Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Bacon, Breakfast, Bookshelves, and Beer
(This is the eighth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)
I was a child back in the 1950s. Up until I was about seven, my maternal grandparents still lived on a farm in rural northern Michigan, although they later became city folk. Back in his younger days in the ‘20s, Grandpa Frank had been a cowboy out west, herding cattle on horseback. He didn’t have any cattle in Michigan, just wheat fields and a big vegetable garden. (He did still have a horse, a spirited black stallion with a white streak on its forehead from which it got the name Lightning. In later years, my father told me about one time when the neighbor’s small herd of cows got out and were wandering the neighborhood, and Dad was amazed to watch Grandpa Frank saddle up Lightning and round ‘em up, just like in the movies!)
Although it was not a very big farm, there were occasionally hired hands, and Granny Irene made “farmhouse meals” for everyone. Back in the city, my family’s breakfast usually consisted of oatmeal or cornflakes, and orange juice. No sissy breakfast like that when we visited the farm. Breakfast was intended to fortify the menfolk to go out and do hard work. So before dawn Granny would be up getting a big spread ready. Typically it would have platters of bacon and fried ham, eggs (almost “deep fried” in the bacon fat), fried sliced potatoes, big fluffy biscuits hot out of the oven, with pan gravy (made out of the bacon drippings) to pour over the biscuits.
I’m guessing hearty breakfasts like this had been typical for hardworking farm families going clear back to the early 1800s, when the majority of the population of the US lived on farms.
But by the late 1800s, industrialization, “factory farming” by mega-corporations, and other trends had driven more and more families out of the country into the cities. And by the early 1900s, the increasingly urban population of the country was developing new eating habits. By the 1920s, breakfast for a large proportion of the population meant gulping down a piece of toast, a glass of orange juice, and a cup of coffee before dashing off to the office or factory.
Enter Eddie Bernays, the “Father of Spin,” the inventor of “Public Relations,” the master at changing “habits” and “styles” and “preferences.” (See the previous entry in this series, where Eddie pulled just the right strings to convince much of the female population of the US to “prefer” the color green for a season.)
In the mid-1920s a huge bacon producer, Beechnut Packing Company, hired Bernays to help restore sales that had sagged as a country on the run trimmed its morning meal to juice, toast, and coffee.
In the 1920s, though, it was still primarily a meat-packing company featuring, of all things, “canned bacon.”
Ladies Home Journal, 1916
Since all the bacon producers were in lean times, Eddie saw no sense in trying to just “steal” business from other struggling bacon producers to Beech-Nut. No, what was needed was something bigger. And Eddie’s legendary chutzpah kicked in. He was convinced all that was needed was to … “transform America’s eating habits”! In other words, convince more people to eat more bacon.
He started by commissioning a research study of the eating habits of Americans, and then found a doctor who concluded that, since the body loses energy during the night, a robust breakfast was preferable to a light breakfast. Bernays then sent the survey and the doctor’s recommendations to 5,000 physicians, along with a publicity packet touting Beech-Nut bacon and eggs as a hearty breakfast.
Soon physicians were recommending bacon and eggs to their patients, and word of mouth, the most coveted form of advertising in the world, spread throughout the United States. And just like that, Beech-Nut’s profits soared and the all-American breakfast of bacon and eggs was born. [Source]
Actually, bacon and other cured meats had not traditionally been a “breakfast” item, but were eaten at other times of the day. Eddie’s behind-the-scenes manipulation changed all that from the 1920s on to today.
Today, 70 percent of bacon eaten in the US is eaten at breakfast. The vast majority of people who feel they must have bacon and eggs for breakfast have no idea that they are actually victims of propaganda. [Source]
Unfortunately, the average person loading up on a hearty breakfast these days isn’t doing so to fortify themselves for a day of hard physical labor. So this ends up contributing to the epidemic of obesity in America. With the “persuasion industry” continuing to feed that epidemic…
Eddie bragged about his part in establishing the bacon and eggs/hearty breakfast habit right up to his death.
He also bragged his whole life about another habit he helped establish.
It has to do with books. And bookshelves.
You would think that bookshelves have been around as long as books, but in many ways the modern personal bookshelf was an invention of the book publishing industry in the 1930′s.
