Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A Portrait of the 1920s New Yorker Reader

The New Yorker magazine has always had an exclusive reputation, but during its first five years it was PARTICULARLY exclusive, geared to people who are simply not like you and me. New Yorker readers may have spent countless nights playing Mahjong, bridge, and annoying trivia games, but you somehow can't see them ever playing dominoes or -- God forbid -- ROCK BAND (which, in the '20s, would have required eighteen friends with various types of horns, and perhaps a guy with an electronic washboard when doing the down-home stuff).

Whenever the magazine gets too stuffy for words, I need to remind myself of its readership. And sometimes the disconnect is spelled out so beautifully that it's worth mentioning.

Here's a Rolls-Royce advertisement in the April 6, 1929 issue. While I'm sure that Rolls-Royce was advertised in less exclusive magazines at the time, I somehow doubt that the other magazines got THIS version:
Yes, you can get along without a Rolls-Royce. You can get along without trips to Europe, or a fine piano in your home, or sterling silver on the table. But you don't.
Judging by all the tittery articles about steamship trips abroad, you can be reasonably sure that the average New Yorker reader DIDN'T get along without all those things...or at the very least they WANTED to be the sort of person who didn't.

I also get a kick out of this sentence:
America's foremost bankers -- 163 of them -- endorse Rolls-Royce as an investment by owning Rolls-Royces themselves!
Was this line REALLY intended to show the "investment" value of the car...or was it simply there to remind you that rich and prominent people drove Rolls-Royces, so you should too?


Anonymous said...

Yes, it appears that the ads are not aimed at the hoi polloi. Remember, though, that these were the Roaring Twenties. Everyone (at least those whose station was above the common rabble) was invested in the market and saw the most amazing capital gains. So why not ever-upward aspirations? Remember, too, that clocks back then were not silent (Rolls-Royce had made much of their automotive clock’s silence).

The ads are definitely snobbish. But can they be excused by the seeming inevitability of an ever-upward stock market, and wealth for all, that fueled such aspirations? If you could not afford all of the luxuries mentioned, then perhaps it would be your turn next year. At least, that was the thinking of many.

But not John D. Rockefeller, according to stories told me as a child. When elevator operators were touting stock tips, the first American billionaire knew it was time to get out of the market. Although the story may be apocryphal, I’m sure there are elements of truth to it.

Was it not just a few years ago that the dot.com revolution (pre-bubble) would change all of business as we knew it, and allow us to retire early? That ain’t the way it turned out, is it? As a popular song after the Crash of ’29 said, “Brother, can you spare a dime?”

No. Really. Can you? And by a dime, I really mean $100.00. My R-R Silver Shadow needs a fill-up…

Adam Thornton said...

True, it may be a question more of general aspiration than of actual wealth, which must have made the crash that much more painful...if people actually BELIEVED they could achieve those things if they invested enough, it must have been AWFUL to lose everything through the very mechanism of their salvation.

A silent automotive clock? You have to wonder why they didn't concentrate on "heated interior." :)