Blackface Follies

vintage candy ad racist blackface

It’s safe to say that this 1950 Lifesavers ad that ran in Life Magazine would never appear today.

Among the collection of vintage advertising we’re likely never to see today can be added this 1950 advertisement for Lifesaver’s Pep o Mint.

Thinking nothing wrong in using black face to advertise their candy one even half expects the tag line in the ad to read: “Dem pep-o-mints sho’ ams’ swell”

Offensive? Certainly. Today old wounds have been opened as outrage over a celebrity’s wearing blackface for Halloween has caused the issue of blackface back into discussion.

Today’s reader rightfully so, recoils at the sight of this imagery long associated with retrograde ideas about race and class.

But in 1950, the Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy; family friendly Life Magazine happily ran this Lifesavers ad  even as Jim Crow laws were well and alive in the deep south.

Racist B&W illustration Minstrel Shows

Blackface comedy sketches and musical numbers grew out of the minstrel shows of the pre Civil War era in which African Americans were portrayed in degrading terms, childlike, superstitious and lazy.
Vintage Halftone Illustration from “Gentlemen Be Seated” by Dailey Paskman 1928

Though we think of the black face minstrel as part of a popular form of entertainment in 19th century America, blackface comedians and singers were a popular form of entertainment well into the 20th century.

It was not uncommon well into the 1950s for High Schools, fraternities and local theater groups to perform in blackface.

While the real mad men of Madison Avenue had no compunction utilizing blackface to sell their products, who can forget the shocking scene when Mad Men’s Roger Sterling wearing blackface, serenaded his young bride

It was not until the civil rights movement really took off in the mid 1950s and 1960s that performing in blackface fell into disrepute.

Not disputing the fact blackface was and is an embodiment of racism, perpetuating hateful stereotypes, it is hard to condemn well intended entertainers of an earlier time for not meeting our contemporary standard of sensitivity.

Those who smeared bunt cork on their faces decades ago were not inherently evil.

In the early and mid 20th century Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor famously wore blackface and Hollywood thought nothing of putting blackface on such white stars as Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, to name just a few. These stars weren’t racist and they had no idea how hateful their blackface performances would seem to us decades later.

Today, however,  there is no excuse.

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: Cheerios and American Diversity | Envisioning The American Dream

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