Public libraries have been around as early as the 1400s. Since then, books that happened to be individually owned were often chained to desks or stored in trunks or armoires. [The Story of Bookshelves]
Yes, a limited number of rich people throughout history used their possession of large numbers of books to advertise their upper crust status. They might have had their own “room full of shelves,” a private library in their mansion, to display these status symbols for the admiration of others. But it was clear up into the late 1800s before books became inexpensive enough for the “average” person to own many. I don’t doubt that there was a small sub-set of “avid readers” in earlier times, even among the relatively poor, and they may have constructed some shelves to hold their collection, but they were a minority. The reality is, both then and now, most people aren’t avid readers.
One survey out of the UK suggests that the average bookshelf is filled with 80 books we haven’t read. Furthermore, an Ipsos public affairs survey states that 27% of American’s haven’t read a book in the past year. And yet, Ikea continues to churn out 130,000 bookshelves every single week for us to store these books we don’t read. [ibid.]
Why do we have bookshelves for books we don’t read? Enter, stage left, Eddie Bernays.
In 1930 Simon & Schuster, Harcourt Brace, and several other major New York publishers contacted public relations doyen Edward Bernays, the ‘father of spin,’ to strategize how best to inject life into the faltering U.S. book industry. In addition to attacking the industry’s price structure, which at the time relied heavily on a volatile low price/high volume formula, Bernays proposed a novel idea for inspiring people to buy more books despite economic downturn.
As Bernays biographer Larry Tye has written: ‘“Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.”
I did a Google search just now on architecture of the 1930s and was surprised to see how many pics of living rooms from that period in “House and Garden” type magazines showed “built in” bookshelves. Typically there would be one on each side of a fireplace. A startling number had whole walls of them.
Today accumulating printed books and shelving them in one’s home may seem like mundane facts of life, at least among those economically enfranchised enough to do so. In the first decades of the twentieth century, however, those activities couldn’t be assumed and needed to be learned.
…Since then, the number of books one owned became a form of cultural capital. Statements such as ”A house is not a home without at least one bookcase full of books” or ”Nothing furnishes a room like books” have become common. [ibid.]
By the way, go back and look at the picture above behind the words “Where there are bookshelves…” Looks like a library or bookstore, doesn’t it? It’s not.
That is the personal library of controversial and quirky fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.
I’m suspicious that Karl hasn’t read all those books. If you do a Google image search on his name, you will find that he just seems to really like posing with the books for effect.
And his cat. He really likes posing with his cat Choupette. (Who has two maids and her own chauffeur.)
But I digress. Back to Lucky Eddie Bernays.
After Eddie convinced the country that Lucky Strikes were good for one’s figure and bacon was good for breakfast, he tackled an equally knotty problem: Beer. No, not beer bellies. He tackled the problem of the post-prohibition slump in beer sales.
Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but it wasn’t long before thousands of communities declared themselves dry, and the temperance movement picked up steam. So in 1935 the brewers picked up Bernays.
His strategy was familiar to every student of war, and of baseball: carefully analyze your opponent’s game plan, and if you can’t overcome it, co-opt it. That meant promoting beer as “the beverage of moderation” in a way that would distance it from distilled liquors and inoculate it against the temperance movement’s argument that all alcohol posed the danger of overindulgence.
He persuaded beer retailers to cooperate with law enforcement to ensure that their product was used responsibly, and he published “evidence” that beer was not fattening and had a caloric value equal to that of milk.
He told homemakers that beer would make for a richer chocolate cake; told farmers that brewers were major buyers of their barley, corn, and rice; and told laborers that beer was the one alcoholic beverage they could afford.
And he published booklets and wrote letters claiming that beer was the favorite drink of the ancient Babylonians and the monks of the Middle Ages as well as of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and the Pilgrims.
“Beer is a sort of vaccination against intemperance,” argued a typical Bernays campaign brochure, this one urging people to vote for a Texas ordinance legalizing the sale of beer. “The ‘bootleggers’ thrive upon the stronger beverages, distilled spirits, those that carry the ‘kick’ in concentrated form, in small packages easy to conceal.… Where beer is accessible the liquor bottle ‘on the hip’ is not so much in evidence, whether that be in the home or at a public place, or— most important of all— in an automobile. Many sincere temperance workers believe that the best way to fight intemperance is to legalize the sale of beer everywhere.” [Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and The Birth of Public Relations. ]
And once again, Eddie’s string-pulling from behind the curtain did the trick. These methods of persuasion were so effective that the beer industry continued to use them in various ways clear up into the 1950s!
Yes, Eddie Bernays was very effective at promoting cigarettes, beer, bacon, big breakfasts, bookshelves, and much more for big corporations in America over the decades.
But he didn’t stop there. Continue on to the next entry in this series and learn how Eddie was even able to put his inimitable spin tactics to use in promoting…war: