February 17, 2017

Joy of Sex & Our Bodies, Ourselves Became Huge Bestsellers in the 1970's

In 2011, a surprise hit for the publishing industry was the huge success of an erotic novel (a trilogy, actually) from British author E. L. James called Fifty Shades of Grey, which featured explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sex involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism (BDSM).  Fifty Shades of Grey depicted BDSM as a relatively normal part of the spectrum of human sexuality; all things that were once considered sexual deviation and depravity, even though what truly occurred behind closed doors was never really known.  The book was followed-up with a film version of Fifty Shades of Grey.  While BDSM had its day in the sun thanks largely to Fifty Shades of Grey, in hindsight, the English-speaking world should not have been surprised by any of it.  In fact, over forty years earlier, the publishing world was similarly surprised when another book about sex made the bestseller lists in the UK and in North America for many weeks.

The book was The Joy of Sex, an illustrated sex book (it was written as a sex manual) written by British author Alex Comfort MD PhD (he died in 2000) that was first published in the UK in 1961.  It became a bestseller there, and was then successfully published in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in 1972.  The Joy of Sex book was very loosely modeled on the cookbook the Joy of Cooking, which in the UK was a culinary how-to book that helped to transform the way most of its readers thought about food.  The very first edition of the Joy of Sex considered sex on moving motorcycles (which is now generally outlawed, mostly due to safety concerns). The original book wrote: "If you have access to a private road, the hazards are yours," counseled the book's ironically surnamed author Dr. Alex Comfort.  Doing it on horseback (also mentioned in the 1972 edition) is also now outlawed in many places.  But the locations were never the point, rather it was that sex is supposed to be enjoyable for those involved, not merely a very dark means of potential or accidental reproduction.

At the time The Joy of Sex book was published, the UK, the US and the Anglo provinces of Canada, Australia (all unlike most other Continental European countries) were still very prudish about sex, perhaps due to outdated Victorian laws still on the books, and because the English/Anglo-American culture never openly discussed sex.  That meant that sex was something that was done (as birth rates in all English-speaking countries prove), yet was certainly never talked about in an open matter.

Yet in the US, The Joy of Sex became a huge bestseller (making the publisher very, very happy), spending 11 weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list and remaining in the top 5 for more than 70 weeks (from 1972–1974).  All told, it spent spent a total of 343 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.  With a publishing success like that, it wasn't surprising that it was followed-up by a sequel called More Joy of Sex.  With the book's discreet cover, its content was divided into what could kind of be described as appetizers, main courses, and special sauces (consistent with the cookbook design for The Joy of Cooking).

The "hairy man" and his female lover from The Joy of Sex book
Because obscenity laws still existed in the UK and US, visual depictions of the act of sex presented some challenges, but the publisher creatively got around that with illustrated drawings, rather than with actual photography, which conveniently avoided potential controversy that might have accompanied explicit photos of people having sex, which could have been considered pornography.  That said, The Joy of Sex emerged around the same time that mainstream pornography was then starting to appear in theaters (at least in the US), including the bestselling movie of all-time (including all non-porn films) Deep Throat, would challenge decades of religious dogma which until then, had largely dominated American society almost without question (catch my post on the mainstreaming of pornography at https://goo.gl/9FG5K for more).

Although Playboy had successfully operated since the 1950's, it initially operated within a very complicated barrage of restrictions and prohibitions in certain local counties, meaning it could operate as long as there weren't local restrictions, but that was ever-changing.  Then, in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its decision on Miller v. California that dramatically narrowed and simplified the definition of obscenity, which resulted in dramatically fewer prosecutions nationwide.  In that case, the definition of obscenity went from being an extremely broad understanding of "utterly without socially redeeming value" to that which lacked "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."  That meant that many serious sex publications were suddenly allowed under the nation’s newer understanding of obscenity laws.

Marilyn Monroe was the centerfold of the 1st
edition of Playboy in December 1953
Note that the 2016 decision for Playboy to eliminate the nude centerfolds it helped popularize didn't last long.  As of February 2017, the publication announced that its nude centerfolds would be back.  Founder Hugh Hefner was critical of the decision, and predicted it wouldn't last, and he was right.  Evidently, in spite of quality articles (really!), that really wasn't enough to sustain the magazine's subscriber base in an era where nudity can be attained free online from virtually anywhere in the U.S.  Buzzfeed covered the reversal at Playboy to feature nudes and did a good job covering that ill-fated decision.  Catch the article at https://www.buzzfeed.com/jimdalrympleii/playboy-is-bringing-back-nude-photos for more.

As noted, because The Joy of Sex was illustrated, rather than with actual photos, it managed to avoid the same kind of scrutiny as actual photography might have.  The illustrations were very graphic, but looking back on them 50 years later is almost comical, with hairstyles better left in the 1960's and bushy pubic areas.  The man in the illustration was heavily bearded; his hair was long, and, and frankly, his hair seemed to be a little greasy, too. His eyelids were usually at half-mast.  He came to be popularly known in the the UK as the "hairy man" and his only slightly-less-hairy female partner (some hipsters are now doing the same thing, so I guess they haven't really learned from their elders' mistakes, even if the porn they consume looks dissimilar to them).

Our Bodies, Ourselves: the feminist alternative
There was also a feminist alternative to The Joy of Sex called Our Bodies, Ourselves which came out around the same time. That book announced on its original jacket that it was By and for Women.  But Our Bodies, Ourselves covered almost all of the same material as The Joy of Sex, just with a slightly different tone, mainly from the female perspective. That book, too, had very similar hand-drawn illustrations of a couple having sex in a series of different positions.  Interestingly, both of these books also explained that everyone was basically bisexual, so it meant that gays and lesbians weren't suddenly being as casually dismissed as society as may have tried to do (so much for Anita Bryant's initially successful, but ultimately failed efforts a few years later … men and women were still having sex with one another in a variety of combinations, no matter what she tried to ban).  This was the world in which kids of the 1970's came of age.  Kids of that era were basically left to figure things out for themselves, with the help of a very, sexually-explicit book (or two).  I later learned that these books had been banned in some parts of the country.  Maybe they could easily be removed from school libraries, but the books could still be found in many public libraries.  And kids did just that.  At least where I grew up.   And, if it wasn't available in our local public library, we could order it via an inter-library loan (ours had it, I checked for myself).

I recall finding a copy of The Joy of Sex at home (or maybe it was More Joy of Sex, I don't recall exactly, it was one of them) as a kid.  But to my surprise, I wasn't punished for finding it, I was actually allowed to read the book in its entirety, by myself, and was told to ask if I had any questions (I could tell they didn't want to do that, but felt obliged to offer that).  I guess if I found a book that someone at home was reading, they really couldn't lecture about my reading it, and not another word was ever mentioned about it.  When we had sex education in school a few years later, I remember thinking that we were kind of short-changed with the stuff we were taught in school because that book had so much more.  In school, we were taught that sex consisted of a man "inserting the penis into the woman’s vagina".  Um, "insert", as if that was a single second in time, and that was it?

Evidently, I lived in an area of the country that was more progressive than some other parts of the country.  Some places (like Utah, or Mississippi or Alabama) were trying to ban these books and some continue to do so in 2017.  They also tried to ban Playboy and/or Penthouse.  And others, like Judy Blume books.  (see my post on her at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2012/06/tales-of-4th-grade-nothingjudy-blume.html)  Like we kids weren't talking about this stuff openly on our playgrounds?!  And there was always some kid who had moved in from out-of-town, maybe where books were banned, but school kids quickly indoctrinated them on the taboo content, so it didn’t stay secret for long.  This stuff has a way of being shared on the school playgrounds.

I guess many kids of the 1970's had a very similar experience.

