Friday, May 2, 2014

Male Intimacy In American Whiskey Advertising Of The 1930s and 1940s

In the years between the Repeal of Prohibition and the first years after World War II there were a number of advertising campaigns in the USA that emphasized camaraderie between men, and possibly carried a hidden marketing message related to homosexuality as well.  These ad campaigns were not limited to a single company or a single brand.  I will highlight three separate brands of whisky (and one of gin) in this post.  My point here isn't to point to particular ads and say "this ad is 'gay' but that ad is not 'gay'."  Such an exercise is necessary fruitless and loaded with bias.  However, as the ads I'll present below will make clear, there is potentially a real topic here.  And it must be understood in the context of the laws concerning homosexuality in the USA.

Prior to 1962 engaging in homosexual sex was a felony in every single State in the USA - punishable by lengthy criminal sentences including hard labor.  In 1962 Illinois decriminalized consensual homosexual sex in the home - but it was a decade before any other State followed suit.  As recently as 2002, 14 States still carried such anti-sodomy laws on their books.  The 2003 Supreme Court decision "Lawrence v. Texas" finally struck down all these laws and ended this shameful period in American history.  During the long period of homosexuality's criminal status, gays communicated to each other in code out of necessity.  In some areas certain articles of jewelry, clothing worn a certain way, or sometimes even ways of speaking (check out the "Polari" dialect).  Certain thematic elements appear again and again in these ads - particularly the trope of a younger, more athletic man in a pool or ocean in a bathing costume and an older man in a robe or suit watching or greeting.  Others are more innocuous: a come hither look or a quiet domesticity.  Each ad on its own is easily disregarded as simply promoting friendship between men.  Viewed together, they begin to look like a concerted campaign aimed at marketing a particular type of whiskey to the US homosexual market segment.

 I say a particular type of whiskey because the three brands depicted here all have something in common: they were blends.  In the USA that means that they consist of some whisky and a generous amount of grain neutral spirits.  Blends were marketed extensively after Repeal as a way to stretch meager stocks of aged whiskey.  This became a necessity during WWII and immediately afterwards for the same reason - American distilleries were converted to producing pure industrial high proof alcohol for war production needs and aged American whiskies became scarce.  Some ad campaigns used a war-rationing fairness angle (e.g. Imperial, the subject of a later post).  But the eventual successful angle ended up being promoting their "lightness".  None of the ads that follow make a point of the lightness of the blends (indeed the first one makes a point of mentioning that Penn Maryland was the most whiskey-rich blend at 51% 6 yo whiskey content).  But it's striking that bottled-in-bonds weren't marketed this way; only blends.  It makes me wonder whether blended Bourbon was popular in the gay community, or whether marketers felt that gays might prefer a lighter whisky (insert joke about mid-century perceptions of gays being "light in the loafers" or something of that nature here).

Have a look at the following 5 ads, spanning the 30s and 40s.  Each on their own is fairly innocuous. Together they seem to suggest that the subject of a man in a bathing suit and a man in a robe or suit together might constitute something more communicative than simply a random happenstance.  It appears to be a real theme; a secret "tell" to gay readers of the time:

Young bathing men and older men in robes or suits watching them:

Penn Maryland  1935 ad - the year after Repeal.
Older man in robe prepares drinks with a young man in a bathing costume at the beach.

Hiram Walker gin, late 1930s.  Older man in robe watches bathing men pool-side.
Kinsey Blended Whiskey ad - mid 1940s - detail.  Poolside highballs.
Old Sunny Brook blended whiskey ad - 1947.
Older man in a robe greets a younger man in a bathing costume.

Old Sunny Brook blended whiskey ad, 1949.
Bathing man in pool signals to a rather eager man in a suit.

The subject of secret gay-themed mid-century advertising was a topic of a post on Ad Week magazine's site in June of 2013:

"the gay subtext is a matter of opinion—or perhaps, perception. Consider a 1943 ad for Cannon towels portraying a company of soldiers skinny dipping somewhere in the South Pacific or a 1945 ad for Faultless pajamas showing three handsome young gentlemen getting dressed after an apparent sleepover. “It’s all in the eye of the beholder,” says Bruce H. Joffe, professor of communications at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., and author of A Hint of Homosexuality?: “Gay” and Homoerotic Imagery in American Print Advertising. “A straight person who looked at these ads in Time or Life magazines would just turn the page and not think anything, but someone with a gay sensitivity would say, ‘Oh my God, look at that!’”

Joffe attributes the obvious camp in these ads to what he calls “a kind of chuckle in the eye and pen of the illustrator”—a case of a gay artist slipping something past his oblivious, straight boss. But Joffe doesn’t rule out a bit of subconscious targeting. “Do I think that ad agency or client said, ‘We need to reach the gay market’? No. But by the same token, there was a gay community with its own language and symbols, some of them appearing in these ads. There’s just no question.

Kinsey's Quiet Domesticity Campaign:

Men together playing parlor games, gardening, reading, making cocktails:

Kinsey blended whiskey - 1945 ad.  An "unhurried" summer day.

Kinsey blended whiskey 1946 ad.  Doodles and cocktails by the beach.
The coded doodles theme in this ad seems a pointed double entendre about using a symbol to convey a hidden meaning - an analogy for the whole business of communicating homosexuality in coded cues.

Kinsey blended whiskey ad 1948 (detail).  Making cocktails from the Kinsey recipe book.
One of the men wears an apron, holds the book, and eagerly awaits the conclusion
of the other on how good the drink is.  A butch / femme dynamic?

