Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time flies when you're not really changing at all.

Just a heads up: this post might embody the "meandering" part of the subhead of my blog (which to my Facebook friends is available here - it's always bugged me that Facebook links to the note within its own confines, but not to the actual blog), than the "rants" portion.
I've spent the last couple days going through the magazine museum in my living room. As mentioned in my previous post, Lisa has a bunch of 1970s Better Homes and Gardens that she just got, and she also has a few issues from much longer ago in her stockpile. In addition she has received through some consumer website or another a free subscription to BHG this past spring. So I got to thinking, and just sat all afternoon going through the October 1949 issue, then flashing forward 25 years to October 1974, then another 35 year jump to the October 2009 one that just came this week. I have to say it's been fascinating.
First of all, let's review the context in which each of these issues came out:
1949 - We had just recently emerged from a victorious and clear-cut, good v. evil struggle in Europe and the Pacific that had lifted us out of the depression, and with Truman in the white house we were rushing headlong into the post-war prosperity the 1950s would become so known for. NATO had been formed and formalized in the spring of that year, and the seeds of the cold war had been sown, swinging the pendulum from the social state of the new deal to the red scare that would soon follow.
1974 - We were in the process of dialing down a long divisive war fought for dubious reasons in Southeast Asia. Nixon had just resigned for something decidedly unbecoming of his office, and the future of civility and order in our nation itself seemed to be at stake. No one seemed to want to deal with life here in the U.S. Pendulum: somewhere between authoritarian eavesdropping state and libertarian uprising against a tyrannical federal power.
2009 - We are currently fighting a war which I will not politicize here (if you've read any of my previous posts you can probably guess where I come down on it anyway). In addition, the pendulum is in virtual fibrillation, we're in the middle of an economic hemorrhage unlike anything anyone under seventy years old can remember, and we're being told the way to pull out of it is spending. On anything whatsoever.
With that in mind, the most striking difference is the ads in these magazines. In 1949 the majority of the ads were for home improvement items - washers (and a lovely article on how to save time using an automatic washer), vacuums, water heaters, etc. The magazine itself was more geared toward both making a home, but also building and maintaining it. The ads and articles contained just as many men as women. In 1974, the ads were mainly for life improvement items - travel packages to Hawaii and the like (this was two years after the Brady Bunch discovered their cursed Tiki there, so I'm sure the Pacific Islands were all the rage, vacation-wise), but also liberally peppered with pet foods and detergents. This year, what the overwhelming majority of advertisements in BHG are about is self improvement items - they're selling cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, clothing, pharmaceuticals, and sleep aids & mattresses (and the overwhelming majority of people in these ads are female). With all the time savers of 1949, all the vacation packages of 1974, and all the drugs and makeup of 2009, would anyone care to venture a guess as to which generation is sleeping better at night?
Also worth noting is the gender targeting of the different incarnations of the magazine. In both 1949 and 1974 the issues were geared toward both women and men, whereas in 2009 the demographers have clearly decided for us that it is the woman in the family who is in charge of the daily comings, goings, and upkeep of the house - even though now it's more common than in the previous years that she works outside the home as well. Indeed, the article in the 1949 issue titled "How-To for the Handy Man" or the ones detailing how to get better mileage out of a car or create 3 styles of bookshelves "designed for men" would look out of place next to the CoverGirl spreads and Curel ads in today's edition. But perhaps that is more a function of magazines having to cater to more highly specified audiences and fewer of them being aimed at the entire household unit.
To be sure, the older issues definitely had a gender skew as far as roles within the household were concerned, but I almost think it is less offensive than today's demographic skewing. Yes, in 1949, and even 1974, it editorially assumed the father was concerned with the structural and mechanical workings of the household, while the mother (yes, always one father and one mother) was more concerned with the nurturing and aesthetic aspects, but at least it was honest about that. In 2009 however, it does not even pretend to care what a man does in the home, and as such it has all but abandoned the building and maintenance in favor of design and furnishing (showing, perhaps, that it cares a great deal what a woman does in the home).
In the aforementioned "How-To" article in 1949 they had three pages of illustrations with little captions telling one how to coat one's own nails, prevent rust on tools, evenly sand a curved surface, etc. In 2009 they had an article with really intriguing photos about how a couple remodeled their old outdated basement into a finished family room area. It did not, however, say how they did it. It was half a page of text talking about aesthetics, the apex of which was mentioning that darker colors help the giant plasma T.V. blend with the room. The feeling I got from it was along the lines of "you're female and home all day, so here's what you should buy," even though it never has to come out and say it (though I must admit I am charmed that in every one of these issues they have recipes for Halloween cookies, and that they all still have a recipe contest as well, even if today's prizes are considerably larger).
Overall though, the greater editorial arc of Better Homes and Gardens has been one away from actually making a home and toward filling one. "Here are the techniques you can use to be domestically competent" has skewed to "Here are the things you should buy to make your home comfortable." Perhaps that's a product of us collectively trading in "Building Things" for "Expensive Numbers on Paper Being Pushed Back and Forth," or perhaps it is just laziness on our part ("if someone else will put a window in for me, I'll have time to pick out expensive drapes."), but it makes me want to finally finish my basement with some nice built-in "Man's" bookshelves - just as a tribute to those ridiculous but competent people who made homes before me.

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