Fractured Fairy Tales for Earth Day

vintage illustration man and woman gardenining

1954 advertisement

Post War Pesticides on Parade

Mid century America was the golden age of pesticides and it was love at first sight. Any thoughts about Earth Day and the environment lay far in the future.

Thousands of new chemicals were put to use in new and amazing products, quickly tested and just as quickly rushed to market.

Now you could get relief for your garden the modern, speedy way. Pesticides. They’re easy! They’re quick! They’re automatic!

Why wait for old-fashioned organic nature to deal with pests, when there were new, fast working chemical compounds that went to work instantly.  

 “Today’s pesticides,” so the thinking went, “go right along with the sensible modern trend. Today’s relaxed people at ease with so many things.”

Pesticides belong- to the fun of living!

A Trip to the Suburban Garden Center

photo mid century suburban family gardening station wagon

As spring exploded with a whoop and a holler, mid-century Americans cut loose in the great outdoors. Like clockwork, my father and I joined the swarm of suburban gardeners who would flock to their local garden center on Mothers Day.

In garden centers all over Long Island, you would find row upon row of pretty, terra-cotta potted geraniums and fetching baskets overflowing with petunias, prominently displayed as offerings for Mothers Day. At the eleventh hour, they were lifesavers for those last-minute husbands and sons who in their consternation of what to get Mom, perfume or another cotton house coat, had thus far bought nothing.

Time For a Breather

picture little boy smelling pie

Vintage ad Monsanto Chemicals 1947

As soon as you entered the nursery, nostrils were bombarded with a blast of the earthy, musky, smell of peat moss, humus, and top soil, overpowered by the caustic odor of chemicals.

Ah, breathe deeply of the invigorating scent of power –chlorynated hydrocarbons.

 My father was like a kid in a candy shop, his eyes bigger than our small suburban backyard.

Dad dashed quickly down the nursery aisles, pushing past the plants, speeding by the spades, and totally ignoring the calibrated spreaders and wobbly wheelbarrows in his single-minded pursuit. What Dad looked forward to the most was the appearance of this springs new line of pesticides and petrochemicals.

Chemicals as bright and fresh as spring itself.

suburban man smoking cigarette while gardening

Aisle after aisle, choice after choice, shelves groaning under the weight of giant jugs of herbicides, boxes of insecticides, cans of fungicides and bottles of pesticides, all shapes and sizes, some dusts and pellets, others emulsions and granules.

Miracle products all,  with names such as Chlorodust, Toxiclor, Cook-Kill.

The miraculous herbicide 2,4-D (dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) was hailed as a breakthrough garden product when it was released in the late 1940s. Like most suburbanites, dad knew there was no longer any excuse for a weedy lawn.


He agonized over choice of weapons – should he go for the Martin Weed-Gun that came locked and loaded with a healthy supply of 2,4-D sufficient enough to kill ten thousands weeds or the nifty Killer Kane that squirted the same 2, 4-D herbicide killing  weeds “as fast as you can walk.” To compound the decision there was the ever popular suburban favorite  Weed-a Bomb, courtesy of the Thompson Chemical Corporation.

Speaking of weapons, 2,4,D would later come in handy fighting the Vietnam War as the principal ingredient of the defoliant Agent Orange.

It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature

vintage pulp illustration man and woman fighting

Vintage Illustration  Pruett Carter

Dad may have claimed he had great respect for Mothers in general, and Mom in particular, but the same couldn’t be said for Mother Nature. Mother Nature needed to be controlled. She was like a woman, fickle, stubborn but looking for a strong man to take control.

Though loath to admit it, my father had Mother issues.

Not unlike his own mother, he regarded Mother Nature sometimes as a friend, and sometimes as an enemy. He loved her, and resented her. Mother Nature was what he’d try to get away from, and yet he depended on her badly.

With Mother Nature he could act out his impulses and decisions freely, unchecked.

Formerly, Mother Nature, like his own mother, was more powerful than he. But now the balance had shifted. Man could control forces which at best rivaled and now seemed on the point of surpassing her.

 “It was heartening to recognize some of the things our science is continuing to create and store up for the better world of tomorrow,” Dad would read. “American laboratories can now promise us virtual independence from many ‘natural’ sources of necessities. Food, fodder and fiber can now be grown without soil, without rain, without sunlight, virtually, without Mother Nature herself!

The forward thinking was intoxicating!


suburbia garden illustration

Vintage illustration Ortho Ad 1950 “How to be a Carefree Gardner”

A clerk, dressed as a farmer in coveralls and a straw hat, was strolling around the nursery, spritzing samples of new herbicide 2,4,D for men to test.

Softly spraying some of the oily mist onto Dads wrist in order for him to sample, the Mr. Green Jeans-look-alike, tried to conjure up a bucolic image: “Experience the new aroma! Like the freshness of tingling bracing mountain air, it has a noticeable effect to all who partake. Hearts beat faster when you use it. It’s clean crispness stimulates. A unique scent prolonger M-10, makes the aroma really last.”

Apparently 1500 men tested other leading pesticides- and new, saucy, man-tailored formula 2,4,D Dichlorophenoxyacetic won hand down. “And,” the clerk winked to Dad, “their girls loved it! “

“Its’ total harmony with nature assures you of being tastefully right.”

Dad splurged and bought 3 containers.

Only years later would we would we learn it was associated with cancer, birth defects, kidney and liver damage.

It truly was intoxicating!

 1950s family gardening

Copyright (©) 2015 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved




  1. Human Interest

    Reblogged this on Human Interest.


  2. You forgot one big pollutant. The hot air that comes out of Washington. Talk about smog.


  3. I always wonder what we are putting out now that seems like such a good thing that will be regarded as a huge mistake fifty years from now on just such a blog. It really makes a person think about what they do on a daily basis.


  4. Susan

    You struck a nerve again — When he returned from serving in World War II, my Uncle John started his own weed-control business, spraying chemicals to control weeds at drive-in movie theatres and for other businesses that wanted to keep their driveways and parking lots tidy. He was delighted that so much backbreaking labor could be replaced by driving along with a small truck and a spray rig. He died young, of liver cancer. My father worked for him for a while, but was scrupulous about removing his work clothes before coming into the house. Nevertheless, I remember the smell of them, hanging on our back porch. And, in answer to flyingafargo — Read more about the unintended consequences using of Glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine) and GMO crops bred to be resistant to it. European reports on the use of this chemical draw very different conclusions than most reports from the U.S. (It’s an American product.) This article from Huffington Post is a good place to start.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly, your Uncles story is not uncommon, and that is heartbreaking, Excellent point about good ol’ American Glyphosate and GMO crops and thanks for sharing the link. There should definitely be a big red flag about that.


  5. Mia

    On the good side, we now today can see the mistake of the old day; on the bad side, the television, internet, street posters today still following the same logic. Something must be very wrong if someone gives you a good picture with smiley faces on and encourages you to BUY commodities.

    Liked by 1 person

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