time at the beach. Earlier, I've written here about the tanning craze of the 1950's, a habit which medicine has now determined to be very injurious to one's skin. In all likelihood, wearing little or nothing out in full or even overcast sunlight is not something that anyone should do. We need sunlight, but a little limited exposure is quite enough, thank-you. The supposed healthful effects of "sunning" have been mostly debunked.

Bikinis no longer symbolize fitness, though they may still signify sexiness and a willingness to engage people in a setting of fun-in-the-sun, the insinuation of seduction, the innuendo of willingness. Full-body tans no longer automatically signify good vibes, as they did in the 1950's. Were we men and boys emotionally suppressed in the 1950's? Did we dream of sexual liberation and release into the permission of indulgence and naughty recreation? No doubt.

But few women have figures which permit donning bikinis. The public images of nudity which were so powerfully present (though disdained by the larger public) then, have become, through the sprawling universe of the internet, practically commonplace today. Children today are denied nothing over the web. Every combination, every position, it's all there in living color. Kids today don't need the frank man-to-man birds-&-the-bees talking-to that were a hallmark of the 1950's. Like Reefer Madness [1936], they seem like talismans of a dark age, one in which temptation was regarded as the sign over the door to the entrance to Hell.

As Yogi Berra once said, "Nostalgia ain't what it used to be."

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