I have spent the day going through boxes of articles from old New Yorker magazines that I saved when they were first published. I think the articles I am going through now are from the 1970s, although I can’t be sure. Back then, The New Yorker disdained from printing the issue date on each page (and even a table of contents), but the ads gave me a clue, particularly the auto ads. They proudly gave me the year of the new models: “Drive the new 1972 Oldsmobile,” they shout.
I hated to throw out an old New Yorker. I always found something of interest, something I wanted to remember, so early on, I tore out the relevant pages and carefully stapled them together if they were of one article. These were from the 1960s. Later, the magazine sold the entire set of issues on DVDs for only about $15, a ridiculously low price that I couldn’t resist, despite a slow, clunky search engine. Now, online access to all of the past New Yorkers comes with my subscription, and I keep an Excel sheet of the articles I want to remember. I can then look up the issue and the article and read it again page-by-page, just as it originally appeared, ads, cartoons, and all. So far, I haven’t done this, but just knowing that I could is important.
But, back to the 1970s box. The magazine then had far more ads on a wide variety of products: home furnishings, Steuben glass knick-knacks, clothes, tiny 1-inch ads for Connecticut get-away weekends, culottes, liquor (one boasted, “It tastes expensive . . . and it is.”), pens (fountain and ball-point), Audubon bird calls, Pulsar watches, expensive Swiss watches, grandfather clocks, cameras (non-digital), portable typewriters, combined radio-record players, Alligator top coats, cigars, handmade shoes, gold cuff links, and cars.
The ads all focused on the quality of the product whatever the expense. Car ads, for example, typically show a photo of the gleaming instruments on a polished walnut dashboard. Today, they would show a young, hooting, bearded driver skidding around a curve on a deserted country road.
The prices in the ads seem cheap, but inflation since 1975 has raised prices about 3 1/2 times in today’s dollars, so the items advertised are really rather expensive in their dollars, just as I remember.
As I recall, the magazine then had one nonfiction article and the rest fiction; now it has one fiction article and the rest nonfiction. I don’t know when it switched.
The clothes and knick-knacks ads show, from hindsight, the futility of pouring money into such expensive items that, now, I would not pick off of a Goodwill table for $1, no matter who designed them or of what superior quality they were.
Even furniture. Back then, I lusted after quality furniture from manufacturers like Baker. Now, all my new furniture is of plastic-covered fiber-board that comes in a box—junk, as I now much prefer. They work, but I can someday throw them all in the trash without regret.
I had good taste, even back then. The articles I saved were by Isaac Bashevis Singer (a Nobel laureate), Roger Angell, John McPhee, Calvin Trillin, S. J. Perelman, E. B. White, Donald Barthelme, Burton Rouché, all still my favorites (at least those still alive, now only Roger Angell, 98, and John McPhee, 87) Some were multi-part articles that were later published as books. They no longer do that. There were also a lot of saved articles that are no longer relevant: articles on politics (Nixon’s trip to China) and the environment (lakes and other features already destroyed).
The cartoons are mostly of business situations. One drawing could do for many of them: a young underling sheepishly standing in front of the desk of an older, fat, raging executive. Write your own caption. Another genre was of home life. A typical cartoon there would be a fat, buxom wife in heels, wearing a dress and pearls at the door waving to her fat, executive husband striding off to work. (Fat was funny in those days.)
An exception: Two old ladies are talking on a bench in Florida. A bent, old man in shorts walks by. One woman says to the other: You know what bugs me? Everybody I know is wizened.
I am wizened, now, too.
The thought I come away with is those of you who want to leave your mark on the world, write something important, get it published, and in two weeks, it will be forgotten and you with it. There are easier ways to become famous. All of the articles I saved are very good; there are just too many of them. Books are the same.
A tiny, hilarious, 1-inch, single column ad, in classic pompous New Yorker style from back then (the type was so small, it was almost unreadable):
Full flaming cheer from cherry log upon a welcome hearth . . .
Here, off English lane—The Springs wherein much there be of time gone by.
Here may folk their heritage enjoy, here contentment find.
Swim waters warm. Smite tennis ball. Go out upon the countryside. Here it lies
with rural craft unspoiled. With club and mashie, drive the tree lined sward.
Seek spires which rose when England was a babe. Enjoy the sport of kings.
See houses stately—and fine old London Town . . .
In summer bloom, The Springs a fragrant idyll be. In winter, as warm as
cocky robin’s breast. All silvered are the tables which offer up such pleasure
to discerning men. All delight, the crusted port and wines.
Exquisite suites await your weary frame and take you through quiet peace
towards the morrow under an English heaven . . .
A Brochure will be sent at your command
(Tell me more about cocky robin’s breast. I do feel like smiting something. And you thought the character “J Peterman” in Seinfeld was fiction.)