The (Way) Back Beat: A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody

Fretted cheesecake advertising through the years, Part One
The (Way) Back Beat: A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody
Priscilla Dean, her Gibson, and a big rock.

There are many ways for an advertiser to attract attention, and in the history of 19th- and 20th-century print hucksterisim there have been few stones left unturned in the battle for audience eyes!

If the intended demographic is largely male, one of the most reliable strategies is to place a pretty girl next to – or even instead of – the product and let the viewer’s hormones do the rest. “Sex sells,” the axiom goes, or at least can get you noticed! This tactic has been a staple of marketing campaigns over the past 150 years and is still going strong, as any time spent in front of a television will attest! For its part, musical instrument advertising is small potatoes, mostly confined to the print arena, but that doesn’t mean folks haven’t worked this hook. A quick glance through any current guitar-oriented publication will affirm that cheesecake advertising is still going strong in the music business, and in fact seems to have experienced a resurgence recently. All manner of musical gear is showcased alongside, how shall we say it delicately, ehh… somewhat irrelevant displays of female charms. Glamour gals pose with guitars they obviously have no idea how to hold, and amps or effects are displayed alongside sleek portions of female anatomy. Truthfully, despite the obvious psychological connections, only a small proportion of vintage fretted instrument promotion through the years has fallen into this category. But in retrospect, it’s some of the more fun. The material is, of course, demure by modern standards, but in their day, each of these images would have widened the eyes of some!

The 1899 “Howe” girl.

Of course, there are various ways of going about getting a fetching young lady into your ad. The most obvious – and most defensible in sexist terms – is to simply have a bona fide female performer endorse the instrument. In the 19th century, many prominent ladies played the banjo or guitar, so one wouldn’t be surprised to see them posed with testimonials – tastefully, of course! As the 20th century progressed and fretted instruments (at least of the professional grade) became more and more the province of male players, this ended up being a fairly uncommon strategy. Still, some colorful distaff performers managed to add a bit of glamor here and there. In Victorian and Edwardian times, the world of art nouveau design was rife with fanciful illustrations of female figures, fairies, or muses representing the arts and the creative spirit. Conveniently, these fantasy figures were often conspicuously undraped by the standards of Victorian decency! The beverage industry’s “White Rock Girl” survives as a vestigial example of this trend (not too long ago, this venerable trademark actually became more modest in dress!) but a few similar spirits flitted into the fretted arena, as well. Finally, there’s just the straight “cheesecake” shot, where there’s no logical reason for the glamor angle; it’s just there. As we’ll see, these have all been tried more than once!

The origin of the term “Cheesecake” is obscure, but comes from the world of stage and Hollywood publicity. In his book Hollywood Cheesecake, veteran publicist Madison S. Lacey offered several possible explanations, all of which seem to hinge on some anonymous photographer exclaiming something like, “Mmmm, that’s as good as my mom’s cheesecake!” after getting a particularly tasty shot. Of course, the fact that vintage camera jockeys would often use “Cheeese!” as the word to prompt glamour girls to show off their choppers – and gams – factors in as well. The studio hacks themselves often used the more tactful term “leg art” to describe the hundreds of photographs distributed to newspapers and magazines that showed their actress clients off to best advantage. As the 1910s rolled into the 1920s, the movie industry led the way for an infusion of “glamor” into all aspects of American life, with millions of pages of fan magazines churned out yearly, chock full of young ladies doing every conceivable thing in pursuit of celebrity and adoration, with a big smile and often a bit less clothing than most ordinary mortals!

Trojo vamps for National, 1928.

In advertising terms, the fretted instrument world between 1880 and 1930 was a fairly small marketing backwater of American industry, despite successive fads for the banjo, mandolin, Hawaiian guitar and ukulele, and tenor banjo. Millions of people owned and played these instruments, but much of the actual promotion was limited to a fairly small audience compared to the efforts to sell the more common consumer products from automobiles to toothpaste. Musical-instrument marketing reflected trends and styles, and if never really on the cutting edge can still be seen as representative of its era.

In the late 19th century, fretted instruments were considered the province of ladies as much as (or even more than) men. The guitar in particular was considered a most suitable diversion for cultured young ladies. Industry pioneer Lyon & Healy’s long-running 1890s magazine advertising campaign featured babies, bunnies, kittens, and dogs holding Washburn instruments drawn in the delicate whimsical style of late-Victorian childrens books. Some ads showed ladies with the guitar, but only in a most tasteful and buttoned-up manner! Since the principal audience was the middle-class family, nothing suggestive was in evidence. The lovely drawing of a guitar case-carrying lady shown here is typical of this era. This wistful drawing appeared on the cover of an 1899 catalog of guitars and fretted instruments offered by the A.O. and E.C. Howe Company of Chicago, a fairly minor jobber. Still it’s a particularly nice example of the late Victorian graphic style, with a typical innocent but still somehow vivacious look. Similar drawings had already made a major celebrity of artist Charles Dana Gibson (no relation to Orville) whose “Gibson Girls” were pen-and-ink icons to millions of Americans. While this would not be described as “cheesecake” by any standard, it is an early example of a glamor angle to guitar marketing.

Ludwig’s scantily draped Spirit.

From the beginning, Gibson, Inc. was not opposed to using a little pulchritude to help draw attention to its instruments. The very first Gibson catalog from 1903 included a stylized drawing of a nouveau young lady on the cover, fashionably draped (below the foot!) and holding an equally fanciful rendering of a Gibson mandolin. Inside, however, was a somewhat more daring rendition of the same scene, featuring a lovely young lady cradling an honest-to-gosh Gibson mandolin that looks fairly obviously pasted into a pre-existing piece of art! It’s not exactly smutty, but note that the rapture of playing her Gibson mandolin has caused the young lady’s dress to slip alarmingly low (by 1903 standards) on one side! This worthy piece of “shoulder art” bore only the caption, “It’s A Gibson!” which is fair enough, but does nothing to explain what “It’s” doing in the hands of this semi-draped young lady cavorting in the woods! One can perhaps assume that the dulcet tones of her mandolin have transported her to some dreamlike pastoral splendor, although the image’s facial expression seems to display little concern about what might be lurking in the dark behind that tree! This slapdash but still striking image could probably be passed off as “art,” but would still be quite enough to cause the average short-pantsed schoolboy of the day to indulge in multiple glances of appreciation.

As the Gibson company was a brand-new organization, there were as yet none of the endorsing artists their literature would soon boast by the wagon load, so this single anonymous but striking image set the visual tone for the company’s launch. Gibson catalogs would later feature silent-film star Priscilla Dean in a similar if more demure pose outdoors with her F-4 mandolin and just enough stockinged ankle showing to give it a little kick! Miss Dean looks happy enough, although playing the mandolin perched so precariously on a large rock can hardly have been the most comfortable endeavour! Hollywood starlets would have to get used finding themselves smiling through in similar contrived poses as the decade wore on…

The “It’s A Gibson” girl from 1903.

By the later ’aught years, Gibson habitually offered full-page advertisements in the fretted instrument journals of the day with no illustration at all – not even a drawing of their distinctive mandolin – but dense with excruciatingly detailed texts on such subjects as “Given… Each Instrument of The Mandolin Family Should Have a Bowl… Each Instrument of The Mandolin Family Should Have a Bowl… To Prove, If One Be Better than The Other, If So, Which.” Gibson scribe Lewis A. Williams had a knack for overstatement, which soon caused the company’s mid-teens catalogs to balloon to over 100 pages in length. Whether because of, or in spite of, this tendency to long-windedness, Gibson experienced an era of growth in the ’teens. Still, all in all, an occasional flash of mandolin-toting cutie was probably a relief to everybody!

Frontline babes for the Gibson catalog throughout the late teens were the Three Masqueria Sisters, a tangy-looking vaudeville act whose skirts fell daringly just below the knee. Described as “Concert and Theatrical Performers” the sisters appear here posed circa 1912 in pseudo-Spanish garb with an early Harp-Guitar and F-2 Artist Mandolin, showing off their dance moves. While many ladies would be seen in Gibson literature throughout the teens and ’20s, they would mostly appear in the most buttoned-down manner, with their mandolins or guitars held rigidly forward, and a stern expression on their faces. The Masqueria sisters, by contrast, appear most lively, and their bright smiles seem to offer a “come hither” wink to the audience. Probably not coincidentally, they held down the title page slot in Gibson’s catalogs for some years in the 1910s, usually appearing a page or two ahead of the Musical Nosses (featured here a couple months back) who also offered a bit of stockinged leg art before the hundred or so pages of carved-top propaganda began in earnest! The Masqueria Sisters adopted the Hawaiian guitar and grass skirts into their act by 1920, but began to fade back into the other ranks of illustrated Gibson endorsers and disappeared completely before the mid ’20s.

Three Masqueria sisters and two Gibsons

The fad for Hawaiian music began early in the 1910s and took off after the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. The connection between guitars, ukuleles, and scantily clad ladies fired many a young man’s fancy… peppy novelty songs promoting sensory delights of the islands like “They’re Wearin’ ’Em Higher in Hawaii” were quite the rage. In the still-buttoned-down World War I era, the grass-skirt-clad hula dancer was the national erotic icon, and the “weirdly fascinating” (sic) music of the Hawaiians was linked to both personal and sexual freedom. No wonder it became a country-wide fad, frowned on in socially conservative circles almost as much as jazz and rock and roll would be later on. Not surprisingly, “Learn Hawaiian Guitar” ads became a common sight in national magazines, often featuring a drawing of a native dancer as an enticement.

The example shown here of a typical Hawaiian scene drawing is from 1934, which is fairly late in the game. By that point, the instrument was being widely taught to younger students, but less seen on the professional stage. Oahu, from Cleveland (Ohio), was the leading franchiser of steel-guitar lessons, and studios all over the country used their music and teaching plans. The Hawaiian Guitarist was the in-house magazine distributed to instructors and students, many of whom were quite young. Somehow, for much of 1934 the magazine’s cover featured this lovely if surprisingly unambiguous drawing of several hula girls lounging on the beach, playing the Hawaiian guitar under the swaying palm tree, completely topless! The pretty young lady whose photograph is inset above looks to be all of around nine years old; many Oahu students likely to be receiving the publication were even younger. Probably some parent or teacher noticed the arguably inappropriate mix, and the charming bare-breasted ladies disappeared by early in the next year replaced by a stark, nearly blank cover.

The Oahu Boys arrive.

Today, many guitarists think of the National tri-cone as the finest acoustic steel guitar ever built, although probably not under the influence of one of the most striking female endorsers of the 1920s: “Trojo.” Seen here in the very dramatic image from the company’s 1928 catalog, Trojo shows off her custom Silver Guitar, fabulous permed hair, and winsome calf! While details of her act are elusive, she’s described as the “Queen of the South Sea Flappers” and an “enthusiastic user” of the National, starring on the Keith-Albee (vaudeville) circuit. Whatever Trojo actually did, she certainly lent a touch of mystery and glamor to National’s early promotions.

Another lovely image of dubious logic but considerable charm is the sylph-like “Spirit Of The Strings” pictured on the cover of Ludwig’s 1926 catalog. She emerges into the air from the brass-rimmed Ludwig plectrum banjo, lighting up a pastoral evening surrounded by naked, dancing fairies. “I am the fountain of tone!” she exclaims, partially draped in shining diaphanous fabric like her spiritual cousin, the White Rock Girl. She also has a breast clearly exposed. The waggish prospective banjo player of the ’20s could be forgiven for asking “Does she come with the banjo?”

“The Hawaiian Guitarist,” 1934.

The idea that playing an instrument could actually get you some female action, or at least the promise thereof, is explicitly laid out in a slightly tongue-in-cheek illustration from Oahu, circa 1935. Note the rapturous welcome offered to our two (presumably Oahu) guitar-toting young men as they approach the home of these lovely ladies. A picking-and-pecking session on the porch seems inevitable, and who knows what follows for these obviously well-prepared gentlemen. The implied conceit that playing the guitar would help you get lucky with the ladies would become much less subtly worked in the coming decades! Next month, we’ll carry the cheesecake box ahead into the 1940s through the ’60s, where things get even crazier, man!

This article originally appeared in VG’s October 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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CLICK HERE to read Part 3.

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