Friday, December 16, 2011

Old-Time Charm at Christmas? Leave Out Radios, Telephones and Billboards.

Some of you may have noticed that Signalwrite Marketing sent out old-time, small-town Christmas scenes this year. There were several different cards with paintings by a Wisconsin artist, Mary Singleton. Her artworks are “filled with details and vivid colors of everyday life in simpler times and friendly old fashioned places.” Yet at the same time, her website admits:

Mary Singleton's paintings bring us into an idealistic vision of the it could be…

These visions are popular today. Many of us remember growing up in just such idyllic towns and villages. (Me? No – I’m a city boy. Barbara Nytes-Baron was born and raised in New Prague, MN; she enjoyed Christmases much like this one…but with newer-model cars.)

In the painting there are no billboards and no telephone wires: the “good old days.” Still, Singleton envisioned this scene somewhere around 1925 or 1926, judging by the cars and trucks on her Main Street.

By 1925 there were millions of radio receivers in American homes, according to one source. The modern world had already arrived – just not washed into small-town America yet.

By 1925, radio programs had already become inextricably connected to major American companies; the first radio ad appearing in 1922 costs $100 for ten minutes of air time. By ‘23, brands like Eveready Batteries were sponsoring radio variety shows.

America, in its first giant step down the road to the future, became a consumer society even though you can’t see it here in Singleton’s “After Choir Practice.” Mid-1920s, Americans spent $430 million on radio products which was real money in 1925.

Telephones? The beginning of social interconnection? No sign of them in this little town. But in 1925, the telephone was already 50 years old. There were 12 million phones in American homes and business – one-and-a-half million of these were the new-fangled dial models. (The “First Internet,” the telegraph, was even more embedded in the US.)

How about billboards? One of the best known billboard companies, Foster, began in 1898. Lamar in 1908. In the case of this wistful wintry town, though, it’s more likely drivers would have seen the outdoor boards on the highways outside of it. Burma-Shave’s famous outdoor campaign started in…1925.

You can’t escape the people who send you collections of “the way it used to be” photos and gags on the Internet these days. Yet embedded in the nostalgia of Singleton’s paintings is today’s America, waiting to spread itself nationwide…even in the forms of advertising and social media.

Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric starter for automobiles, said, “You can't have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time.” Whatever’s next after YouTube corporate videos and company Facebook pages and interactive billboards, I say bring it.

Painting: “After Choir Practice,” 16x20 inches. Copyright © Mary Singleton 2002-2010.

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