“Mad Men”: History on the Small Screen

The AMC show “Mad Men,” which is now in its fifth season, is set in a fictional Madison Avenue ad agency just as the ’60s begin. You can watch the show on a couple of different levels: keep one eye on the soap opera-y character interactions (that cad Don Draper and his affairs!–and that new wife! ); keep another eye on the fantastic costume design (sure, girdles were uncomfortable, but those fabrics are to die for); and keep your history eye open to the show’s constant references to the larger political happenings and social change of the early 60s. Characters on this show go down to Mississippi to register voters, mourn the death of Marilyn Monroe, or wonder whether to start taking the Pill (a relatively new option at this time), visit a few psychiatrists (only women, though.  I think Betty Draper/ Francis is suffering from the feminine mystique).

Here’s a timeline published by the New York Times that can help you follow along with the historical events embedded in the show. Here’s a piece about the show’s efforts to maintain linguistic accuracy (would a character actually have said “the medium is the message” in 1960, despite the fact that Marshall McLuhan didn’t coin this famous slogan until four years later?) Here’s a link to one of the many blog posts that have debated whether MM’s portrayal of the racism and sexism of the era is accurate, and whether this depiction works to glamorize the very problems being shown. And finally, just to prove how much mileage the average arts reporter has gotten out of writing about MM, here’s a piece about the historical accuracy of the cocktails that the members of the MM crew sip at every possible moment of the workday.

Iranian Hostages, Then and Now

The New York Times recently had this short video about the Iranian hostages, who were taken during Carter’s administration, and the Iranian situation as it now stands.  Think you might find it interesting.

Iranian Hostages

Yeltsin goes to Houston (really–Clear Lake) and and shops at Randall’s

“It was September 16, 1989 and Yeltsin, then newly elected to the new Soviet parliament and the Supreme Soviet, had just visited Johnson Space Center.  At JSC, Yeltsin visited mission control and a mock-up of a space station. According to Houston Chronicle reporter Stefanie Asin, it wasn’t all the screens, dials, and wonder at NASA that blew up his skirt, it was the unscheduled trip inside a nearby Randall’s location.  Yeltsin, then 58, ‘roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Asin. He told his fellow Russians in his entourage that if their people, who often must wait in line for most goods, saw the conditions of U.S. supermarkets, “there would be a revolution.’ ” Read the full blog/ article in the Chronicle here .  thanks to G.Campbell for this note. 

Executive Listening

Presidents have not immune to the wonders of technology. As soon as new devices were invented, political leaders put them to use. President Hayes installed the first office telephone.  It connected directly (and only) to the Treasury.  Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have experimented–some more extensively than others, with recording their conversations.  Historian Taylor Branch writes that the secret recordings of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon offer “a democratizing glimpse into how our government really works…. They humanize the institution of the presidency in a way that’s good for all Americans because we tend to think of these great impersonal institutional imperial forces and everything and forget that the president is a person like all of us: often flummoxed, sometimes passionate. A lot of things that perplex us, perplex them as well.”

Worst. Decade. Ever. (apparently not the 1970s afterall!)


They swear no babies were harmed in the making of this image.

They swear no babies were harmed in the making of this image.

Time mag ran a cover story in 2009 about the 00s, dubbing them “the worst decade ever.” The author of this article, Andy Serwer, cited the financial crash as the number one reason why the past ten years have been awful, but also advances the hypothesis that the 00s were the decade when all of the tough choices that the government has failed to make for the past century have come back to haunt us. Serwer points to the 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota as the poster child of this syndrome:

“How many other bridges, roads and dams are death traps–in–waiting? No one knows, but you can’t help wondering if squeezed maintenance budgets are making our country less safe. A 2005 report card on American infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers (which gave mostly C’s and D’s) estimated that the U.S. needed to spend $1.6 trillion to bring our roads, highways, bridges and dams into good shape. Sure, the engineers are looking for work but know that the U.S. spends only 2.4% of its GDP on infrastructure, as opposed to 5% in Europe and 9% in China. Here again, why should a politician spend money today to fix something that won’t collapse until tomorrow? Especially if he or she could get re-elected by cutting taxes instead.”

Ouch! It’s too true.

But take heart: Serwer also argues that “there’s a natural cycle to history”, and that unless you are a total pessimist who “believes that this country is in the throes of a deep and permanent decline”, you have to see the bright side and hope that the teens of this century will bring better things.

Do you agree that history operates in this type of logical manner? Not sure I do.

Who Loves The Seventies? Historians

For a while now, historians seem to have been stuck on the sixties as The Most Interesting Decade in American History. But a new wave of historical work is coming out that focuses instead on the decade that brought you Earth Day, Nixon, the oil crisis, tax revolts, the end of the Vietnam War, and the Sunbelt: the lovely Seventies. I hypothesize that this shift is happening because people like studying the decade in which they came of age–thus, baby boomer historians love thinking about the sixties, and the rising generation is just moving forward accordingly. But that’s just a theory.

A couple of handy historiographies (a “historiography” is a review of the work of other historians) have recently been published that can give a sense of the scope of new seventies work that’s coming out. Recently, in the Nation, journalist and historian Rick Perlstein talked about his experience writing a book about the seventies, and surveyed other recent books about the decade—books whose approaches range from cultural analysis (why disco?), to industrial history (the roots of offshoring), to political theory (the beginnings of 80s conservatism). In the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Dalton Conley, a sociologist, looked at recent work on the changes in the American family structure and race relations during that pivotal decade. Conley also argues that many of the defining features of today’s popular culture can be traced back to seventies innovations: “From hacker culture to hip-hop, from conceptual art to cyborgs, the 1970s was a time of experimentation whose fruits we can see all around us today (the Internet is and the trackball mouse are just two of those fruits).”

Remembering Katrina

Image from the Katrina's Kids Project; drawn by a young evacuee living in Houston in the aftermath of the storm.

Image from the Katrina's Kids Project; drawn by a young evacuee living in Houston in the aftermath of the storm.

Although it seems like just yesterday that we were hearing first-hand reports about the storm that provoked the devastating levee breaks in New Orleans and destruction across the Gulf, it’s actually been five years as of last week. Amid all of the anniversary coverage in the media, which can seem overwhelming, I’ve found it refreshing to return to this site, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank. This archive, maintained by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, collects memories from survivors, as well as photos and musings from other Gulf residents who want their memories of the area’s pre-Katrina history to reside in some official place. The “Collections” tab on the homepage is a list of links to Katrina-related collections on the Web, including a page hosting short documentaries by New Orleans filmmakers; another page of oral histories and photographs produced by the 102nd Military History Detachment from the Kansas Army National Guard; and a page full of drawings done by children who lived through the storm and the evacuation. If you have your own story to share, or an image you’d like to upload, the site features a prominent “Add to the Memory Bank” button.