See also:

February 14, 2017

Mama's Family: From Network TV Also-Ran to Star of Syndicated TV

During the 1970's, analog broadcast television (and that's pretty much all that existed, as cable and satellite TV wouldn't really appear for more than a decade, and digital wouldn't emerge until the 2000's) was dominated by the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC, all of which were evolved from successful, national radio networks a generation earlier), PBS and in some metropolitan areas, so-called "independent" stations (these often appeared on the UHF channel spectrum, where there was considerable broadcast capacity) which focused mainly on local news programs, occasional local programs and a battery of network television re-runs long before TV Land would even claim the space.

Although News Corp. converted a number of previously "independent" television stations to Fox television in the 1980's, and other networks including Paramount and Warner Brothers followed the very same path before bowing out in the late 1990's as a drain they couldn't make work work financially, there was some programming success from independent TV stations, and those shows often went into syndication.

Broadcast syndication is the licensing of the right to broadcast television programs without going through a broadcast network.  The success of broadcast syndication peaked in the 1970's and 1980's.  Some of the best-known syndicated television shows included various game-shows, among them: Hollywood Squares, Name that Tune, The Gong Show, Wheel of Fortune and others, musical-variety shows starring the likes of Dolly Parton, Andy Williams and Sha Na Na, as well as more traditional TV programming including Jim Henson's The Muppet Show, Mama's Family, which was spun-off from The Family skits that aired on The Carol Burnett Show, as well as Charles in Charge, Silver Spoons, Webster, Too Close for Comfort, and What's Happening!!.

Like Mama's Family, which first began as a series on network television (NBC), some syndicated TV shows saw new life in syndication after being dropped by network television, including 9 to 5, which originally aired on ABC, and was later rebooted for syndicated television distribution, as well as The Nanny which began on CBS and was later run in syndication, principally on Lifetime.  Mama's Family's subsequent success is impressive since it came in spite of the absence of such famous stars as Carol Burnett, Betty White and Rue McClanahan (the latter two left to star in The Golden Girls, see https://goo.gl/DD3pCP for more).

In addition to game shows and sitcoms, some animated shows ran in syndication, too, including the cartoons He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Pink Panther.  Meanwhile, syndication also brought us a number of talk-shows, including the most successful late-night talk-show The Arsenio Hall Show, as well as the daytime talk-shows including Morton Downey, Jr. and Rosie O'Donnell, which had brief periods of impressive ratings and influence; while others, such as Oprah Winfrey and Maury Povich, had a much more sustained run.

As already noted, one of syndicated broadcast television's more popular programs was Mama's Family, which had its origins as a popular skit called The Family that ran on The Carol Burnett Show.  That program had a brief run on network television (NBC), but was even more successful in syndication.  First-run syndication in the 1970’s made it possible for some shows that were no longer wanted by TV networks to remain on the air.  The syndicated version of Mama's Family garnered substantially higher ratings than did its network version, eventually becoming the highest-rated sitcom in first-run syndication.  Set in the fictitious southern town of Raytown, many have speculated it could be Raytown, Missouri, but that town is in Kansas City suburbs, not the rural Ozarks locale on the Arkansas border that is most likely the Raytown of the show.  Its never stated in the show itself, leaving it up to the viewers to decide.

The Me-TV network featured a 30-second story/summary of Mama’s Family which can be viewed below, or at https://youtu.be/CeL1YkgKp3o:

In 2016, after a several-year hiatus from cable and broadcast television, reruns of Mama's Family returned to television.  As of 2017, the show was airing on Me-TV as well as MTV's Logo cable network.  Also, in 2013, the entire series of Mama's Family (both its network seasons 1 and 2 which originally aired on NBC, and the subsequent reboot in syndication) was released on DVD.  Previously, only Season 1 had been released on DVD by Warner Bros. Home Video, but DVD releases of all subsequent seasons were delayed, as various legal entanglements kept the remainder of series from being released on DVD.  Those issues were finally resolved in late 2012, and resulted in the series being released by mail order initially, and subsequently retail distribution.  The mail order DVD series had some cast reunions (at least the cast from the syndicated iteration of the show, including regulars Vicki Lawrence, Ken Berry and Dorothy Lyman) from the syndicated iteration, but excluded Vinton 'Buzz' Harper, Jr. (played by Eric Brown) and Sonja Harper (played by Karin Argoud)  The syndicated iteration of the show included the delinquent grandson from Thelma Harper's daughter Eunice and her husband Ed Higgins named Bubba (played by Allan Kayser), and also included prissy neighbor Iola Boylen (played by Beverly Archer).  One of those reunions can be seen at https://youtu.be/UH5PivywSCI:

Me-TV's website also has an entertaining personality test which asks users a series of questions about which character from all of Mama's Family is most like you.  Visit that at https://www.metv.com/quiz/which-mamas-family-member-are-you to take the quiz.

January 25, 2017

Linda Ronstadt: Voice Silenced Due to Health

In 2013, the smooth-voiced singer Linda Ronstadt, who racked up an impressive 11 Grammy awards, 2 Academy of Country Music awards and an Emmy award during her lengthy recording career, revealed that she had Parkinson's Disease, which meant that she, in her own words, "can't sing a note" anymore.  Both AARP interviewed her at http://bit.ly/2cCqiaD and People magazine interviewed her at http://bit.ly/2cBC3JJ which are worth reading.  Evidently, the Parkinson's Disease has also impaired her daily movement, but she said that she can still get around, although certainly not like she used to.

With a recording career that spanned rock, pop, country and everything in between, Linda Ronstadt really did not belong in a single musical genre, only what her voice could accomplish.  Indeed, few pop singers have been as successful, as durable, and as wide-ranging as Linda Ronstadt.  She began her career back in the 1960's in a band called the Stone Poneys, and one of her best-known songs "Different Drum" came from her time there.  Below is a recording of Ms. Ronstadt performing one of her songs with the band in the late 1960's (there is an "official" Vevo video of a live performance on YouTube, but I actually like the sound of this version a little better).  Watch below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/ZhtnB6kSCyA:

Ms. Ronstadt is a music-biz anomaly for many reasons.  For one thing, she grew up on a ranch in the Arizona desert near Tucson, but she is part Mexican even though she speaks (and formerly sang) English perfectly.  Indeed, as a child she grew up with Spanish-language music that her grandfather taught her, although few would mistake Ms. Ronstadt as a Mexican immigrant.  She also spanned musical genres years before others did (I've talked about country cross-over artists before, check the archives for details).  For example, anyone who thinks Taylor Swift is unique because she began in country before moving to rock likely doesn't know Linda Ronstadt, even if they know her famous music.  The former songstress has collaborated with some of Nashville’s best-known recording artists, including her friend Dolly Parton.

Ms. Ronstadt also released a memoir in 2013, reflecting on her long music career.  NPR's Terry Gross, who is the host of the program Fresh Air spoke with Linda Ronstadt, which can be listed to below or at the following link:  http://www.npr.org/2013/09/17/223172521/in-memoir-linda-ronstadt-describes-her-simple-dreams.

Similarly, WNYC's Studio 360 interviewed Linda Ronstadt in August 2014, well after her public disclosure of her Parkinson's Disease diagnosis, which can be listened to below, or by visiting: http://www.wnyc.org/story/linda-ronstandts-curtain-call/.

Finally, NPR's popular Diane Rehm show interviewed Linda Ronstadt in July 2014, around the time her new book was published.  Although I cannot embed that interview, the link can be found at: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2014-07-29/singer-linda-ronstadt-her-life-music.

Although Ms. Ronstadt's voice has been silenced because of her health, her impressive library of recorded music will remain with us.  If you aren't already familiar with her music, now would be a great time to discover her musical library!

