An underutilized design history resource
When the new TimesMachine re-launched in 2013, a lot of people wrote about the technology behind it. The success of using a technology like mapping tiles to display a huge inventory of scanned pages gave the New York Times the ability to showcase archives in their native format. But it gave those of us interested in design history an additional benefit while perusing each day’s issue.
They left the advertisements in.
After hitting a dead end in my own personal research for the designer Erik Nitsche and work he did in the 40s, I took a chance on the TimesMachine, hoping for the best. I found not only what I was in search of, but also a treasure trove of advertising history that was long since forgotten.
The undertaking of graphic design history is one of fetishizing the ephemeral. Most graphic design objects were never meant to last more than a month, a year. In the case of newspaper advertising, they probably weren’t even thought about the following day. But when viewed through the TimesMachine it’s possible to see one hundred years worth of ephemera define an entire city’s interests, cultural shifts, and history.
To look at the New York Times Sunday edition during the post-war boom, one would assume the sole interest of United States capitalism was to dress our women as beautifully as possible. (And given today’s capitalist interests, I personally wouldn’t be against returning to that goal.)
What follows below is quite literally a handful of probably thousands of amazing ads (most of these cover the span of less than two full years). Each ad, when viewed from the present, telling a different trajectory for it’s owner.
Advertisements from big brands that still valued today.
Advertisements from stores since gone.
Advertisements that displayed a long-running visual language.
And advertising that changed its branding year to year.
For those interested in the work beyond women’s fashion, there are ads for men, for the cinema, and for modern transportation.
It’s not just anonymous works either. There are the famed signatures of artists like Andy Warhol, Erik Nitsche, and Paul Rand. Many of the works I came across are rarely seen today, if at all.
And here lies my biggest concern about how the New York Times has positioned the TimesMachine. In it’s attempt to contextualize the history of its news it has bypassed a huge swath of context and historical information by choosing not to OCR, index, or simply tag its own ads. Just like we designers only see the design, so too journalists only value the journalism. Why bother indexing the things that made that journalism possible? And why even acknowledge there might be value in it still today?
Its certainly a loss for design history, but its also a folly for the Times itself. With the recent success of Mad Men and other mid-century revivals, the New York Times has missed an opportunity to bring more attention to its archives. Perhaps one of us will need to take it upon ourselves to catalog and highlight this underutilized resource.
Immediately after publishing this piece Evan Sandhaus from the New York Times reached out to me over Twitter. He made sure to direct me to Madison, a project from the Times that is attempting to solve the advertisement tagging problem I discussed.
Madison is just the type of project I’d love to see more people use. I appreciate that the Times is putting effort behind the archiving process for their ads. There’s a decent interface for users to tag the ads by company, and even a section for users to input full text. Madison is a simple enough project that it feels like anyone can contribute. I hope many will.
If you’re interested in creating things like this yourself, you could do me a huge solid and sign up for Atavist, a simple but powerful publishing tool.