Lux Toilet Soap was launched in the United States in 1925 by its British parent company, Lever Brothers, which had been making soap since 1899. To capture the hearts and pocketbooks of American women, the company launched an advertising blitz that featured advertisements in a number of magazines including the New Yorker.
The earliest ads appealed to upscale women who saw the French as arbiters of taste and style. In the following Lux ad (from the Feb. 5, 1927 New Yorker), note that every paragraph and headline includes the words France or French:
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The big blitz came in 1928, when Lux pioneered the use of female celebrity endorsements on a mass scale. The campaign focused more on the roles played by Broadway and movie stars than on the product itself. The March 24, 1928 issue of the New Yorker featured these ads splashed across two center spreads.
The captions I have provided below the ads give brief information on each actress. Note that many of these actresses did stints with Broadway’s popular Ziegfeld Follies. Most also had long lives, including Mary Ellis, who lived in three centuries, sang with Caruso, and died at age 105.
Click Images to Enlarge
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Over the years dozens of famous actresses would appear in colorful ads singing the praises of Lux soap…
A final note. Lever Brothers began selling Lux soap in India in 1909, years before it was introduced in the U.S., and through the decades Bollywood actresses were prominently featured in their advertising…
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Meanwhile, back on earth…
The March 17, 1928 “Talk of the Town” marveled at the rising structure between Madison and Park avenues that would become the New York Life Building. Designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building, its gilded roof, consisting of 25,000 gold-leaf tiles, remains an iconic Manhattan landmark.
From 1837–1889, the site was occupied by the Union Depot, a concert garden, and P.T Barnum’s Hippodrome. Until 1925, the site housed the first two Madison Square Gardens, a memory that lingered amidst the city’s rapidly changing skyline…
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Following the lead of a Roosevelt Hotel advertisement in a previous issue, Macy’s Department Store also called out the New Yorker’s popular nightlife columnist “Lipstick” (Lois Long) in this ad featured in the March 17 issue…
Our cartoon from the March 17 issue explored the hurried life of the idle rich, as depicted by Lois Long’s husband, Peter Arno…
Landmark in Name Only
In the March 24, 1928 issue another building caught the attention of the magazine–a six-story structure designed by theatrical scenic artist and architect Joseph Urban for William Randolph Hearst. The International Magazine Building was completed in 1928 to house the 12 magazines Hearst owned at the time.
An important monument in the architectural heritage of New York, the building was designated as a Landmark Site by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1988. The six-story International Magazine Building was originally built to serve as the base for a proposed skyscraper, but the construction of the tower was postponed due to the Great Depression. The new tower addition by Norman Foster was finally completed nearly eighty years later, in 2006. It is probably not what either Hearst or Urban had in mind in 1928:
And finally, cartoonist Leonard Dove listens in on some tea time chatter…
As I’ve previously noted, reading back issues of periodicals often gives one a feeling of omniscience; as I thumb through week after week of late 1920s New Yorkers, I realize that for all their cleverness and worldly wisdom, even that magazine’s writers and editors could not see with any clarity into the future. But neither can any of us…one wonders what readers 89 years hence will surmise from today’s magazines, that is, if our civilization lasts that long.
Howard Brubaker (in his column “Of All Things”) might have spotted something brewing on the horizon, even if it wouldn’t become perfectly clear until Dec. 7, 1941. Here is a clip from his Jan. 28, 1928 column in the New Yorker:
Two other major events in U.S. history, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that would follow, were less than two years away. But this was the Roaring Twenties, and some thought the fun would never end…except perhaps Equitable Trust, which placed this advertisement in the Jan. 28 issue:
Apparently the folks at Equitable Trust weren’t assured of their own financial freedom—after the Crash they would be acquired by Chase National Bank, making Chase the largest bank in the world at that time.
Despite the overheated economy of the 1920s, there still were plenty of poor and unemployed people in the city. One man, Urbain Ledoux (known as Mr. Zero in order to hide his identity), often arranged protests and demonstrations to bring attention to the poor and unemployed, and opened a number of bread lines and soup kitchens to feed the hungry, including the “Tub,” depicted in this two-page illustration by Constantin Alajalov along the bottom of the “Talk” section of the Jan. 28 issue (click image to enlarge).
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Not All Gloom and Doom
Hindsight also reveals the trajectory of the 20th century’s great accomplishments. Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927, for example, fueled the imaginations of those who would usher in the jet age and space travel. Just 31 years after Lindbergh’s flight, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) would begin operation of its first transatlantic passenger jet service. And only 42 years would separate Lindbergh’s flight from Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk.
Like the rest of America, the New Yorker was an enthusiastic follower of developments in aviation after Lindbergh (the “aerial ambassador” referred to below). The January 28 “Talk of the Town” led with this item about pilots soaring to ever greater heights.
Consider that a mere 41 years separated this…
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While Back on Earth…
Big events in America always seem to involve the appearance of showgirls, whether it is the introduction of a new car or some techno gadget. As this “Talk” item indicates, much was the same 89 years ago…
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A Silent Giant
German film actor Emil Jannings was lauded for his performances on the screen in both Germany and America in films, and he was particularly adept at portraying of the pathos of middle-aged men. The New Yorker disliked most of Hollywood’s output (and usually praised the much-artier German films), so when Jannings landed on these shores he was lauded by the magazine, which dedicated a profile (written by Elsie McCormick) to him in the Jan. 28 issue, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration. Some excerpts:
At the first Academy Awards in 1929, Jannings would win a Best Actor Oscar for two of his 1928 films, The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. An interesting side note from writer Susan Orlean: In her 2011 book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend, Jannings was not actually the winner of the first best actor vote, but the runner-up. The famous dog actor Rin Tin Tin actually won the vote. The Academy, worried about not being taken seriously, gave the award to the human instead.
Janning’s thick German accent would bring his Hollywood career to an end with sound pictures. He would return to Germany, and during the Third Reich he would star in several films that promoted the Nazis. According to Wikipedia, the shooting of his last film, Wo ist Herr Belling? was aborted when Allied troops entered Germany in Spring 1945. Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar statuette with him as proof of his former association with Hollywood.
From the Advertising Department
This advertisement from the Jan. 28 issue caught my eye because Bergdorf Goodman is one of the few stores in Manhattan still operating at its original site:
And here we have perhaps the iMac of its day, standing apart from the competition with its colorful, bold new look…
And finally, this early cartoon from longtime New Yorker cartoonist Perry Barlow having some fun at the expense of New York’s working class…
Ernest Hemingway wrote his lone New Yorker piece for the Feb. 5, 1927 issue. Titled “My Own Life,” it was a short parody of the 3-volume My Life and Loves by Irish writer Frank Harris.
Writing for The Hemingway Review (Fall 2001), Francis Bosha notes in “The Harold Ross Files” that Hemingway’s sole contribution to the New Yorker is striking given that the magazine was such a major influence on fiction in the 20th century.
Money, or the shortage thereof, appears to be the main reason why Hemingway was not a regular contributor. Although the young magazine was doing well, Bosha writes that it was not yet ready to compete financially with more established mass market magazines. Indeed, Hemingway’s “My Own Life” landed in the New Yorker because it had already been rejected by both Scribner’s magazine and The New Republic.
If you read the piece you can see why it was rejected. The famed fiction writer, hot off the success of The Sun Also Rises, was not a great parodist. An excerpt:
And so on. Hemingway wisely stuck with serious fiction, which might explain his fleeting association with the New Yorker, which in its first years was bent toward humor in the Punch vein and not toward serious writing.
Nevertheless, the New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, maintained a friendship and a regular correspondence with Hemingway during the writer’s years in Cuba in the 1940s. On several occasions Ross invited Hemingway to submit something to the magazine, but nothing came of it. It didn’t help that Hemingway publicly stated in 1942 that he “was out of business as a writer,” and was suffering from depression, weight gain, and bouts of heavy drinking.
The Great Ziegfeld Finally Opens His New Theatre
“The Talk of the Town” reported the premiere of Florenz Ziegfeld’s new art deco theatre was “one of the big mob scenes of the season,” attracting celebrities and celebrity-gawkers alike:
The opening drew the likes of Charlie Chaplin and polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who perhaps found a line of chorus girls a welcome sight after years of trekking through frozen landscapes.
Among the attractions of the new theatre was what was claimed to be the largest oil painting in the world:
Sadly, despite public protests, the theatre was razed in 1966, bulldozed into rubble. The Burlington House stands on the site today:
But we will end on a happier note, a cartoon by Barbara Shermund:
Eugene Gise threw a beach party on the July 3, 1926 cover of The New Yorker with an explosion of color that was a departure from the somewhat spare covers of previous issues. It had been an unseasonably cool June, so folks were ready to frolic in the sun.
It should be noted that the woman in the foreground basking in the sun is most likely wearing a wool bathing suit. Although Jantzen was making suits you could actually swim in, these wool numbers were still the norm. As the website Vintage Dancer notes, “functionality in swimwear was not as important as fashion, so the prevailing theory was that wool would help keep you warm.” Check out this newspaper advertisement from 1926:
In the previous issue (June 26, 1926) theatre critic Charles Brackett looked at all the fuss over the opening of George White’s Scandals revue, so in this issue he gave the Ziegfeld Follies–the revue show that inspired the Scandals–its proper due.
Needless to say, Brackett found the Ziegfeld Follies as pointless as its imitator:
Moving on to other things, I found this tidbit in “The Talk of Town” interesting. Even 90 years ago city dwellers were complaining about having to sort their garbage:
A state-of-the-art garbage truck in 1920s NYC looked like this…
…and since the 1890s the city had employed street sweepers known as “White Wings” to keep things tidy, apparently even in the middle of traffic:
After decades of petticoats, the Roaring Twenties marked the beginning of androgynous fashion in America, with actress Marlene Dietrich leading the way in defying standards of femininity. Cartoonist Raymond Thayer took a humorous look at the trend in the July 3 issue:
The Roaring Twenties were all about fads and crazes, ranging from flagpole sitting to dances such as “The Shimmy,” “The Charleston,” or “The Black Bottom.” These dances were appropriated from Black culture, with many New Yorkers getting their first exposure in places such as Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
The June 26, 1926 issue of The New Yorker was all abuzz over the Broadway debut of George White’s eighth annual Scandals. The Scandals were a long-running string of Broadway revues that ran from 1919-1939. Modelled after the Ziegfeld Follies, the Scandals launched the careers of many entertainers, including W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Rudy Vallée and Louise Brooks. Composer George Gershwin’s early work also appeared in the earliest editions of the show.
Like Flo Ziegfeld, George White must have been a master at marketing, since tickets for the Scandals opening sold for $55, which today would be the equivalent of about $725:
The editors of “The Talk of the Town” were a bit skeptical of all the hype:
The 1926 Scandals show featured “The Black Bottom,” danced by Ziegfeld Follies star Ann Pennington and Tom Patricola. In this dance-crazed era, “The Black Bottom” became a national phenomenon and even surpassed “The Charleston” in popularity.
“The Black Bottom” was popularized in New York by the 1924 Harlem stage show show Dinaah. Although the dance moves originated in New Orleans in the early 20th century, Jelly Roll Morton gave it a name when he wrote Black Bottom Stomp in 1925, referring to Detroit’s Black Bottom district.
In typical fashion, The New Yorker was less than impressed with the spectacle. In his theatre review column, Charles Brackett made this observation:
On to other things, “The Talk of the Town” also featured this curious note about George Custer’s widow, reminding us that 1926 was a very long time ago. Here are excerpts:
The New Yorker editors continued to remark on the changing face of Fifth Avenue…
…and on the progress of the city’s infrastructure improvements, as in this excerpt from a humorous piece by the Robert Benchley:
Issue #4, March 14, 1925 opened with “The Talk of the Town,” the lead item noting that New York was “agog about the possible visit of Queen Marie of Rumania,” and that the queen was supposedly offered a contract by a newspaper to write her impressions of the United States.
Born into the British royal family, Queen Marie was titled Princess Marie of Edinburgh at birth. After refusing a proposal from her cousin, the future King George V, she was chosen as the future wife of Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the heir apparent of King Carol I, in 1892 (she was the last Queen consort of Romania, and her trip to the U.S. would prove to be the last months of her reign).
An account in the Frontier Times in 1968 describes the visit this way:
When Queen Marie first announced her intention of making a trip to America, she stated that her general purpose was a sort of educational good will tour; but that her specific purpose was to dedicate a museum at Maryhill, Washington…She sailed from Cherbourg (France) on October 12, 1926, on the Leviathan, accompanied by her son, Nicholas, and her daughter, Ileana; her special aide, Major Stanley Washburn; her close friend, Loie Fuller, the ballet dancer; six personal attendants; several European dignitaries; about one hundred pieces of baggage—and her dog.
For publicity, the timing was perfect. Front page news was scarce, and the Queen’s visit was “manna from heaven” for the newspapers, and a field day for the reporters—who played up the trip in great style.
Queen Marie had contracted with the North American Newspaper Alliance to write a series of articles ranging from “Why I Came to America” to “My Impressions of America.” About six of such articles were published; and as they ran 2,000 words each, one suspects she must have had a ghost writer—and there was one such in her party.
