Footnotes of Mad Men: American Grit

DRAPE IT“Japan” is the explanation that Bert Cooper offers his British bosses for why they’re standing in their socks inside his office. Japan and our role in WWII can also be offered as the explanation for what cinched America’s role as the then-new empire. It must be a bit awkward for citizens of the waning imperial power that was England to strip down to their socks together. (Did you notice the armor lurking in the corner of Bert’s office? And the buffed knight’s suit standing guard in Lane’s? Empire-building does come with some marvelous accessories.)

But American destiny is not just our military might after all, according to American mythology. It’s our uniquely American character that enabled us to be the chief influence in global affairs. We are allegedly self-made men, free from rigid caste systems of Old Europe. Who knows? The son of whore could grow up to be an ad executive-and a country boy could be hotel magnate.

TEHRAN HILTON

Conrad Hilton beat back Communism. Well, that what’s he joked to a TIME magazine reporter in 1963. One of the main reasons Hilton was able become the head of the inn-keeping empire was because this hotel chain built clean, efficient, new hotels in developing countries where people could meet and “get along with each other.”

Hilton was willing to lose some initial profit to gain a foothold into new markets. “We think we are helping out in the struggle that is going on in the cold war today with world travel,” says Hilton. “These hotels are examples of free enterprise that the Communists hate to see.” He likes to say that “we beat Communism into the Caribbean by ten years,” and one of his top financial backers, Henry Crown, adds: “We’re second only to the Peace Corps.”

CONNIEBut Connie, as he asks his friends to call him, was also a success due to his American charm. He was quick to respond to inquiries put out by po-dunk tourism ministers and would close the deal with face-to-face meetings. From TIME again:

The surprise about Hilton is that he is so much like the guests he caters to. Boyish, candid, trusting, he never fails to be amazed and pleased-even astonished-by the world around him. He cannot get over the speed of jet planes or his possession of a $100 Texas-style Stetson, whose price he mentions to anyone who will listen. He is susceptible to even the most transparent flattery.

So speaking of global expansion, Lane tossed off that ‘Pax Romana’ line within minutes of the Vietnam reference. Too rich! It precisely captures where the two countries were in their in their jockeying for global influence. The Pax Romana refers to a time when the Roman Empire cooled its heels on the whole military conquest thing and established a level of order in its territories. The empire, for the first time in centuries, was free from civil war or any social disorder on grand scale. Not really the case in 1963 America? We were entering the period of tremendous social upheaval and trying our luck at violent military influence in South East Asia-while, across the pond, pretty much they were putting their feet up after a job well done in WWII.

And so the conquest moves on: out of the farms and into the American suburbs. During the post-war housing boom, suburban homeowners were eager to cultivate turf around their properties. This interest in manicured lawns was not lost on Deere & Company. To meet the demand, the first John Deere lawn tractor (Model 110) was manufactured in 1963.

LAWN TRACTOR

John Deere has been a symbol of the self-made man for nearly two centuries. Deere was born in Vermont in 1804. He began as a blacksmith, then created a low-cost line of farm tools. When farm equipment entered the age of mass production, tools were marketed as a way to plow one’s way to independence from banks and industrial overlords.

FREEDOM

Now juxtapose this earthy American grit to the stuffy, predestined men of England. Compare Ken Cosgrove’s John Deere account to the recently-maimed Brit ad man Guy McKendrick’s claim to fame: Mercedes Benz. Sure, comparing tractors and luxury cars is unfair. Americans, particularly in the mid-century, are subject to all types of castes and smothering subjugation. But England, well, they take the crumb cake on that sort of thing. If baby Eugene Draper had been born in England, with his haitches, he’d have little chance of ever setting foot-or losing it-at a place like Putnam, Powell and Lowe.