January 19, 2017

Odd Way Race Was Depicted in the 1970's

For most of TV's history, the images on screen were anything but diverse.  Instead, TV reflected a depiction of the U.S. as an almost exclusively Caucasian-American, heterosexual, Christian population (in spite of the fact that most of the industry's most important executives were Jewish).  But following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it became clear that either they started depicting people outside of that narrow population (usually, that meant including African-Americans) or it might be imposed upon them by lawmakers or the courts.  This meant that people who grew up in the 1970's were the first generation of people to grow up in this "new" world.

The cover of a Ginn basic reader circa 1973
It wasn't just Hollywood, even publishers of grade-school textbooks faced the reality that the U.S. was never truly as white as they'd portrayed it to be, so the readers used in grade-schools across the country suddenly faced revisions to accommodate reality as it actually was, rather than as some racists wanted it to be.  Most notably, that meant the inclusion of African-Americans in the dialogue and illustrations, although far less of smaller demographic minority populations at the time, including Hispanics, Asians, Hawaiians, Native Americans and certainly no sexual minorities.  Of course, those groups did not include a legacy of slavery as was the case with Southern blacks.  Ironically, in many parts of the country, "integration" as it came to be known at the time was largely something that was talked about, but didn't really exist except in conversation because many Americans had self-segregated themselves by living near people who looked like them, worshiped as they did, and thought like they did.  But integration had to start someplace.  The problem was that publishers and TV execs did not exactly "embrace" integration in the beginning, rather they stumbled into it.  That meant that kids growing up during that era were seeing failed integration experiments in person.

Some of my favorite examples were the late-1960's to mid-1970's TV sitcoms.  For example, in early in 1970, the sitcom Bewitched starring Elizabeth Montgomery was at the top of the ratings (catch one of my posts about that sitcom at https://goo.gl/olfrdW for more).  The show featured a husband Darrin Stephens and his stay-at-home, witch-turned-wife Samantha and their daughter Tabitha (they added a son Adam towards the end of the show).  The show also featured regulars including Samantha's meddling mother Endora, and occasionally others including her uncle Arthur, portrayed by gay actor Paul Lynde, as well as nosey neighbor Gladys Kravitz, as well as Larry Tate's wife Louise, and sometimes a few others.  Although the replacement of actor Dick York who played Darrin Stephens with another actor Dick Sargeant (who like Paul Lynde was a gay actor) got the biggest headlines, the show replaced other recurring characters with different talent, including the actress who played Gladys Kravitz, originally played by Alice Pearce, but following her death, the role was played by Sandra Gould, and also the replacement of  character Louise Tate from actress Irene Vernon subsequently with Kasey Rogers.  Note that a 1980's sitcom, The Golden Girls acknowledged the character-switching.  In season 2, episode 24 "To Catch a Neighbor", the character Sophia (played by Estelle Getty),  has a dialogue in which she tells her daugher Dorothy that she's going to their criminal neighbor's house because they need her experience, noting that she's lived through "two world wars, 15 vendettas, 4 operations and 2 Darrin's on Bewitched".

From my perspective, I think its appropriate to acknowledge how race was addressed on television in the years that followed the late 1960's civil rights battles (including such notable U.S. Supreme Court victories as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and Loving v. Virginia).  While those legal issues may have been resolved, public acceptance among many still lagged the Courts, and continue to this day.

The origins of the Bewitched episode "Sisters At Heart" show were actually quite noble.  Actress Elizabeth Montgomery and her then-husband/producer William Asher had visited a Los Angeles area high school Thomas Jefferson High. It was early in 1970 and they were touched by the plight of the students at that school, especially the minority students, some of whom they stayed in touch with through their graduations.  Because of that interaction, they also took an idea that the students themselves came up with, and turned it into an episode of Bewitched.  Elizabeth Montgomery even gave a special message to the audience before the show including acknowledgement of the show's sponsor Oscar Mayer.

The episode originally aired on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1970, and yet these days, you might legitimately wonder how the episode ever made it on the air.  The episode was called "Sisters At Heart" began with Tabitha introducing her friend (who is African-American) and McMahon-Tate wanting to entertain a new client. The client wants to investigate the home life of the people he's working with. The client also happens to be a racist. Tabitha and her friend declare themselves as "sisters" and the African-American child answers the door when the client enters. The client assumes that Darrin Stevens has a black child. Tabitha's friend then tells the client that she has a white sister.  After the meeting, Tabitha tries to rationalize how they could be sisters. First, Tabitha makes both girls white.  Then she makes them both black, but remember, she's a child who hasn't mastered the art of "wishcraft" yet.  She finally tries again and they both end up polka-dotted with the other girl's skin color as dots.

In 1970, rather than generating an outcry for showing blackface on network television, the show was actually awarded a special Emmy. These days, some would likely completely lose it if actors appeared in blackface on national television regardless of the reason.  But "Sisters At Heart" now stands as a rather unique piece of television history.  Indeed, the late Elizabeth Montgomery stated this was one of her favorite episodes of Bewitched.

But the episode stands out for another reason in my mind.  The fact that the African-American characters are never seen again on the show, not even the character Keith Wilson (played by actor Don Marshall), who supposedly worked at McMann-Tate, the advertising firm where Darrin is employed, nor is daughter Lisa Wilson (played by Venetta Rogers) ever seen again.

It wasn't only Bewitched that stumbled on the race issue in the 1970's with odd, one-off depictions of characters who are never mentioned again, many other TV series did things in a very similar way.  Only legendary TV writer and producer Norman Lear, who began with the smash hit All In the Family, really included some of the first African-Americans (others featured black cast members, even if those weren't always regular cast members).  Mr. Lear pushed the proverbial racial envelope even further in subsequent years with several hit sitcoms featuring African-American casts, including Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times.  The Jeffersons, in particular, was among the most popular, running for an impressive 11 seasons, making it one of the longest-running sitcoms in the history of American television.

Although content rights come and go, for the time-being the "Sisters at Heart" episode can be seen at http://dai.ly/x2q5030, or below:

Bewitched S07 E13 - Sisters at Heart

December 21, 2016

Bye Bye, Darling. Death of Zsa Zsa Gabor.

On December 18, 2016, we lost celebrity Zsa Zsa Gabor (see her obituary at http://lat.ms/2hJBnpL, note that she changed her name from Sari to Zsa Zsa), a Hungarian-American celebrity, who began her celebrity existence with a title of Miss Hungary in 1936.  In  1941, shortly before the Russians installed a puppet government in Hungary in 1943, her family fled the country and ultimately ended up in the U.S.  Her parents were both of Jewish ancestry (although they were reportedly not adherent to their faith), necessitating their immigration from Europe in World War II.  She was the last of the three famous Gabor sisters to die: her sisters were Magda and Eva, each of whom became celebrities in their own right.  Zsa Zsa was considered the epitome of twentieth-century glamour and celebrity, but it's the twenty-first century now, and Zsa Zsa's later years were not especially kind to her.  Her famous catch-phrase was to call everyone "darling" in her distinctive Hungarian accent (which came out "dah-link"), usually because she had forgotten or never bothered to learn their names (often because of alcohol-induced intoxication).

A 1958 movie ad for one of the films that featured Zsa Zsa Gabor
Zsa Zsa's older sister was Magda Gabor, and she was perhaps the least famous of the three Gabor sisters (she passed away in 1997), and her younger sister was Eva Gabor (and considered to be the nicest and perhaps most talented of the Gabor sisters, perhaps best known for her TV role as Lisa Douglas on the late 1960's TV sitcom Green Acres and vocal talents as Miss Bianca in Walt Disney's 1977 animated movie The Rescuers, and she also operated a very successful wig business; but she passed away in 1995).

What was the Gabor's appeal?

