A couple of years ago, I talked to Robert Klara, a writer for Adweek.com, about old bourbon advertising, and the shifting perceptions of bourbon over the generations. I enjoyed our telephone conversation, and I appreciated that Klara made me look smart in the subsequent article. I’ve followed his work on and off since then, and so when I saw AdWeek’s insightful and intelligent look at the subtle history of gay themes in advertising, I was unsurprised to see that Mr. Klara had written it.
Klara describes how, in much of the advertising from the middle of the previous century, gay themes are subtext; they’re closeted, if you will, obvious to a gay consumer, but easy to overlook by straight ones — and, more to the point, by straight executives at the brands in question.
“It’s all in the eye of the beholder,” says Bruce H. Joffe, professor of communications at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., and author of A Hint of Homosexuality?: “Gay” and Homoerotic Imagery in American Print Advertising. “A straight person who looked at these ads in Time or Life magazines would just turn the page and not think anything, but someone with a gay sensitivity would say, ‘Oh my God, look at that!’”
Here’s an example, not mentioned in the Adweek.com article, but culled from own collection of booze ads. This is for Hiram Walker ran in the June 27, 1938, issue of LIFE:
The fellow in the blue smoking jacket and ascot seems to be taking in the view, yes?
[LIFE; April 18, 1938]
Yes, this is the entirety of the ad. I love its simple elegance. You wanna see it in context of its original page? Sure you do.
Peat, the fuel that adds smoke to scotch, is a non-renewable resource. But what are the odds of its running out? Slate takes a look.
In modern times, Four Roses does indeed make a helluva great old-fashioned. Too bad the blasphemy pictured here isn’t an old-fashioned.
[LIFE, of course; April 11, 1938]
Damon Runyan, newspaperman, author. Covered baseball for many years, and entered the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967. Wikipedia lists 20 of his stories that became motion pictures; the most famous of these is probably Guys and Dolls.
My favorite lyric from the title song of that film, incidentally, is found in only certain recordings, such as at 1:24 in the Bobby Darin rendition:
When you see a mouse
Hurry, scurry out of the house
And she runs 20 blocks for cigars and rye
Oddly, Runyan’s Wikipedia entry indicates that he quit drinking altogether by 1920, some 18 years before this ad ran. I wonder what the truth of it is.
[LIFE; March 21, 1938]
The secret to good bourbon? Breeding and artificial selection. [From LIFE; March 14, 1938]
Life; February 21, 1938.
Love all the detail about the botanicals in the gin. A quick Google search isn’t turning up anything on Jimmy Corosu. The Peoria distillery closed in 1981; it now makes ethanol for ADM. Peoria, incidentally, was apparently once a powerhouse in whiskeymaking, with access to abundant crops of corn and barley. (This, incidentally, is why I keep up this ad project. I never know when a bit of research into a brand will uncover nuggets of cool booze history.)
Life; February 14, 1938.
Calvert is still around, still a blended whiskey. It’s reportedly 70% neutral grain spirit, and 30% straight whiskey — or as some folk like to say, it’s a whiskey-flavored vodka.
The whiskey that made Kentucky whiskies famous. Wait, that sounds familiar.
Life; February 7, 1938.
Early Times has a history dating back to 1860, when the first whiskey under this name was produced. Brown-Forman acquired it in 1923 and still owns the today. During Prohibition, BF marketed Early Times as a medicinal whiskey.
Today, the product is known as a “Kentucky whisky” (why they drop the e that’s traditional when describing American whiskeys is a question I can’t answer). It’s made the way bourbon is made, except that Early Times, today, is aged in used oak barrels. Straight bourbon, by law, must be aged in new oak barrels. New barrels impart more woody flavors into a distillate than do used barrels, and thus Early Times doesn’t taste as bourbony as bourbon should.
Early Times continued as a straight bourbon until the 1980s, and as of two years ago, a bourbon version is again marketed by Brown-Forman. The two products are now sold side-by-side; the bourbon is called Early Times 354.