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Wednesday
Jan022013

What It Was Like Winning A Trip To Disneyland in the 1950s

Illustration of Sleeping Beauty Castle in 1955 (Source: Art of Disneyland book)

I recently watched an episode of "The Jetsons" about Elroy winning a contest and getting to meet his spaceman idol from TV. The episode always reminds me of a story that Karal Ann Marling told me a few years ago, so I dug up the tape and transcribed the story below.

Marling is a retired professor, author and Disney expert who has written extensively on American popular culture. In 2008, I had lunch with her in Minneapolis and she told me this great story about a cereal box contest she won in the 1950s at the age of 12. She was living with her family lived in Rochester, New York at the time. 

The story is pretty unbelievable:

When I was in eighth grade my mother was trying to control my younger brothers at breakfast with diversions and I was the one who had to put her plans into action. We used to buy cereal boxes that had games on the back. She got one set of cereal boxes that had coloring pictures on the back. She instructed me that I was to show my little brothers how to color these pictures and keep them quiet. So I colored the picture and then I passed it around and they all scribbled away, caused trouble and threw their eggs on the floor.

So, unbeknownst to me, my mother snipped it off the back of the cereal carton and sent all three of them in an envelope to the contest. There was also underneath a place where you could print -- legibly it said -- in 25 words or less why you wanted to be on the first 707 Boeing flight to the West Coast. Well, I did that too and about a month afterward my mother goes to the mailbox and there's big official-looking envelopes for my brothers. And she opens them up and they're from the contest and my brothers had each won third prize which were rollerskates -- they were giving away about 10 million sets of those. So the kids come home from school and by the time I got home they were dancing around the living room: "Ha-ha! We won the prize! We won the prize! We won the rollerskates!"

So I didn't think very much of it and went upstairs and did my Latin or whatever I was working on. A week after that a very official huge package comes for me registered mail and signed twice and all that stuff. Turns out I won the contest. So my mother and I got a two-week all expenses paid trip to Disneyland. And yeah, that was like going to heaven!

So off we went. And they put us up at the new Disneyland Hotel and I met Walt and he told me it would be nice if I came to work for him since I was such a good colorer.

Among other things Walt did was he asked me who my favorite movie star was. So I said Rock Hudson -- I was mad for Rock Hudson at that age. So he got on the phone and told his secretary, "Find Rock Hudson." He gets on the phone and says "I've got a little lady here who would love to meet you; this is Walt Disney. Suppose you could come stop by the studio?" Well, within 15 minutes this beautiful blue convertible with a white top pulls up and there's Rock Hudson out in front of Walt's office in the Animation Building. He took me out to dinner to 77 Sunset Strip.

My mother meanwhile was being entertained and they asked her who her favorite star was and she said Gisele MacKenzie, a singer on "Your Hit Parade." Sure enough, they produced Gisele MacKenzie and she and my mother went shopping at Bullock's Wilshire. We had a wonderful time.

Saturday
Sep222012

Parade Magazine Asks American Women About The Sexiest Professions of 1962

NASA astronauts in July of 1962 (source: NASA)

In 1962 Parade magazine surveyed American women about the sexiest profession for American men. Here at the dawn of the space age, they were shocked astronauts weren't ranked number one, concluding "Astronauts are great for history, but not for current affairs..."

Doctors were ranked the sexiest and received 25 percent of the votes, though the article doesn't mention how many women they surveyed.

The entire list is below and comes from an article in Parade that I found in the September 23, 1962 issue of the Cedar Rapids Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

  1. Doctor
  2. Writer
  3. Astronaut
  4. Scientist
  5. Athlete
  6. Actor
  7. Engineer
  8. Architect
  9. Airline pilot
  10. Executive
  11. Detective
  12. Newspaperman
  13. Teacher
  14. Lawyer
  15. Politician
  16. Lifeguard
  17. Diplomat
  18. Sailor
  19. Truck driver
  20. Mechanic
  21. Forest ranger

The last paragraph of the article (again, this was all written from the angle of "why don't women love astronauts more!?!?!) assures readers that just because astronauts are ranked third sexiest now, they may get a bump in the rankings over time. It's interesting to see the assumption that astronauts would swell in numbers and become "no longer rare birds."

If the current generation of women doesn't swoon over astronauts, wait a few decades. According to Dr. Rebecca Liswood, the director of the Marriage Counselling Service of Greater New York, parents usually guide their daughters early in life as to the kinds of men they should choose as mates. Perhaps when astronauts are no longer rare birds and women know more about them, future mothers will steer their girls towards space men as marriage material.

Wednesday
Aug012012

Cool Shirt, Bro

Imagine you and a friend are visiting the Mall of America. I don’t know why you’re there, exactly. Maybe you really love audio-animatronic gorillas and every other Rainforest Cafe between your house and Bloomington, Minnesota is closed for repairs. But the why isn’t important. You’re at the Mall of America with a friend and you spill Rainforest Juice all over your shirt. It’s a mess -- and you should really be more careful, butterfingers -- but here we are. You’re at the Mall of America and you need a new shirt.

Now imagine you walk into one of the Mall of America’s many fine clothing stores and find a shirt you like. You try it on, pay for it, and you walk out of the store with it to go play mini-golf or have a cereal adventure or do whatever they have over by that one food court now.

Your friend really likes your shirt. It’s a very cool shirt and your friend wants to let you know how cool it is, so your friend says, “Cool shirt, bro.”

Now let’s pretend that the Mall of America has a policy that it doesn’t allow people to say the phrase “Cool shirt, bro” in the mall. Anyone caught saying the phrase “Cool shirt, bro” will be immediately escorted off the property and dumped in the Ikea across the street or something. So that’s exactly what the security guard does. Paul Flart or whatever his real name is (it was actually pretty mean of you to call him that) proceeds to escort you and your friend off the mall property.

Now let’s imagine you protest this injustice and say, “Hey bro, what my friend said isn’t illegal! I didn’t even know about this anti-bro policy! We have free speech rights! What about the First Amendment!”

What this security guard (a noted scholar of retail jurisprudence) would likely tell you is something along the lines of “go fuck yourself” as he’s tossing you into a platter of Swedish meatballs. Because whether you like it or not, you don’t have First Amendment rights inside the Mall of America.

This is the point where we stop playing pretend, so I’ll say it again to be clear: you don’t have First Amendment rights in the Mall of America. That mall is considered private property and even though it’s open to the public during business hours and the mall was heavily subsidized in its construction by public funds, they can kick you out for saying or doing things they don’t like, no matter how stupid their rules may seem to you.

As I said, this isn’t entirely hypothetical. In a 1999 case before the Minnesota Supreme Court called State v. Wicklund, the court held that a protest staged by anti-fur demonstrators in a common area of the mall was not constitutionally protected speech. Neither the First Amendment nor the state of Minnesota’s own constitutional provisions guaranteeing free speech mattered inside the mall in 1996 when protesters began handing out flyers in an area adjacent to Macy’s. These peaceful protesters believed that fur was cruel and felt that they were within their rights to express themselves at the mall. The court said that after the mall asked them to leave they were trespassing.

I’m reminded of this Mall of America case anytime someone cries foul about censorship of Americans on social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook. Whether we like it or not, Twitter is private property.

On paper, Americans enjoy some of the most liberal free speech laws in the world. But once you’re on what the law deems private property your ability to express yourself is at the mercy of the property owners. If I go to the sidewalk outside of my neighborhood Trader Joe’s and protest about how terrible their store-brand cola is (it really is; sorry TJ) I’m protected by the First Amendment. But once I’m inside that store -- despite the fact that it’s open to the public -- the store has every right to kick me out.

Twitter can pretty much do whatever it likes within its own walls as long as it takes into account the potential for negative public opinion which may harm its profits. I imagine if Twitter decided tomorrow that it didn’t want to let Norwegian-Americans or Pastafarians use Twitter, it may run afoul of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which doesn’t allow discrimination “based on race, color, religion or national origin in hotels, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations engaged in interstate commerce.” But I’ve never heard of a social media discrimination case coming before an American court and it may be difficult to argue that this particular anti-discrimination law pertains to the digital realm.

But Twitter wouldn’t exclude people like that anyway. It’s bad business. And so is kicking out your customers over speech you don’t like. People will generally raise a ruckus when they think others are being treated unjustly.

But the point is that it doesn’t matter. Twitter makes the rules about speech on its service. Twitter is private property. Despite what some op-ed in the Wall Street Journal might argue (hilariously and inaccurately), the internet was indeed built by the government and didn’t become the largely privatized infrastructure we know today until the early 1990s.

Let me be very clear that I love Twitter. It’s been an important part of my life for almost 4 years now. But whatever I think of their policies, I can’t cry “First Amendment!” if they ever boot me off (which I suspect will happen any day now after a drunken night of terrible Space Cat jokes). Twitter isn’t a public service. We live with the realities of a private internet. It didn’t have to become private property, and I’m not even arguing that a private internet is a bad thing. I’m simply arguing that we need to realize what kind of rights we have and how we got to this point.

Twitter is a business and it’s a business that I want to see succeed. When they do something I dislike, I will absolutely discuss it -- I will even tweet my displeasure -- but I do so realizing that it’s like being upset at any other business. In the latter half of the 20th century you could argue that malls became the new town square -- a place where the community gathers and the average American might expect First Amendment protections. But that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen in malls and it didn’t happen on the internet.

But that’s still a cool shirt, bro.

Sunday
Jul012012

The Scantron of 1935

Michael Sokolski, the inventor of the Scantron, died recently and news of his death reminded me of this invention from 1935. Rather than use a number 2 pencil, students punched holes into a multiple choice test and weights were dropped over their test where the correct answers were supposed to be. The weights that fell through the holes, indicating a correct answer, were then weighed and the number of correct answers was determined.

From the September 1935 issue of Popular Science:

EXAM PAPERS ARE GRADED BY WEIGHT

Student's examination papers are being graded with a weighing machine at a Kentucky teachers' college, where the new method has been found speedy and accurate. Each student receives a card bearing "true-or-false" and similar questions, and punches holes as indicated points to record his answers. When the card is placed in the weighing machine, small weights drop through the holes correctly punched and fall to a platter, where the total weight gives the score.

Illustrations for U.S. patent number 2,033,817 appear below. 

Monday
Apr162012

Be prepared to speak pleasantly: the White Castle checklist of 1931

1931 checklist for White Castle employees (source: Philip Langdon)

From the vantage point of 2012, it's somehwat hard to imagine a time when conformity was the restaurant industry's strongest selling point. But during the rise of fast food restaurants in the first half of the 20th century, people were very much attracted to the idea of consistency across the various locations of a given restaurant chain.

Uniformity in food and architecture was meant to imply that a particular restaurant was running as an efficient machine; churning out food inexpensively and safely. The success of this method -- the McDonaldization of eating outside the home, for lack of a better term* -- led to the explosion of the fast food industry in the United States.

A 1932 brochure for White Castle proudly proclaimed:

When you sit in a White Castle remember that you are one of several thousands; you are sitting on the same kind of stool; you are being served on the same kind of counter; the coffee you drink is made in accordance with a certain formula; the hamburger you eat is prepared in exactly the same way over a gas flame of the same intensity; the cups you drink from are identical with thousands of cups that thousands of other people are using at the same moment; the same standard of cleanliness protects your food... Even the men who serve you are guided by standards of precision which have been thought out from beginning to end. They dress alike; they are motivated by the same principles of courtesy.

Clearly, this uniformity of experience didn't just manifest itself in food and architecture; it was also important that employees act, dress and wash consistently across various locations.

Below is the 1931 checklist that dictated how White Castle employees were supposed to dress, wash and present themselves:

  1. Cap should cover hair.
  2. Keep hair trimmed.
  3. Be ready to make suggestions.
  4. Have clean shave.
  5. Be prepared to speak pleasantly.
  6. Brush teeth.
  7. Correct bad breath.
  8. Get rid of chewing gum.
  9. Wear clean collar.
  10. Be sure tie is not frayed or dirty.
  11. Wear clean shirt.
  12. Button all shirt buttons.
  13. No body odor.
  14. Fold shirt sleeves neatly.
  15. Fasten apron neatly.
  16. Have shirt neatly tucked in trousers.
  17. No patches in trousers seat.
  18. No wrist watch.
  19. No flashy jewelry.
  20. Wash hands.
  21. Clean fingernails.
  22. Wear clean trousers.
  23. Turn up trousers if too long.
  24. Wear comfortable shoes.

Perhaps no better example of the way that employees became interchangeable parts in a much larger fast food machine was in the switch to paper hats. Initially, White Castle employees wore linen caps, but these would shrink after being washed. The company switched to disposable paper caps which could be adjusted to fit different head sizes.

 

Source: Orange Roofs, Golden Arches: The Architecture of American Chain Restaurants by Philip Langdon

*McDonald's wasn't founded as a hamburger business until 1948, but their methods of fast food efficiency and consistency (for better or worse) were evolving for decades before they arrived on the scene.