A photo of a younger Zsa Zsa Gabor
First of all, as movies and photos from the 1950's era attest, the Gabor sisters were attractive (and they all worked very hard at being beautiful — one of her many ex's [Mr. Hilton's] chief complaints about Zsa Zsa Gabor was that it could take her several hours to get ready just to go out someplace).  But the Gabor sisters were perhaps the first generation of people who were more famous for being famous, rather than because of any innate talent or skill.  (see an A&E movie at https://youtu.be/_ItYkQ0Cfmg)

Zsa Zsa was more famous for her off-screen antics than for her entertainment talents.  She was married  nine times, and her only child Francesca resulted from her marriage to the late hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (Francesca died at the age of 67 in January 2015).  In Zsa Zsa Gabor's 1991 memoir "One Lifetime Is Not Enough", she claimed the baby had been conceived after she was allegedly raped by the hotel tycoon.  But her marriage to Mr. Hilton was also reported to be one of her only marriages that was not for love, but for money, so we may never really know.

In 1989, Zsa Zsa (in)famously slapped a Beverly Hills police officer in the face and yelled vulgar obscenities at him from her Rolls Royce, and she even spent some time in prison for that incident.  The judge stated that she already had a prior criminal record, adding that Ms. Gabor had been convicted in Britain of hitting another police officer with her purse, and was fined $5,000 for that incident.

Zsa Zsa & then-husband Conrad Hilton sometime in the 1950's
In 1991, Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared on daytime talk-show The Phil Donahue Show to promote her then-new autobiography, which we know was ghost-written on her behalf.  But by that time, it was really a tell-all about her many lovers and marriages.  She denied sleeping with them all, and often joked about never sleeping with a man unless he agreed to marry her first.  That is on YouTube below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/Wj5sOfWZbtM.

In 1994, she and TV talk-show host David Letterman drove around Los Angeles stopping at different fast food joints (see a clip at https://youtu.be/fEn8QdI8-24 for more), which kind of epitomized her self-mocking celebrity humor, especially in her later days.

Zsa Zsa Gabor did have some legitimate 'acting' credits (although mostly cameo appearances) to her name, having appeared in some 40+ films, including both American and European films, starring as herself in the movie A Very Brady Sequel in 1993, as well as a number television movies and TV shows (including an appearance on the sitcom Gilligan's Island in 1965, on Batman in 1968, as a cast-member on the soap opera As the World Turns in 1981 and on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1991 to name a few, see more by visiting http://bit.ly/2hSVVMr).  Perhaps her most famous acting credit was for the original 1952 film production of Moulin Rouge.  But she was never considered true, Oscar-worthy acting talent, and to her credit, she often parodied herself in some movie and TV appearances.  According to her longtime publicist, the official cause of her death was heart failure, but TMZ reported that she had a heart attack.

An older, frailer Zsa Zsa Gabor in more recent years
At the time of her death, Zsa Zsa Gabor herself was reportedly age 99 (we now know her actual date of birth was February 6, 1917), although throughout her life, she routinely lied about her true age, so the public was always left to speculate about her real age.  But we know that prior to her death, she had been in a steadily declining state of health.  She suffered head and other injuries which left her in a wheelchair, and then suffered a stroke in 2005.  In 2010, she underwent hip-replacement surgery, but in 2011, her right leg was amputated above the knee in order to save her life from an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Whether Zsa Zsa Gabor will be remembered for much outside of her narcissistic, gold-digging behavior will only be seen over time.  But while she was alive, she certainly made a name for herself, and lived her life to the fullest.

December 3, 2016

Jell-O: A Processed Food Icon Struggles to Retain It's Relevance in the 21st Century

As recently as the mid-1980's, Jell-O was one of the twentieth-century's biggest, supermarket food brands and was still a very common staple in many American homes (the top-selling gelatin brand was Jell-O, although rival brands popped up including Royal which is now part of the Jel Sert Corporation's offerings after changing hands a few times, as well as various store brands and a few now-defunct brands, such as Boston Crystal Gelatine, circa 1910 also existed).  Gelatin sold in the U.S. is a coagulated protein/collagen substance (that usually comes from cow and pig hooves and bones, which otherwise would have been a discarded byproduct of meat production).  But as a processed food, the cooking element comes when people add fruit or other ingredients to powdered gelatin mixes along with boiling water.  In addition to fruits like pears, oranges, peaches, etc., and people soon discovered that various other types of foods like olives, peas, carrots, celery, tomatoes, radishes, onions, tunafish, shrimp ... pretty much any food you could imagine, could become encased in Jell-O!  Hence, the Jell-O "salad" was the embodiment of this.

Origins of Jell-O

Jell-O's origins actually began just before the twentieth century began.  In 1845, Peter Cooper dabbled with and patented a product which was "set" with gelatin. Suffice it to say, it never really "jelled" with the American public. Then, in 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in the small town of LeRoy, New York was making a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. He experimented with gelatin and came up with a fruit-flavored dessert which his wife, May, named Jell-O. He tried to market his product but he lacked the capital and the experience. In 1899 he sold his formula to a fellow townsman for the sum of $450.  The product, and the brand, changed hands a number of times more, before becoming a stand-alone company.  But around 1902 or so, ads for Jell-O began appearing in publications like Ladies Home Journal magazine.

Around that time, the product changed from being a hand-packaged business to a highly-mechanized factory, and at that time became one of LeRoy, New York's most important industries.  In 1964, Jell-O left its upstate New York hometown to make its way in the wider world.  Now, Jell-O brand gelatin is reportedly manufactured by Kraft in a plant in Dover, Delaware as of 2015.  A Jell-O Museum still exists in Jell-O's hometown of LeRoy, a few minutes off of the New York State Thruway but that's pretty much all that remains there aside from a few boxes of Jell-O sold in the local stores.  But the company's unique advertising and merchandising breakthroughs developed a phenomenal record for this product.  On December 31, 1925 the Jell-O Company, Inc. was sold to what was then known as the acquisition-crazy Postum Cereal Company, Inc. by exchange of stock, thereby becoming the first subsidiary of a merger that would eventually become General Foods Corporation, which would later be merged with Kraft by tobacco company owners at Philip Morris and then, later, spun off as Kraft Foods, only to be merged with Heinz foods in a merger orchestrated by private equity managers.

Utah's Peculiar Role

Strangely, gelatin desserts are especially popular in the state of Utah (see HERE for more).  Utah food culture, if one can call it that, can basically be dubbed Mormon cuisine.  One of the reasons for its popularity in there is because gelatin salads are relatively cheap to make, and homemakers are able to make them colorful and interesting as a way of brightening up the dinner table – it's a way to be creative on a budget.  It may well be that's a reason Jell-O remains so popular in Utah, since that state is more religiously homogeneous than most other states, and has a great deal of Latter Day Saints' (LDS) activities like church potluck suppers that drive the product's usage there.

According to a 2001 article in The Atlantic (see http://theatln.tc/2jdH0vS for the article), the love of Jell-O resonates so deeply there that in 2001, Utah narrowly beat out Iowa in annual Jell-O consumption, when state officials elected Jell-O as the official state snack and even named Bill Cosby, who was the brand's longstanding spokesman back in the 1980's, as an honorary Utah citizen (this was likely before Mr. Cosby's sex abuse scandals became common knowledge).

A Packaged Food Giant Emerges

Jell-O's development mirrors the beginning of one of American packaged foods' giants.  Along with that business came some very effective marketing of the product itself.  As noted, by the 1950's, American homemakers were eagerly buying processed foods to save themselves hours of prep time in the kitchen.  It was viewed at that time as modern convenience and a way of improving one's life by making the laborious task of cooking a bit easier.

Processed foods now constitute, plus or minus, about 70% of what most Americans eat.  In recent years, the term "processed food" has become a synonym for unhealthy foods, often junk foods.  To some degree, that's true.  However, virtually ALL of of the food and drink we consume is processed to some extent.  Any alteration to foods, including cooking, is a process; hence, in the modern diet, it's nearly impossible to find someone who consumes a wholly unprocessed diet.  In addition, many foods when unprocessed are simply unpalatable and/or indigestible.

But there are various degrees of food processing, ranging from minimally-processed foods (such as dried beans, fresh baby carrots, a carton of milk or a head of lettuce one buys in the produce aisle at the supermarket) to ultra-processed (such as cookies, dried pasta, chicken nuggets, for example).  Typically, the more processed a food, the less nutritious it becomes.  Most highly-processed foods are characterized as having very high energy density (packing lots of calories in small volumes of food), low in vitamins and other nutrition and their consumption is usually aided by extensive ad campaigns. Ultra-processed foods are also usually confectioned out of refined, nutrient-depleted ingredients.  Their over-consumption has been associated with obesity and various other ailments worldwide.  Some processed foods have even been described as 'edible, food-like substances' since they actually contain ingredients which are edible, but aren't really food!  For example, the Twinkie dessert cake (see http://goo.gl/RUlww7 for my post on that), contains ingredients which are actually MINED, not grown or farmed as one might expect just to provide one example (see http://www.twinkiedeconstructed.com/ for more information)!

Processing food in itself is not really the problem that is faced by public health experts; rather it is the degree of processing and the displacement of otherwise nutritious ingredients with less-than-nutritious or even harmful ingredients instead, sometimes to an extensive or even exclusive degree (usually by adding a lot of salt, sugar and fat), that concerns public health professionals.

Regardless, as noted, food processing was not always seen as the pariah it is today.  Following World War II, food processing was rightly viewed by housewives of the day as a big time-saving miracle, and it did make many housewives' lives vastly easier.

I've written about various food products, such as Pillsbury Space Food Sticks (see my post at http://goo.gl/mq56s4), and cereal (see http://goo.gl/m8wpb0) in the past.  However, as I've written in some of my other posts on food (catch my post on the "Dead Celebrity Cookbook" at http://goo.gl/50BQEh), once upon a time, a majority of Americans ate meals they (or someone in their household) actually cooked for themselves, rather than simply reheated already-prepared food in a microwave oven, in a skillet, ordered for delivery, or took prepared food home from their local supermarket, or any variation of this theme.

Today, cooking is something that many people watch celebrity chefs do on TV (and occasionally amateurs who have considerably less skills in the kitchen, just ask anyone who's ever watched Worst Cooks in America on Food Network if you need proof), but don't do much of themselves.  It's not that Americans can't cook, it's that our busy lifestyles make it far less practical today, combined with the convenience of buying something that's ready to simply heat up.  While celebrities cooking was probably more of a publicity ploy back in the 1950's through the 1970's, historically, that responsibility often fell on the stay-at-home housewives who cared for the home, children and made sure meals were on the table for their husbands when they came home from work.

But that whole idea of gender-specific roles went out the window in the 1970's, when a combination of factors including stagflation resulted in a mass of women entering the workforce not necessarily by choice, but by economic necessity, plus widespread divorce that impacted Generation X, and the women's lib(eration) movement, all of which pretty much made stay-at-home housewives an anachronism of days long passed (check out my post about a woman who gave modern feminism one of its anthems at http://goo.gl/cYgDPF).  Some tried to follow it as closely as they could, but the American family of that era more resembled One Day at a Time's Ann Romano's family (see my post on her at http://goo.gl/DSznq) more than it did Leave It To Beaver's June Cleaver's 1950's idealized version.

Jell-O: A Miracle of Processed Foods

All of this brings me back to my topic du jour: the food product many of us know by the brand name Jell-O.  As already noted, there are/were competitors, including Royal gelatin and My*T*Fine puddings, both of which are now made by The Jel Sert Company, as well as many generic store brands, and as I'll note later in this post, even Kosher (and also halal) and vegan/vegetarian versions of the product) aren't very easy to find.  But Jell-O pretty much set all the standards by which all competitors followed, at least in the last century.

As noted, Jell-O has a long history in the U.S., having been introduced back in 1845, and it was one of the most successful processed, packaged foods sold from the 1950's through the 1970's.  My own great grandfather once ran (his part ended in 1926) one of the many companies General Foods had acquired over the years.  General Foods as it was known for a number of years and would later become part of what is now known as Kraft (a spinoff called Modelez International separated the massive baked goods and cracker/cookie business including Nabisco), although General Foods itself was considered one of the best U.S. consumer goods marketers in the post-WW II era.

General Foods Corporation's logos
In many important respects, General Foods' marketing was superior to even Kraft's.  General Foods (as noted above, was known at one point as the Postum Cereal Company before taking the General Foods' name, which would later be sold off; today the cereal business persists and is known as a stand-alone company called Post Cereals) used creative recipes to market its products, and quite successfully I might add, catch my cereal post at http://goo.gl/m8wpb0 for some more examples).

Michigan State University Library has an interesting, scanned document called "Jell-O Gelatin's Hostess Guide" which was published in 1967. They describe it as follows:  "There are 38 cards in this collection. The first card has the title on the front panel and the table of contents on the back. The remaining cards have a description of the party or event for which one is preparing a meal, and the back panels have recipes."

Visit https://www.lib.msu.edu/exhibits/sliker/detail.jsp?id=1802 to have a look.

They also have an Adobe Acrobat version which can be downloaded at:


All of this demonstrates some of the General Foods' innovation in reaching consumers in the late 1960's.  Note that this was a recipe-card sized booklet that could be distributed in supermarkets, but enabled homemakers to retain the cards in their recipe files, as many did (and still do), as the 3x5 cards are easy for a cook to refer to as they assemble the ingredients in a recipe.

Ladies magazines of the day (think of titles like "Ladies Home Journal" and "Good Housekeeping" just to name a few, for more see https://goo.gl/xqqBNn for details) featured various recipes for using the processed food products -- initially in articles, then later in advertising inserts, while supermarkets often featured free recipe cards near the products themselves in racks found in the aisles of the stores and maybe even product demonstrations in stores (today, retailers like Costco still deploy this).

The company's many recipes were featured in newspapers, magazines and sent via direct mail.  I won't bore you with a long company history, although you can catch a few relevant pieces of its lengthy history HERE and HERE and HERE or https://www.scribd.com/doc/248082864/General-Foods-Corporate-Timeline in case you're curious.

As already noted, General Foods was previously considered, along with several other companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Kellogg, and Unilever, as a master marketer and a king of the supermarket aisles.  Even today, a number of the company's drink mixes remain on the market and are still being sold by Kraft including Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, and Maxwell House Coffee remains a marquee brand for the company.

Other big General Foods' brands include Minute Rice (and Minute Tapioca, where the brand name originated), and Jell-O gelatins and puddings endure under Kraft ownership, although other products have morphed over the years.  For example, Dream Whip instant whipped topping mixes, Kool-Aid and Crystal Light drink mixes are still sold by Kraft largely in their original formats, as are Cool Whip frozen dessert toppings, Stove Top instant stuffing and others.  But the company discontinued brands such as D-Zerta sugar-free dessert mixes (re-branding them as sugar-free Jell-O, which was probably a good idea).  Other brands that company created still exist today, even though they're not necessarily under the same corporate umbrella anymore.  These include Grape Nuts, Alpha Bits, Honeycomb, Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles breakfast cereals, and Birdseye frozen vegetables to name a few.

To understand the reason for their marketing success, just imagine all the time-savings all of those modern, processed foods provided for a housewife of the day.  Instead of cooking for hours, they could cook a meal in considerably less time (remember, this was at least 25 years before the microwave oven would be introduced).  It's little wonder why General Foods was so incredibly popular (and successful) back in the day.  Alas, all of that kind of ended when women had more to do than just prepare meals for the family; they actually had to bring home the bacon, too.  Their priorities shifted.  To be sure, Kraft has been pretty good at identifying trends and adapting to them for the times.  For example, back in the 1990's, the company recognized hardly anyone was still at home cooking anymore, so they repackaged prepared Jell-O gelatin and puddings into refrigerated items people could buy for consumption at home already-made; today the company sells products like prepared Jell-O gelatin and pudding cups which can typically be found in the dairy aisle of supermarkets in the U.S..  The Jell-O brand endures largely because of those innovations or migrations from the company.

