I came across some old Look and Life magazines at a thrift shop recently. They all featured John F. Kennedy - his inaugural as president, his assassination, the funeral, Jackie and the kids one year after. Important and memorable topics, but when I actually sat down to look at the magazines, I found that I was flipping past the articles and studying the ads. Buicks and Studebakers and Chevys, cigarettes, whiskey and beer, typewriters, canned soup, TV dinners. They were fascinating.
Author Megan Prelinger collected the best and most interesting ads from five years worth of aviation and technology magazines. The result is Another Science Fiction, a document that is probably more revealing about the era than the collected articles in those same magazines, and certainly more entertaining.
The overall impression is one of optimism and the expectation that science and technology will pave the way to a bright future. We're going to the moon. ... and beyond!
Contrast that with aviation and technology magazines of today. The ads are overwhelmingly military-themed, featuring weapons and soldiers. They are utilitarian ads, using photographs and text.
The space age ads are also often utilitarian and direct, but just as often they are whimsical or futuristic. Many are works of art. The Martin Company (later Martin-Marietta, then Lockheed-Martin) used many paintings by graphic artist Willi K. Baum, most of which would not look out of place in a modern art gallery.
On opening Another Science Fiction, I first looked at all the images, and then read the text later. It was fun to start to recognize the style of some of the regular artists for the various companies. The text was informative, explaining what some of the ad campaigns were about (some of the products advertised were pretty technical and specific to the space and aviation industries). Prelinger also talks about how the space race influenced the appearance of books and magazines, TV and movies.
The result is a crash course in one brief shining moment in American history.