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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Vintage Magazines

First, let me explain my idea of vintage...  Unlike Etsy, I don't consider something that's a mere twenty years old to be vintage...  Far from it.  If I can remember it, it's not vintage in my book.  I well remember browsing with one of my kids at a local thrift shop.  Upon seeing some circa 1980's Disney buttons, the large round kind that pin onto things, my son picked them up to get a closer look.  The ever-vigilant worker admonished him to, "be very careful!!!  Those are vintage!"  Vintage, my foot.  Vintage also suggests something of some value.  Not necessarily monetary value, but something that has a certain je ne sais quois. 

For me, old magazines can fall into this category.  Old, in this case, means circa 1963 and before.  Whether they are from the 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's or very early 60's, magazines offer a very accurate and up-to-the-minute look at life in different periods.  Generally not printed with an eye toward decades-long longevity, magazines are s snapshot of the tastes and interests of their time.  Unlike books, which are generally written after the fact and must consolidate a great deal of information, magazines are often forward-looking...  This season's latest fashions, movies, books, music and Jell-O salad recipes are on display.  And, since they are published monthly or weekly, considerable space is available to detail the topics of greatest interest.

Advertisements are particularly instructive.  Just yesterday I picked up for issues of McCall's from 1935.  You'd be surprised to see just how concerned people were about halitosis in 1935!  Countless cures were on offer, none of them still on the market with the notable exception of Listerine which, according to these ads, could do wonders for your social life...  even assure your chance to marry!  And, remember, when nature forgets, Ex-Lax remembers...

The art found in vintage magazines is remarkable.  Whether describing Norman Rockwell's evocative Saturday Evening Post covers, or the work of Douglass Crockwell (an artist almost as talented as Norman, and much more prolific), ads and other illustrations were lively, detailed, exceedingly colorful and so fun to review.

A Norman, er...  Douglass Crockwell ad...

My mother always had a few vintage Christmas editions of Good Housekeeping, McCall's, Redbook and the like that would be set out every year.  I'd pore over them again and again, enjoying a peak at what the holiday's looked like long ago.  I remember being particularly impressed by a family in Florida that changed their rugs, curtains, pillows and slipcovers each Christmas.  Their living room was transformed into a holiday wonderland.  It was always my dream to have a house that could be completely changed like that, just for Christmas.  Last year, we finally achieved it, and it was just as fun as I'd hoped it would be.

Even the food in these periodicals looked better, or at least more colorful.  Alongside a lot of really dreadful recipes for Jell-O salads, date and prune confections and various mystery meats, there are also fun desserts, a full month's worth of menus, each day using a different variety of Campbell's soup in one way or another, and remarkable ideas for all sorts of dinners and parties.

Crafts are another particularly interesting subject in vintage magazines.  Not really much of a topic until the 1950's, homemade decorations for holidays and seasons really took off.  Styrofoam balls, sequins, Quaker oats containers, yarn, glue, walnuts, construction paper...  You could make a veritable Sistine Chapel each year with just these common household supplies!  I've often thought it would be great fun to make some of these crafts, just to see what the world of crafting was like before Martha Stewart took over.

And, finally, the stories...  Not the news of the day or other topical subjects, but the fiction!  Melodramas, excerpts from the next great American novel, thrillers...  They were all there.  And, as I am just now finding out, some of them were pretty good.  You'd be surprised at some of the delicate topics that were broached in these seemingly innocent days!  Halitosis wasn't the only ailment being confronted in Good Housekeeping!

There are few modern magazines that will stand the test of time, in my view.  We've saved every copy of Martha Stewart Living, Martha Stewart Kids, Mary Engelbreit and Victoria, but I doubt that most of the other mainstream periodicals will be of as much interest to generations in the future.  And, really, it's too bad.  Browse the stacks of any good university library and pull out the giant, bound collections of Time, Newsweek, Life, The Illustrated London News, and you can sit for hours learning about life decades ago.  And you'll have a very entertaining time doing it.

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