How Vintage Ads Sold Women on Shame

An ad for Lysol warns your husband will leave you if you do not douche with Lysol.

Image: In the 1930s, Lysol was marketed to women as a douche. 

One vintage ad warns women, “Don’t let them call you SKINNY!” while another promises that smoking cigarettes will keep one slender. If the task of morphing their bodies into the current desirable shape isn’t enough of a burden, women are also reminded that they stink.

The Do I Offend? blog chronicles such vintage body-shaming advertisements geared toward women, and the baffling shifts from one feminine ideal to the next. Cynthia Petrovic, a Southern California artist known as RedTango who designs and sells a retro-themed gift line, got hooked on these advertisements when she was in college. Now, she has a garage full of antique and vintage magazines, which she’s been slowly poring over for the most sexist (and funniest) ads targeting women. We talked to Petrovic about her collection and what she’s learned about how the ad men on Madison Avenue have gotten rich selling women shame. 

LISA HIX: How did you first get interested in these ads?

CYNTHIA PETROVIC: When I was in college, I came across a 1930s romance magazine called “True Story” in an antiques store in Orange, California. Flipping through the pages, I found an ad for Waldorf toilet paper, which was a little comic strip. A man has become so cranky toward his wife that their marriage is on the rocks. As it turns out, cheap toilet paper is the thing that’s driving him crazy because it has bits of splinters in it. The couple holds the tissue up to the light, and they see little pieces of wood in it. Waldorf advertised repeatedly in these magazines. In some of the ads, the wife was cranky, and then it was their little girl. Eventually, the whole family was affected by this scourge. I found it so funny. 

It’s a laugh to look at how ridiculous these ads are, but the appeal goes beyond the humor. I also have an interest in sociology and psychology, particularly the way we advertise to women and how women are treated by the media in general. I think we, as a society, are extremely cruel to women. I look at these old ads and feel as though nothing has changed.

The advertisement for Waldorf toilet paper says a mom must be upset because of her bad toilet paper

When did this sort of advertisement begin?

I’ve got ads going back to the 1890s, which offer a lot of contraptions to change your face. The Victorians were really into things that you strap on your face to lift your chin and reform your nose. Every age has its neurotic beauty fixations. They also wanted tight, little waists and the big butts formed by corsets, as well as long, beautiful hair.

In the late 19th century, magazines took over the advice and care of your family. As magazines were available to more and more people, you could read about what to buy, how to take care of your kids, what you should look like, and what you should be thinking and doing. People turned to the magazines to get information and form opinions about themselves. Suddenly strangers were telling people what they should look like, buy, and think. Today, that’s exploded with the Internet. 

On your home page, you talk about how these ads induce shame, guilt, and paranoia.

Yeah, because when you feel good about yourself, you don’t buy stuff. Paranoia, fear, inadequacy—that all sells products. It’s also a part of the ad’s job to create and continually foster an environment where you’re perpetually terrified into purchasing things that don’t work. 

According to vintage ads, what are some of the consequences of not using these products?

One is, of course, you’ll be lonely and you won’t have any dates. That’s the worst. The second is that your female friends will talk about you behind your back because you stink. In the 1930s, ads would have a little photo of the bridge game, and the women are whispering, “Oh God, I wish she used deodorant.” The third is that you will not get jobs. You’ll be passed over for promotions because the boss really thinks that you smell, but he’s not going to say anything. A lot of these ads were done during the Depression so you had women desperately trying to get work. Somebody finally tips them off that they need to take a bath because they stink. I’m not saying that this is all ridiculous. There might be some truth to it, but it’s magnified to the point where a woman is taught to blame herself for everything.

I noticed that in a lot of these ads, the women also had to impress their husband’s friends or their husband’s bosses.

That theme comes up a lot in the food section of my website, “Hell’s Kitchen.” That’s also about saving money. You’ve got to be very budget-oriented, but still prepare a classy dinner so that your husband feels as though this is a meal “fit for a king.” Even on your tight budget, you are expected to put on a nice meal for when the boss comes over because your husband will get the promotion if your corned beef is perfect and money-saving. 

She had to keep her personal appearance up, too. Oh, my God, the horrors! The woman’s stocking runs when the couple is in the middle of a party, and you won’t believe the sneering looks from the husband. It’s as if she’s lying in the gutter. A run in the stocking is something you can’t help sometimes, and people’s disgusted expressions in the ad are completely disproportionate. “Ew, you’ve lost stocking appeal!” The advertisers would come up with these insulting little catchphrases, like “S.A.,” or “stocking appeal.”

Keep in mind, during the Depression women didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend on another pair of stockings. Oh, my gosh, it’s torn! What are you going to do? You probably can’t go to Rite-Aid, because there were no Rite-Aids open at 9 or 10 p.m. back then. You’re stuck at the party with a ripped stocking, and it’ll probably end your marriage.

An ad warns women against losing "stocking appeal"

Image: This ad from the 1930s wanted women to worry about the tiny holes in their stockings. 

In addition to stocking tears, it surprised me what a big deal “dishpan hands” were back then.

It’s something nobody ever talks about these days, dishpan hands. I remember back in the early ’70s, an ad for Palmolive showed a woman dipping her hands in the dish water because their soap was supposed to be a beauty treatment at the same time. Besides things like Palmolive, we also have dishwashers now, so advertisers had to try some other way of marketing that product, like focusing on convenience. Back in the 1930s, a wife’s hands spent a lot of time in hot water, but she had to stay beautiful.

What are some of the most dangerous products were targeted toward women?

A big product that was advertised for women’s personal hygiene starting in the 1920s was Lysol. In those ads, they didn’t say you can use it as a douche and to clean your floor. Now, we’re just cleaning floors with it. Can you imagine the injury that was done? Some of these products were toxic. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the makers of Kotex sold something called Quest deodorant powder to sprinkle on your menstrual pads, and that chemical gave women cervical cancer. Still, today, how careful are we with the beauty products we sell people? Many cosmetics even now contain known carcinogens.

An ad warns women against unpleasant odors

Image: This ad from the 1930s told women they must be afraid, very afraid. 

This is an abdridged version of a longer interview that originally ran on Collectors Weekly. Read the full interview and see more vintage ads here. Writer Lisa Hix tweets @lisahix.

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