In her syndicated articles she gave a variety of reasons why she came to America—which might have been condensed into a desire to see the country first-hand, and find out how its people lived. She wanted to see almost every object of interest—Pikes Peak, the Everglades, farmers, Indians, washing machines and rodeos; and wanted to ride a horse. She spoke of steel mills, skyscrapers, big trees and tombs of famous men. Particularly she wanted to see American kitchens, and find out if the occupants were as good looking as they appeared to be in linoleum advertisements…
However, the reasons advanced by some who clearly were not in sympathy with the Queen’s visit, were not so altruistic. One newspaper was of the opinion that the real purpose of the trip was to find a rich American husband for Ileana…
“The Talk of the Town” also featured a brief item on “vaudeville headliner” Harry Houdini and his “denunciations of Marjorie.”
This is in reference to a rivalry between a Bostonian, Mina Crandon (known as “Margery the Medium”) and magician Harry Houdini, who called himself “the scourge of spirit mediums.”
The 1920’s marked the height of America’s obsession with the paranormal—the “spirit world”–and Margery was a rock star among the many competing spiritualists of the day. The most famous of her followers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle was so convinced of her powers that he recommended her to the editors of Scientific American. The magazine was offering a $2,500 prize to the first medium who could verifiably demonstrate (to an investigative committee) a “visual psychic manifestation.”
When the committee reported it found no trickery in Margery’s methods, the outraged Houdini cancelled his upcoming shows and headed to Boston with the aim of personally debunking the medium at a seance.
In an article by Robert Love posted on Mental Floss, he relates what happened next when Houdini arrived at her Lime Street apartment:
Margery greeted the panel and took her seat within a three-sided Chinese screen, the lights dimmed. Soon enough, an eerie whistling filled the room. On cue, the spirit of Walter (Margery’s dead brother) whispered his arrival, even touching Houdini on the inside of his right leg. After a break, he ordered an electric bell enclosed in a wooden box brought to Houdini’s feet. Then Walter levitated a megaphone and boomed: “Have Houdini tell me where to throw it.”
“Toward me,” Houdini said, and the megaphone flew through the air and crashed in front of him. That was just the beginning. Throughout the evening, Walter produced a sequence of metaphysical spectacles, ringing the bell box on command and tipping over the wooden screen.
Houdini had done his homework. He knew that Dr. Le Roi Crandon, Margery’s husband, always sat on her right. (A Harvard-educated surgeon, Crandon was her greatest promoter, often showing visitors nude photographs of his wife in séance delicté). Houdini also guessed correctly that he would be seated at her left in the circle, with hands joined, feet and legs touching. In preparation for the evening, Houdini wore a tight bandage under his right knee all day; it was so painful it made his skin tender to even the slightest touch. The heightened sensitivity paid off. He could feel Margery twist and flex in the dark as she moved her left ankle slightly to get to the bell box under the table. Later, he felt her shift again to tip the Chinese screen with her foot. The flying megaphone stumped Houdini for a few hours, but he eventually figured out that Margery had placed it on her head, dunce-cap-style, with a momentarily free hand. She then jerked her head in his direction to send it crashing to the floor.
“I’ve got her,” he said when the evening was over. “All fraud. Every bit of it. One more sitting and I will be ready to expose everything.”
A second séance at a Boston hotel featured a levitating table. Houdini reached out in the dark and found Margery’s head lifting the table from beneath. He again felt her legs move as she reached to ring the bell box. “The slickest ruse I ever detected,” Houdini said later, in something close to admiration.
Other celebrities of the time are found in the issue’s pages. The section “In Our Midst” tells of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda visiting Rome, and that the author was nearly finished with a novel called “The Great Braxton” (which would actually be titled “The Great Gatsby”). Another item noted that Eugene O’Neill was vacationing in Bermuda.
The “Profile” featured boxer Jack Dempsey, and “Books” announced the publication of A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young.
The “Hourglass” mentions the antics of Gutzon Borglum, who had been sculpting a tribute to the Confederacy on Georgia’s Stone Mountain.
The “antics,” specifically, concerned Borglum’s famed temper and his penchant for smashing completed sculptures in fits of rage. He would later go on to sculpt the monument at Mt. Rushmore.
Then there’s an article by “The Professor” on the Ziegfeld Follies that features this illustration:
The author concludes, “I forget whether it was a good show or not, but as a barometer of New York, it can’t be excelled.”
The “Motion Pictures” section featured a brief mention of “Mr. Hay’s” moral crusade against plays and movies. Hays would later lend his name to the The Production Code of 1930, known to most as the “Hays Code.”
Finally, if you really want to get a sense of how times have changed, check out the issue’s back page ad, and the suggested look for a “University man:”