Kinsey blended whiskey 1945 ad.  Victory garden theme.  

Old Sunny Brook's "come hither" expression ad series.

I'll limit myself to two (I know of 3 more) because this is getting long.   These gentlemen are inviting you to a drink, with a look in their eye that suggests maybe a bit more than "just a drink"...

I don't know if these ads were a concerted campaign to capture the homosexual market, or were a stealth game by some creatives - or were nothing at all.  Perhaps I'm just seeing phantoms in the changing values of our society.  If you have any information or perspectives please comment below, or email or message me (see the About page for address).  I suspect there is some additional scholarship on this topic beyond the brief mention in Advertising Age.

Update: Steve Ury (of just posted a link to some old Chuck Cowdery blog posts with pictures of ads very much on this theme.  This one from Bellows titled "Partners In Pleasure" dating from 1966 is incredible.  Check out the vignette of the two guys in the lower right hand corner.


  1. This was interesting. You started to get into something about the fact that these are all blends, but weren't a great many whiskies back then blends? Also, I think that many blends would be marketed with bathing-suited or summer-lounging dudes because you wouldn't market big, rich, bonded bourbons as a poolside drink.

  2. Yes - blends were a big portion of the whiskey market in the 30s and 40s - and then even more so in the 50s and 60s. And plenty of those blends were marketed with conventional heterosexual themes or various themes about value, lightness, etc... It would be totally incorrect to say that American Blended Whiskey was particularly marketed to gays. True too that blends, being light, are very suited to warm weather and all these ads depict warm weather. Indeed, most every drink depicted is a highball.

    My point about the poolside trope was to wonder whether that image - the robed older guy watching the bathing younger hunks - might have been a form of coded language; a symbol of homosexuality. It comes up as a theme again and again. More often than you'd expect if it were just a random thing.

  3. As you mention in your post, I strongly suspect the illustrators in these ads was using subtle coded imagery that went over the head of the straight supervisor and client and into print. Makes me think of films from the 30's and 40's where homosexuality was hinted at via gestures and careful dialogue. For example, consider the character of Joel Cairo (portrayed by Peter Lorre) in the Maltese Falcon.

    Great post!

    1. Hi Jason! Possibly artists were slipping this content by management and advertisers. If a staffer could slip an ad by, that might explain how they could slip a whole campaign by. But it gets a little hard to believe. Sunny Brook ran a dozen ads with this content over a period of several years. Ditto for Kinsey. I find it a little hard to believe that a rogue creative could drive a whole campaign like that in a secret way. But, really, I have no idea.

      Joel Cairo was ambiguously gay in both the book and the movie which helps set up part of the tension. It fit with notions of deviance. Queer effeminate men appear as deviant, sometimes violent characters frequently in film. Another example is David Bowie's murderous cross dresser in "Freebie And The Bean" (he looked so pretty as a blond in a red dress).

      But what role does the ambiguous homosexuality of the men in these whiskey ads play? I can't quite figure it out except to conclude that, perhaps, there was marketing to gays going on. They tend to be affluent and love to party. The use of code meant that ads could be placed in mainstream magazines and only gays would understand the coded content. That's my implication in this piece.

    2. David Fucking Bowie was in Freebie and the Bean?!? Can't believe I missed that at the time.

    3. Why would you assume it's the illustrator that's gay, and not the supervisor, or the client? Pretty equivalent-of-sexist-but-re-sexual-orientation. Were all the interior decorators gay, too, while the football players were straight? You two are as bad as the ads themselves.

    4. SirHuddleston Fuddleston - I haven't assumed that it's the illustrator that was gay. That was a plot on the television show Mad Men - which was evocative of these campaigns. In the blog post I explicitly say that I don't know.

  4. This is also consistent with the gay Italian-American character and his advertising copy in the first few seasons of Mad Men set in the early 60s ( alas I forget his name)

    1. The character in Mad Men is Sal. And, yes, all this corroborates the writers of the Sal character beautifully. They really did their homework.

  5. What people don't realize today is that back then everything was much less suspect. We assumed all guys were straight, unless they were really flaming. We didn't see gay in anything. Guys could be roommates, never married, shower together, all kinds of stuff that did not raise an eyebrow. Straight guys were free to be all sorts of chummy without fearing being accused of being gay. We didn't see gay in anything. Today., we see gay in everything. Even if guys are straight if they are roommates or go on vacation together to hunt for chicks we still make comments and suspect, so many guys just don't do things like this. It's like gays and women have gained their liberation, and now straight guys are repressed.

    1. Yeah, that's what happened. White people, too -- when will they get their civil rights, right?

  6. All but two of these ads were for either Kinsey or Sunny Brook whiskey. It's entirely possible that these were positioned to be the "gay whiskey" brands. I don't think the intent of the advertisers was merely implied among them -- I think they absolutely said "let's make Kinsey THE gay man's whiskey." Swishkey, as somebody on Mad Men would put it.

    1. Hi SirHuddleston Fuddleston! I agree it's certainly possible Kinsey & Sunny Brook were position as "gay whiskey" brands - which is why I wrote: "I don't know if these ads were a concerted campaign to capture the homosexual market, or were a stealth game by some creatives - or were nothing at all." If so, in an era when homosexuality was illegal, it was a pretty ballsy move. If it wasn't intended, then there is a lot of latent stuff going on. I don't have the answer. But I wanted to present the evidence as I saw it. It sure seems to hint at *something*.

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