Friday, May 11, 2007

Alkalize with Alka-Seltzer

[Popular Mechanics, June 1938. Click for a larger version.]

There's so much to like in this illustration: the family all dressed up, the crowded back seat, the slightly fiendish boy with his head out the window, his more timid sister peeping out over the door, the barn and the nest-building bird in the background. Most of all, I like the "poem," the way it moves from joyous proclamation ("THE WORLD IS BORN ANEW" echoes the all-caps in William Carlos Williams' 1923 Spring and All: "THE WORLD IS NEW") to the gritty details of grandma's ailments, to the gentle euphemism of "'NIGHTS BEFORE,'" and then to the point: buy and use our product. I also like the mini-poem in the last panel, equating, for the second time, Alka-Seltzer and wisdom.

When I was a kid, I thought Alka-Seltzer the most sophisticated over-the-counter drug: the long glass tube, the fizz, the lack of sweetness. It made me wonder what mixed drinks might taste like. Little did I know that Alka-Seltzer was understood to be, as this ad makes clear, a hangover remedy. Sales have been flat (sorry) in recent years -- partly from concern about aspirin, partly from consumer reluctance to use products designed to treat multiple symptoms. (When was the last time you had a headache and an upset stomach at the same time? And, while I'm asking rhetorical questions: Can you imagine ordering an Alka-Seltzer at a soda fountain? Or listening to a barn dance?)

There's a story that goes with this copy of Popular Mechanics, which I bought at a flea market some years ago. While I was standing in a store waiting for my wife, a woman noticed my magazine and struck up a conversation. She had worked for PM in Chicago for many years and, it turned out, had known Clifford Hicks, the magazine's editor-in-chief and the author of my favorite book from boyhood, Alvin's Secret Code. I asked her if she knew anything about Mr. Hicks' then-current whereabouts, and she replied, "Oh, they're all dead." That prompted me to check online, and I was happy to discover that Clifford Hicks was (and is) living in North Carolina. I wrote him a fan letter some years ago and was thrilled to receive a response. But that's another story.

[Addendum: My reference to WCW was facetious. But I didn't realize that the ad is almost certainly referencing James Russell Lowell: "Each day the world is born anew / For him who takes it rightly."]

Alka-Seltzer (Wikipedia)
The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald (Clifford Hicks' fiction)

Related posts
A mystery EXchange name (Another PM ad)
Out of the past (On reading Clifford Hicks in adulthood)
"Radios, it is" (And another PM ad)

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