People who like design are always fascinated when I show them a mysterious object called the 1922 Tiffin Directory. I bought it at a used book store several years ago. Every square inch of it is covered with black type, mostly Cheltenham, but also Franklin Gothic and a few other more exotic display fonts. And I mean every square inch. The front cover is covered with type. So is the back cover. The spine. So are the edges of the pages: top, bottom, and side. The same densely-packed layouts continue inside. The typography couldn't be more skillful. It's one of the most beautiful books I own.
And, except for a few inches at the top of the spine, all of that gorgeous typography is paid advertising.
Although I've never seen another like it, I've been told books like the Tiffin Directory were common in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Between product placement, ads in urinals, and Minute Maid Park (nee Enron Field), the invasion of commercialism into everyday life seems like a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Yet around one hundred years ago, America began a romance with salesmanship that today seems almost delirious.
If you want a soundtrack for the era, you could do worse than the The Music Man, Meredith Willson's 1957 musical set in a mythical pre-WWI Iowa town that falls under the spell of a huckster selling marching band instruments. It portrays salesmanship as nothing less than the harbringer of modernity to the sleepy agrarian Middle West. Professor Harold Hill's showstopping sales pitch is an icon of the American theater, of course ("Ya got trouble,/Right here in River City/With a capital 'T'/That rhymes with 'P'/And that stands for Pool!"), but the tone is set right in the opening song, "Rock Island," a rapid-fire contrapuntal piece delivered by a traincar full of traveling salesmen and set to the rhythm of the train track:
Why it's the Model T Ford made the trouble,
made the people wanna go, wanna get,
wanna get, wanna get up and go
seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen, twenty-two,
twenty-three miles to the county seat!
Yes sir, yes sir!
Who's gonna patronize a little bitty two-by-four kinda store anymore?
Whaddya talk, whaddya talk?
Where do you get it?
It's not the Model T at all,
take a gander at the store,
at the modern store, at the present-day store,
at the present-day modren departmentalized grocery store!
Whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk?
Where do you get it?
Whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk?
Where do you get it?
You can talk, you can bicker
you can talk, talk, talk, talk
bicker, bicker, bicker
you can talk all you wanna
but it's different than it was.
No it ain't, but ya gotta know the territory!
Why, it's the Uneeda Biscuit made the trouble
Uneeda, Uneeda put the crackers in a package, in a package
the Uneeda Biscuit in an airtight sanitary package
made the cracker barrel obsolete, obsolete!
Here we have a piling up of words, words, words, all in service to a new world order signaled by the airtight packaging of the Uneeda Biscuit. It is the sonic equivalent to the horror vacui demonstrated by the typography of the Tiffin Directory.
This celebration of salesmanship as America's manifest destiny reached its apotheosis in the person of Bruce Barton, who in 1925 published The Man Nobody Knows, a book that updated the tenets of Christianity to the new commercial age. It was the country's best selling non-fiction book for two years running. According to Barton, Jesus was no withdrawn mystic, but rather the quintessence of Hail Fellow Well Met, "the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem." In the book's most famous passage, Jesus is portrayed as the ultimate businessman: "He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world." On the strength of such observations did Bruce Barton, the subject of a recent biography, The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America, rise to national prominence. He was twice elected to Congress, and, as you may have suspected, founded an advertising agency: he is the second B in BBDO.
Today, the idea of Jesus Christ as Executive Vice President of Marketing and Consumer Insight seems grotesque and, like the mileau depicted in Willson's River City, quaintly anachronistic. Here's how we sell things these days:
Roma: Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate. Now: what are they? (Pause.) An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To 'indulge" and to "learn" about ourselves? Perhaps. So fucking what? What isn't? They're an opportunity. That's all. They're an event. A guy comes up to you, you make a call, you send in a brochure, it doesn't matter. "There're these properties I'd like for you so see." What does it mean? What you want it to mean. (Pause.) Money? (Pause.) If that's what it signifies to you. Security? (Pause.) Comfort? (Pause.) All it is is THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO YOU. (Pause.) That's all it is. How are they different? (Pause.) Some newly married guy gets run down by a cab. Some busboy wins the lottery. (Pause.) All it is, it's a carnival. What's special...what draws us? (Pause.) We're all different. (Pause.) We're not the same. (Pause.) We are not the same. (Pause.) Hmmm. (Pause. Sighs.) It's been a long day. (Pause.) What are you drinking?
Roma: Well, let's have a couple more. My name is Richard Roma, what's yours?
Lingk: Lingk. James Lingk.
Roma: James. I'm glad to meet you. (They shake hands.) I'm glad to meet you, James. (Pause.) I want to show you something. (Pause.) It might mean nothing to you...and it might not. I don't know. I don't know anymore. (Pause. He takes out a map and spreads it on a table.) What is that? Florida. Glengarry Highlands. Florida. "Florida. Bullshit." And maybe that's true, and that's what I said: but look here: what is this? This is a piece of land. Listen to what I'm going to tell you now:
(Act One curtain.)
That's master salesman Ricky Roma unloading a piece of worthless real estate on someone he just met a few minutes ago in David Mamet's brilliant 1983 play Glengarry Glen Ross. More words, words, words, but now all is subtlety and indirection. It might mean nothing to you...and it might not. He makes his sale, by the way. For its graphic analog, see the ads in any issue of Vanity Fair or The New Yorker.
And what's the contemporary version of the 1922 Tiffin Directory? Well, you might try The Bulgari Connection. This 2001 novel from the ordinarily respectable Fay Weldon was sponsored by...wait for it...Bulgari, who required at least a dozen mentions of their product in the terms of their contract with her, which was believed to the the first time a literary author was directly commissioned by a commercial company to write a novel. According to the Guardian, "Her agent, Giles Gordon, was exultant. 'The door is open and now the sky is the limit,' he said. 'I've suggested that in her next book she includes a whole string of top companies, Disney, Levis, McDonald's, the lot, and we write to all of them and say 'Ms Weldon is including a mention of your fine company in her next book, what do you reckon?'" Giles Gordon, meet Ricky Roma. For her part, the enthusiastic Ms. Weldon put in three times as many mentions as her agreement required.
So just as in the Tiffin Directory, every word in Ms. Weldon's book is potentially selling you something. Except in the case of The Bulgari Connection, you're not supposed to know you're being sold to. Which do you prefer, the insidiousness of today's soft sell, or the crass commercialism of yesteryear? I know one thing for sure: crass commercialism sure looks a whole lot better.