Vintage images highlight the positive aspects of our social history

If you walk along the lower floors of crowded Pike Place Market in Seattle, you come across a quiet shop called "Old Seattle Paperworks." It seems fitting that it's across the hall from a nostalgic magic shop. For anyone interested in reliving a bit of the past, the Paperworks is an old curiosity shop of printed memorabilia that opens a door to another time.

You can't avoid slipping into a reverie as you flip through antique travel posters and magazine advertisements, beautifully-preserved "Life" magazine covers from the 1930s to the 1970s, vintage movie posters and newspaper headlines.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan once wrote that "ads are the cave art of the twentieth century." It's true they offer insights into the aspirations of the times. Like explorers, we now rediscover them. For example, I came across one ad that showed a photograph of a man and a woman in business suits standing next to a plain, round, stainless steel barrel on a table. I didn't understand what the barrel was at first, but when I read the caption it revealed the virtues of the 10 A.M. coffee break in the office, apparently a new idea in 1946.

French bicycle manufacturers in the early 1900s created masterful drawings of nymph-like nude women with long hair riding the latest bike models. Reminiscent of Lady Godiva, they must have been popular. From the early 50s, an American drawing shows a slim, beautiful brunette in form-fitting pants and a sweater. She's smiling to herself and reading a book while seated on a large pillow. She's being attended by a handsome man. The tag line says many women wish to remain slim and avoid heavy snacks. They need a light, refreshing beverage that doesn't fill too much. Their choice is Pepsi.

Not all are quaint. Some of the most popular items in the shop are the Camel cigarette ads from the 1940s: "More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette."

In the travel section, illustrations promote travel to Hawaii, New York, America's national parks or European destinations like the Alps, Paris or the Riviera. For collectors, these posters are real works of art, all drawings in colour that ignite the imagination in ways that today's photographs cannot. Posters for airlines in the early 50s show passengers walking across an airport tarmac to a waiting DC-3 propeller airliner. The men are wearing pressed suits, fedoras and ties; the women, elegant dresses, stylish hats and heels. Not even a hint of a security check, simply the romance of flight and travel.

What strikes one after a half-hour of browsing is the overall optimism that seems to permeate society from about the late 40s to the early 60s. We were free of the horrors of the Second World War and moving forward. And despite the political tension of the Cold War era, there appears to be an abundance of positive energy and, in particular, a sense of America driving itself upward to a better future. This comes through in the magazine articles as well as the posters. Of course it was a highly selective and idealized view of the times, and today's advertising probably creates a similar effect; but still...what a view it was.

Notes and links:

1. The poster above was selected by an interesting site called Found in Mom's Basement, which is a collection of vintage advertising.
2. The original source for the poster shown above was the Ski Zermatt web site, located here.
3. A newspaper story about the "Old Seattle Paperworks" can be found here.

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