June 29, 2022–If you want to ponder how all common knowledge is probably not true–and by everything, I mean everything told to you by advertisers, the government, scientists, well-meaning aunts, scriptwriters, and neighbors–spend some time listening to 1930s and 1940s radio broadcasts.
Let’s start with what passed for good nutrition advice in the Golden Age. Getting past all the “swells” and “leapin’ lizards” sprinkled in kids shows, you learn fascinating euphemisms for sugar. Corn Pops, for example were touted for their “food energy” to help you keep up with all the other kids at school.” In other words, refined sugar.
Oh, how I yearned to taste Ovaltine. I had no idea what it was, only that it also gave you that magical “food energy,” and made milk “easier to digest” so you could tell your mom to buy an extra can because it was good for you.
Grown-ups were encouraged by Bing, Bob, and Benny to light up a Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, or Old Gold. Cigarettes were prescribed for every condition from helping you rev up for a busy afternoon to helping you wind down for a relaxing evening. Sometimes in the same commercial. By doctors.
There were all kinds of patent nostrums promising to cure everything from a sore back to the common cold:
Sal Hepatica, a mineral salt laxative marketed by Bristol-Myers.
Carter’s Little Liver Pills
Pepsodent, the toothpaste with Irium!
It wasn’t radioactive, but there was one brand produced in Germany that contained thorium. Made your smile absolutely glow.
How do we know none of these nostrums were effective? Because none of them exist today. Except Alka-Seltzer and Vicks Vap-O-Rub. And the jury is still out on Vicks.
Household products came and went, effective or not. Johnson Wax was a big sponsor of shows like Fibber McGee. In those days, writers worked the commercials into the plot of the stories, so Harlow Wilcox would drop in on Fibber and Molly and talk about how great the floors looked with Johnson Wax.
Flash forward to late-night television in the 1960s, when Ed McMahon was selling products that “cut through that yellow floor wax.” Again, what we had learned from Fibber about keeping our linoleum looking new was proved wrong.
Show content itself is a mixed bag of accuracy and wild exaggeration, some offensive to modern ears. Comedians were joking about many of the same canards–bloviating politicians, income taxes (then due on March 15), rising prices, shady land deals, and scarcity of gasoline.
Most jarring though, is the way writers wrote about women. Women were dames, babes, sweethearts, dolls. Their physical attributes were described in great detail. There was lots of mouthiness, and in detective stories the gals were always the duplicitous ones. They had to be, in order to make the plot work.
You can say this was a reflection of the time. Society was not so enlightened. But consider, everything that came over the radio (and later, TV) started as something written. Who were the writers? Almost exclusively men. And probably not men in the mold of the dashing detective heroes they placed in their serials. More likely mild-mannered intellectual family men, who wrote of a fantasy world unlike their lives spent chained to a desk, fighting deadlines, and commuting to their modest homes or small apartments.
Listening now, the scenarios seem preposterous. The macho men were constantly punching each other, solving every dispute with a gun barrel laid across the back of the head or sock to the stomach. The bad guys always winged the heroes in the left shoulder, while they themselves dropped like bags of wet sand after one punch to the chin.
We can’t be smug looking back. After all, in recent film history those Storm Troopers consistently demonstrate inadequate targeting skills.
I guess my thesis this week is that the best way to discern what is true in the immense flood of information swirling about us, is to determine which facts best predict the future. The best way to do that, is to look back and see what in our past most accurately predicted our present.
From my vantage point, the answer seems to be, not much.