The Wonders of Processed Foods in Your Kitchen, With Help from General Foods' Chefs

1959 General Foods Kitchens Cookbook
As noted, from their marketing machine of the 1950's through the 1970's, the company employed a large team of chefs who were tasked with developing recipes that people could make using General Foods' large portfolio of processed foods.  That era was really known for "better living through chemistry", with new and inventive processed foods that were convenient to use.  In 1959, the company even published a hardcover cookbook entitled "General Foods Kitchens Cookbook".  General Foods took full advantage of this, and the company developed hundreds of (or more) recipes for suburban housewives to show off their culinary skills while stretching their family's food budget. While some of these recipes were actually quite good; others deservedly belong in the culinary trash heap of history.

Today, I'm going to talk about some of the less memorable aspects of Jell-O.  Most obvious, perhaps, is the Jell-O mold, one of the biggest creations of the brand that endures, albeit not at the same level it once enjoyed.  To be sure, some people still regularly make Jell-O molds (Does your local Tupperware dealer sell them anymore?  What, no Tupperware dealer?!  Welcome to 2016!), and these tend to be desserts or sweetened side-dishes rather than the meals themselves.  But some did try to change that paradigm, by creating "meal" recipes out of gelatin.  There are some, let's just call them, questionable (gross?) variations of this theme, including a 1938 recipe for Sauerkraut Jell-O, which can be found in print in the cookbook "Mama's in the Kitchen: Weird and Wonderful Home Cooking 1900-1950" if you're really interested, but if you visit http://goo.gl/Bbj5XS someone has saved you the trouble of getting the actual cookbook from where this recipe was found, plus the recipe was reduced in size (its better to sample this recipe first before making enough to feed an army!).  This points to a broader vision of using processed foods like Jell-O to make the household chore of cooking for one's family easier.

At its extreme, just imagine that back in the 1950's and 1960's, when supermarket shoppers could actually buy vegetable-flavored gelatin mixes!!  Jell-O flavors like celery, seasoned tomato and mixed vegetable were on sold on store shelves across America.  These weren't just desserts, they were meant to be part of the meals themselves!  They were molded Jell-O salads that featured fish or meats, vegetables, etc., although the recipes sometimes contained the term aspic rather than Jell-O or gelatin.  Modern variations use the term too, and often rely on Knox unflavored gelatin rather than sweetened, fruit-flavored varieties commonly sold today.

Today, while a few original Jell-O flavors remain (lime, for example), many other flavors have largely come and gone, although they may remain in certain geographic areas.  As noted, remember that plain Knox gelatin mix remains on the market and the cook can add whatever flavors they might imagine, including celery if that floats their boat.  A few, like pistachio Jell-O pudding mixes are still around, although even those are harder to find on supermarket shelves nowadays (many only carry vanilla and chocolate and those may even be the retailers' own store-brands), although creative chefs can find the products available for sale online and mailed to them, that takes time and you usually pay for shipping, too.  Not all of the original products remain; for example, D-Zerta sugar-free whipped topping mix, which was a non-dairy dessert topping (at least before assembly by the cook) that someone could make at home (it was also made with gelatin as a main ingredient) are no longer sold, although the sugar-laden variety known as Dream Whip remains on the market.  Enterprising cooks have created their own versions of these products (see http://goo.gl/Z5CyG5 for example) and some are quite good, but the idea of using processed foods to save time does kind of go out the window when one has to recreate the processed food products used in various recipes at home.

These days. Jell-O has some major problems of its own.  In 2012, an article entitled "Jell-O can't stop slippery sales slide" pretty much summarized the situation (see it on CNBC at http://ow.ly/B67y306MyWM for more).  It simply isn't as popular as it once was, and the assembly part of the product required of the cook is a big reason.  True, ready-made varieties of Jell-O gelatin and puddings (such as Jell-O Temptations) sold in the dairy aisle are out there and seem to be doing reasonably well, but the classic boxes of powdered Jell-O gelatin and pudding mixes on the supermarket shelves tend to be more slow-moving in today's era.  Also, the ingredients are full of many of the things modern shoppers try to avoid, including a cheap alternative to sugar called high-fructose corn syrup which surveys show shoppers would rather avoid, as well as bright, artificial colors which are another thing shoppers would prefer not to be in their food.

As the article noted: "Part of the problem is that people have become more finicky about what they eat. They're increasingly seeking out foods they think are natural or wholesome, and Jell-O's bright reds, greens and blues may inadvertently serve as warning signals to moms about the artificial dyes they contain." The second ingredient listed for the prepared Jell-O gelatin cups is also high-fructose corn syrup, a cheaper sugar substitute that more and more people are shunning, so their marketing machine may still be asleep at the wheel!

Nutrition more broadly is another issue. Jell-O has long positioned itself as a "lighter" alternative to cakes and pies (as one slogan went, "There's always room for Jell-O"). But the trend now is toward foods that claim some sort of benefit, such as protein and fiber.

The article notes: "Even for those who have fond memories of eating Jell-O, the problem is just that — it's a treat associated with the past."

Whether Kraft (which merged with Heinz), now divested of many products including the big portfolio of Nabisco cookies and crackers (spun off to a new company called Mondelez, noted above) that dominated so much of its marketing budget for years can turn things around remains to be seen.  To be sure, bloggers using unflavored Knox gelatin have emerged online and I would think Kraft should be encouraging more of such activity (though Knox is not in Kraft's list of brands anymore), but turning Jell-O into a trendy product when so many people still associate it with Bill Cosby who hasn't endorsed the product in years is yet another challenge for the brand.

Today, some enterprising 21st century people went through their grandmother's old recipes (many came directly from the companies, including inserts found in magazines or even microwave ovens of the day) and made cookbooks from stuff housewives once got for free.  I'll bet they never dreamed their great granddaughters would be able to sell this stuff, but they are doing it now.

Some of the most humorous food inventions from those days are actually kind of vile.  Check out some photos of ads from Jell-O in the post below, or at https://flic.kr/s/aHskPPayoG:

Odd Jell-O Salads

It's logical to ask why would someone would want to put vegetables and canned foods (Shrimp? Spam?  Yep ... they were all in Jell-O recipes back in the day) in gelatin nowadays?  It seems a bit of a stretch.  Although a number of bloggers have gone on record having tried some if not all of the recipes they uncovered from a generation ago.  My personal favorites are the cookbook entitled "Hello, Jell-O!" and "Jell-O: A Biography - The History and Mystery of America's Most Famous Dessert", with the latter one being more of a history book than a recipe book, and almost all are sweetened recipes for Jell-O rather than using the product in other ways.  Each has their merits, but for those simply not into eating gelatin, the history book might be the better choice.  Check them out at your public library.

With all of this in mind, if you adhere to a Kosher (similar to halal) diet which requires that the gelatin be made from an animal collagen other than pork (so beef gelatin can be Kosher, even if its not vegetarian), or you're a vegetarian or vegan (by the way, there ARE variations of gelatin made from plants, usually referred to as agar powder, which is actually made from seaweed, but getting those things may cost you, and the consistency [and preparation]), gelatin options may not be exactly the same and aren't sold by Kraft.  Some natural food purveyors do sell these alternatives.  But if Kraft is really serious about taking the brand into the 21st century, they might look at selling, Kosher, halal, vegan and vegetarian versions of the product, knowing that the old, 19th century versions are now having more trouble finding consumers, even if they are still popular in Utah.  But for a brand that once sold salad-flavored gelatins (including tomato, mixed vegetable and celery flavors), I would think such innovations really shouldn't be especially problematic, but what do I know?

November 7, 2016

MTV Classic's Introdution

This summer (in August 2016), there was news (see the Rolling Stone article at http://rol.st/2aN2igZ for more), that Viacom's beleaguered MTV unit would do something it had never done before: admit that it was aging.

Well, not exactly.

What Viacom did was intended to be a nostalgic look at MTV's role as a cultural vanguard in American youth culture.  In reality, the media company was trying to recreate that feeling as much as it was trying to reuse old programming that MTV had developed.

Remember, in 2011, Nathaniel Brown, then an MTV executive said:

"MTV as a brand doesn't age with our viewers," explained Nathaniel Brown, [then] senior vice president of communications for MTV, who confirmed that there were no plans for an on-air MTV celebration. "We are really focused on our current viewers, and our feeling was that our anniversary wasn't something that would be meaningful to them, many of whom weren't even alive in 1981."

Catch the media conglomerate's TV commercial at https://youtu.be/MNzS1Hk-sLs for more on the introduction of MTV Classic.

The real challenge is that this is "classic" network is geared mainly towards MTV's second iteration (not its first, hence the term "classic" is kind of a misnomer), with original MTV programs like the animated cartoon Daria, Beavis & Butt-Head and Pimp My Ride, all of which usurped the network's first generation of programming which consisted almost exclusively of music-related content including music videos and concerts.

Unfortunately, the youth of 2016 looks quite different from youth of 1990, not to mention the youth of 1981.  Much of the content today is on-demand and watched from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, on channels like YouTube, where some of the most successful content is actually created by young people themselves.  That makes MTV's recent introduction of "MTV Classic" far from a guaranteed success with the core youth demographic.

NPR had an interesting story on the news at https://n.pr/2asPkXx:

It's an acknowledgement of sorts (marking MTV's 35th anniversary), but it's unclear just how successful the launch will be (heck, the youth of today are more cord-cutters than any group in history, check out this Mashable article at http://on.mash.to/1ojqRXL for more) doesn't even subscribe to cable (though they may get it if they still live with Mom & Dad), so its unclear just how successful MTV's recent move will be, but who knows?!

Regardless, this isn't stopping the media giant from trying.

November 3, 2016

S&H Green Stamps

Andy Warhol created several of his now-famous prints of them in 1962 (and another in 1965), one of which sold at a Sotheby's auction in 2013 for $6,875 (it previously belonged to Bernie Madoff).

The TV sitcom The Brady Bunch even featured an entire episode about them (Episode 15 from Season 1, entitled the "54-40 and Fight") which aired on January 9, 1970.  I'm talking about S&H Green Stamps.  In that Brady episode, the Brady's learn that a trading stamp company is going out of business. A fight breaks out over who should get all of the saved stamps, the boys or the girls. If the girls get them, they plan to buy a sewing machine, but if the boys get them, they want to buy a row boat.  In the end, they build a house of cards to determine who gets all of the trading stamps, and the girls win the contest, but they end up using the stamps to buy a color television set that the entire family can use (thanks to a little encouragement from Mrs. Brady).

The Brady Bunch in the "54-40 and Fight" episode

I recall going to the Green Stamps redemption center with my aunt in the 1970s when S&H announced the Green Stamp program was ending, or at the very least that redemption centers nationwide were closing.  At the time, the center looked similar to the one depicted in The Brady Bunch.  We ended up getting an electric fondue pot.

The Brady's called them "trading stamps", although I think most Americans knew them better as Green Stamps.  I'm referring to Sperry and Hutchinson's (S&H) Green Stamps (although S&H stamps were pink-colored in the UK).  The company then known as Sperry and Hutchison Co. was founded back in 1896 by Thomas Sperry of Cranford, New Jersey and Shelley Byron Hutchinson of Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Andy Warhol's 1962 print "S&H Green Stamps"
Indeed, Andy Warhol's art was depicting the famous S&H Green Stamps, not some generic trading stamps.  The stamps were somewhat similar to the kind sold in the U.S. Post Office (indeed, S&H once boasted that it issued three times as many stamps as the U.S. Postal Service).  They were essentially paper coupons with a gummed backing, cut into perforated squares and usually with a unique, colorful design and some serial numbers printed on them.  S&H Green Stamps were colored green except for the big red "S&H" logo in the center and a unique serial number of each stamp, presumably to control fraud.  Also, Green Stamps could not be used to mail any letters.

Historians have observed that by 1957, there were some 200 trading stamp companies in operation in the United States.  That meant that S&H Green Stamps weren't the only variety on the market back in those days, but they were certainly the largest and most successful, operating nationwide with extraordinary brand recognition.  Other trading stamps included Gold Bond, Gift House, Triple-S, Plaid Stamps, King Korn, Blue Chip, Top Value and others.  (see http://www.studioz7.com/stamps.html for more detail)

Several Different S&H Green Stamp Designs

Wikipedia reports that series of recessions decreased sales of green stamps and the stamp programs of their competitors. The value of the rewards also declined substantially during the same period, requiring either far more stamps to get a worthwhile item, or spending much more money for an item that was barely discounted from the price at regular retail stores, which created a general downward spiral as fewer and fewer people saw the stamps as worth the effort anymore.  Then, in 1972, the company was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court for violating the unfairness doctrine. In Federal Trade Commission v. Sperry & Hutchinson Trading Stamp Co., the court held that restricting the trade of the stamps was illegal (in other words, people were free to give or sell their stamps to others).

Sperry and Hutchinson was sold by the founders' successors in 1981. In 1999, it was purchased from a holding firm by a member of the founding Sperry family.  At that time, only about 100 U.S. stores were still even offering Green Stamps.  Eventually, with the rise of the internet and the world wide web, the company modified its practices, and it started offering "greenpoints" as rewards for online purchases.  But the program is nowhere near its peak in popularity of the early 1970's, and there is plenty of competition, mainly from the retailers themselves who used to rely on S&H to operate the stamp program on their behalf, only they are managing loyalty programs for themselves.

What exactly were trading stamps such as S&H Green Stamps, and how did they work?  Well, the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger described it this way:

"How cool was this: after you paid for groceries or gasoline you didn't just get change, you received stamps that could be redeemed for things you wanted!

This is not a tall tale told by parents or grandparents -- like walking two miles to school in waist-deep snow (up hill, both ways) -- it's exactly how S&H Green Stamps worked. "

The "currency" were the stamps themselves, usually pasted into coupon books which made it easier for cashiers at redemption centers owned and operated by S&H or the other trading stamp companies to count the number of stamps accumulated (one book, such as the one pictured above, was worth a specified number of stamps, in this case 1,200 stamps) and being redeemed.  Consumers could also get catalogs from S&H (or other trading stamp companies) showing the merchandise and how many stamps were required to get each item.

In other words, S&H Green Stamps were pretty much just predecessors to more modern electronic loyalty programs like Starbucks Rewards (although electronic, those points can only be used at Starbucks), or a newer program called Plenti Rewards being promoted by several companies including American Express, Nationwide insurance, Rite Aid drugstores, Expedia, Hulu, Macy's and ExxonMobil.  Outside the U.S., collaborative rewards programs are even more successful, including the popular AirMiles (https://www.airmiles.ca/) program in Canada.

Loyalty programs have been popular forever by retailers of all varieties.  For example, your local coffee shop, deli or dry cleaner might have a "punch card" system where they mark each purchase, and once you've accumulated a certain number of purchases, you might receive a free cup of coffee, soup, sandwich or free item to be dry cleaned.  It seems loyalty programs never die completely, but managing the outstanding rewards liability is a skill, and not every program is successful at managing that aspect.  For example, U.S. airlines have rightly been criticized for devaluing their "frequent flyer" programs with excessive blackout dates, restrictions, limitations, etc.  They've also added new fees for checked baggage.

Others have migrated from rewarding purchase frequency to rewarding the dollars actually spent with the airline (Delta Airlines was the first to modify its program this way, but most observers believe that all are likely to move in the same direction).  Starbucks, too, received some unfavorable press (see https://www.buzzfeed.com/venessawong/starbucks-changed-its-rewards-and-people-are-not-happy for more) for modifications it made to its reward program in 2016.  However, for retailers of any kind, they want to encourage loyalty, frequency AND spending.  But once a program is already in place, changes usually result in some customers being unhappy.  Finding the right balance is key.

As for trading stamps like S&H Green Stamps, those seem unlikely to return.  But S&H Green Stamps earned their rightful place in American folklore because the program had grown SO big.  Whether programs that rival Green Stamps' size emerge in the future remain to be seen.

November 1, 2016

A Gen X Perspective on the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016

I've always argued that generation lines are fuzzy (see one post at https://goo.gl/DPruQP for more).  At best, generations describe more of a common mindset.  The Wall Street Journal reports (see http://on.wsj.com/29CoIAC for the article) some commentary by Neil Howe, who along with co-author William Strauss, used the term "Millennials" in their book "Generations: The History of America's Future 1584 to 2069."  By Mr. Howe's estimate, Gen X is a group defined by parental divorce and indifference, and the date ranges in birth from 1961 to 1981.

"The old joke is that it [Gen X] was the first generation born when people took pills NOT to have children," he said. "Much of the culture turned actively anti-child.  The giant genre of the 60s and 70s was child-devil horror movies."  The U.S. fertility rate hit a low thanks to the intro of the birth control pill in the 1960's, plus the divorce rate accelerated to unprecedented rates, so children born into that era have been described as one of the least-nurtured groups in American history.

But Gen X doesn't wallow in self-pity as Baby Boomers and Millennials sometimes do (listen to some Boomer music or watch some of their movies if you need proof), rather Xers grew up fending for themselves, and learned that the ONLY institution we could depend on was ourselves.  Hence, long ago, Gen Xers developed an independent spirit and can-do attitude, and became more than capable of taking care of ourselves.  Boomer parents didn't do a great job looking after Xers as kids, and government was close to useless with an ineptitude caused by a complete lack of funding and public support.

Less anyone get the wrong idea, that's not to say that Gen X is explicitly anti-government, but our perspective most visibly manifests itself in outright Gen X hostility towards government infringement upon people's individual rights.  That's one reason why Gen X has led the way (and become quite good at navigating how to succeed) with issues like bans on same-sex marriage, restrictions on voting rights or police brutality going unpunished.  This means that not only did Gen X make marriage equality happen nationwide (Jim Obergefell, whose name is associated with the supreme court case that made it legal nationwide is a Gen Xer who was born in 1967), but they also see right-wing attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement as oppressive, and Gen X has learned to successfully use the courts to overturn many attempts at voter restrictions that Republicans have implemented.

Voting restrictions have lost in the courts in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas, Indiana and elsewhere, although its unclear whether all are complying.  The Republican party has been under a U.S. Supreme Court consent decree in place since 1982 because of previous voter intimidation efforts in New Jersey back in 1981.  Donald J. Trump has been actively encouraging vigilantism among his supporters by claiming the elections are "rigged" against his candidacy.  The Trump campaign's questionable "poll-monitoring" vigilantism (most often targeting racial minorities who tend to vote for Democrats), with supporters who call themselves "vote protectors" complete with phony, semi-official looking I.D. Badges that could be generated by vigilantes online at websites like stopthesteal.org which now threatens to extend the original decree against the Republican National Committee for another 8 years because it may held in contempt of that decree.  Slate is reporting (see http://slate.me/2fa0JMJ for more) that on October 1, 2016, U.S. District Judge John Michael Vazquez demanded that the Republican National Committee (RNC) provide certain documents in 24 hours.

Anyway, back to the actual campaigns.  The appeal of the campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" from Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump means absolutely nothing to kids who grew up when Xers did (or later), which could be a major problem for his candidacy.  Zilch.  Nada.  Zip.  It's all just empty words that doesn't mean anything.  Make no mistake, this is really a generational perspective, only the Baby Boomers-led campaigns don't quite know what to make of it, but its clear that Gen X and Millennials aren't quite necessarily rallying around that message.

For Gen X kids, most of whom were born in the late 1960's and 1970's, Mr. Trump couldn't have chosen a more irrelevant slogan, so he shouldn't be surprised if few of us are rallying around his candidacy.

I was born in April 1969.  The Baby Boomer Summer of Love and Woodstock all took place a few months afterwards.  The joke among many Gen X kids is that we weren't at Woodstock, but at least a few of us were likely conceived there!  But Gen X doesn't look back at those days with reverence, but a sense of having missed the big party.  We Gen Xers didn't get to celebrate, but many of us feel like we got stuck with the hangover.  Gen Xers were raised in the least child-friendly era in U.S. history.  Not only did more than half our parents get divorced when we were kids, but most of our mothers entered the workforce even if they didn't get divorced.  The latter issue wasn't completely their fault.  The OPEC oil embargo played a role, as did stagflation, but the point is that our childhoods were probably best remembered by waiting in long gas lines and inflation gobbling up our allowances so it wasn't worth as much a week later.  Oh yeah, and the Iranian revolution in 1979, during an era when America was making enemies around the world.  We also grew up amid racial riots, following the Stonewall riots and a "white flight" out of the cities, as well as hearing endless stories about how horrible Vietnam was, yet we have zero first-hand knowledge of any of that.  We don't understand what you're talking about when you say "make America great again".

That said, our parents were smart enough not to implement another draft, although that didn't stop them from sending troops to Grenada, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.  While Boomers had free love in the 1960's, when we Gen Xers came of age, we were taught that HIV could kill us, but what did they try to teach us?  Abstinence, like that's ever worked.  Making matters worse, they screwed us when came to education financing.  Gone were the days of being able to attend college tuition-free in some Western states.  Oh, and because so many Baby Boomers defaulted on their student loan debts, Congress re-classified student loan debts the only type of debt that could NEVER be charged-off in a bankruptcy court -- thanks for that, Boomers.  Once again, you got the party, but left the hangover for your kids.

I don't think there's really all that much from the past that Gen X kids really want to return to.  We grew up watching TV shows from the early 1970's fail at racial integration, at least initially. From our perspective, those days are best left in the past.

I acknowledge that neither political candidate is exactly loved, in fact, both the candidate the  GOP nominated and the nominee that Democrats elected BOTH have the highest disapproval rates in the history of Presidential elections.  Mrs. Clinton should not presume we are "with her" even if she is preferable to her opponents.  Both candidates also represent only the Baby Boomer generation of politicians, which is a problem.  While we may yet see other Boomer candidates in coming elections, their days of leading the country are thankfully nearing their natural end, and that won't happen a moment too soon from many Gen Xers' perspective.  Politico recently observed that (see http://politi.co/1K9zu1t for the article) Baby Boomers in Congress have given us nothing but years and years of gridlock; yet research shows Gen Xers will be more productive.  It's time to step aside Boomers.  Let Gen X lawmakers like Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (a lesbian) or New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (an African-American) have a chance to change a Congress best known for a culture wars and gridlock into something better as a "gift" from Baby Boomers' time in power.  We want a government that works for the people who elected them, not special interests who bought and paid for many of your campaigns.

The Boomer experience at the gas pump in 1960 vs. the Xer experience in 1973

Important Points of Comparison between Baby Boomers and Generation X:

Baby Boomers
Gen X
Rosa Parks' refusal to move to back of bus
Jonestown mass suicide
First nuclear power plant
Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez
Kennedy elected, then assassinated
Watergate scandal, Nixon resignation
Cuban Missile Crisis
Iranian hostage crisis
First moon landing
Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
Stonewall riots
Gay Marriage bans ruled unconstitutional
Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed
Rodney King beating