The main reason I went to Columbia, SC to the South Carolina State Museum was to see an exhibition on a famous ad campaign of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the clothes that the ads inspired. I almost forgot about it, and I must thank April for reminding me. I’ve written about this series of ads, conceived by the owner and president of Springs Mills, Colonel Elliott White Springs, so in order to best enjoy this post, I suggest you read it first.
Colonel Springs was a WWI flying ace and a real character. It seems as though he didn’t really want to be in the textile business, but what can a man do when he inherits six or so mills? In Springs’s case, he took over the mills, but in order to satisfy his creative urges he turned ad man as well. His story is well documented in a book he wrote, Clothes Make the Man, which is a collection of his letters (some of them written to a fictional character, Joe Fisk) with some short stories and company history thrown in. The book was sold through the ads; you sent him a dollar and he sent you a book.
The ads, which were first used in 1947, used sexual innuendo and double-entrendres along with paintings of girls showing their underwear. At the time, they were terribly risque, but today would get not a second look. The ads caused an avalanche of protest among other companies and the public. There were days when Springs received over a thousand letters, mainly from women, complaining about the campaign.
Many of the letters were printed in the book, and the exhibition had lots of them scattered around to read. It’s really interesting to read that women were actually complaining about ads that used a woman’s body to sell products. Could it be that the 1950s housewife was really a feminist?
Colonel Springs operated on the idea that there was no such thing as bad publicity, and he was right. The ads continued in various forms until he died in 1959. The company was wildly successful, with the main weaving factory containing 8000 looms.
In 1948 Colonel Springs got the idea to make printed fabrics based on the girls in the ad campaign. There were several different fabrics developed, and Springs had them made into all kinds of products.
No photos were allowed in the exhibition, but I did stand outside and take a few shots of the clothes. One thing that really impressed me was how the Springs family kept everything. After reading about so many companies who threw all their historical records away, it was a treat to find one that seemed to have an idea of its cultural and historical importance. All the items on display are from the Springs Close Family Archive.
All the pictures on the walls are the original artwork for the ads. The second one, the girl with her skirt flying up, was the first ad in the campaign.
The first garment is a sports set of a crop top and a skirt and is made from the original print. It still has the Cole of California tags attached. The other two outfits, the little girl’s and the woman’s, are from a print called Persian. The woman’s dress was by designer Carolyn Schurner. Note the matching handbag.
This is a a view of Persian from the Spring 1951 issue of American Fabrics.
In the case in the background, you can see a cape. I thought it was a ladies cape, but they had an ad in which Colonel Springs himself was wearing it. In later years he assumed a fake persona, Martin McMartin St. Martin, for some of the ads, and this is the cape he wore in the ads. The shirt is from a print I’d never seen, and it looks like a Hawaiian shirt with sailboats and a bathing beauty, with the Springs name thrown in.
The plaid coat, which is lined in the Persian print, belonged to Colonel Springs. His chair in his office was upholstered in the same plaid. The other jacket is made from the Persian print.
This short video tells more about Colonel Springs and his famous campaign.
Today, we have come to accept the fact that sex sells. The scandalous Springs ads seem quaint to us. But there is another side to some of the ads, one that did not cause a bit of a stir at the time. If you watched the video, you saw an ad featuring an Indian man in a hammock made from a sheet with a beautiful Indian stepping out of the hammock. The caption reads, “A buck well spent on a Springmaid Sheet.”
The ad was criticized highly for its sexual overtones, but nowhere in the correspondence of Colonel Springs did anyone seem to notice that it was racist. Today that ad could never be used, not because it insinuates the man and woman were having sex, but because it refers to the man as a buck. Several years later there were other ads that referred to Black men as bucks as well. We may have not made progress in the portrayal of women, but it is good to know progress is being made in matters of race.
Several years ago my mother-in-law, who would have been 89 at the time, recalled this ad, and how she and her sister-in-law were snickering at it. Their mother-in-law wanted to know what was so funny, so they sheepishly showed her the ad. She read it, and with a very confused look declared that there was nothing at all funny about Indians taking a nap.