This is not the post that it started out to be.
What I intended to write about – and will indeed do so a little farther down the road – is the All American Soapbox Derby and its smaller-scale relative the Pinewood Derby. In their own ways, both Derbies are sanctioned, organized, forays for young people into the world of automotive engineering and design. It strikes me that perhaps more than a few CC readers have had some interaction with these activities over the years, and thus a post about them would generate a variety of reader connections and recollections.
That post is still to come. But it’s not going to be this one.
Instead, in the course of my research related to the Derbies, I stumbled down a rabbit hole of equally productive connections and recollections. Boys’ Life magazine.
I suppose it’s true that whatever rabbits reside at the bottom of the Boys’ Life tunnel, they’re bound to be stuffed and harmless; taxidermy being one of the abiding commercial obsessions of the magazine. I didn’t go to the trouble of counting the number of ad placements for various taxidermy correspondence schools in a typical issue from the 1960s, nevertheless a rough guess is that there are at least a dozen such ads in each issue…along with an equal number of ads for the firearms that would render the various large and small critters ready for conversion into “beautiful trophies”.
But not only are you reading Curbside Classic and not Taxidermy Classic, but I’m getting way ahead of the story here. We’re here to talk about automotive matters, and so we’ll come back to taxidermy (Fun…Satisfaction…Profit!) soon enough.
As a boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I was absolutely in the Boys’ Life target demographic. I wasn’t a Scout (Boy or Cub), but in the Venn diagram that has “boys” at its overlapping center, Scouting was simply one domain that drove interest in the sorts of things that Boys’ Life covered. Interests such as the outdoors, sports, and automobiles, as well as all manner of hobbies such as model-building, stamp and coin collecting, photography, and yes, taxidermy were all highly regarded as “boys’ activities”; and by the mid-20th century were all significantly monetized through an industry encouraging and catering to these interests among male adolescents. Scouting in a way was as much a product of the marketing of these interests as a promoter of the interests. In short, Boys’ Life is an excellent window into what the popular culture at the time felt were the ideal interests and pursuits for boys and young men.
Nowadays one needs to acknowledge that claiming these interests as belonging to “boys and young men” ignores the fact that large numbers of girls and young women were likely then – as now – interested in the same things. Nevertheless, in its time, Boys’ Life was simultaneously catering to and actively constructing what the dominant culture prized as ideally “male”.
Therefore it’s not surprising that themes related to transportation, and cars in particular, pop up on nearly every page of Boys’ Life magazine. In a scan of issues from the mid-1960s to the 70’s that I recently made, it seems that there was an article about cars in nearly every issue, and cars constituted the featured cover story at least once a year. There’s so much coverage of cars in Boys’ Life that it becomes hard to convey the full scope of that editorial attention in this article. If you’re interested, I encourage you to go down the Boys’ Life rabbit hole yourself. Over 100 years of the magazine are online via Google Books. A link to the whole archive is at the end of this post, and I’ve linked to particular issues as relevant throughout the following paragraphs.
Throughout the 60’s and early 70’s, Ken Purdy was a regular contributor of feature articles about cars. All told, Purdy wrote about 20 articles for Boys’ Life (the last of which was published posthumously in 1972). One of the first things that strikes me upon reading Purdy’s Boys’ Life articles is that they read exactly like any of his articles in Car and Driver. There’s nothing about his Boys’ Life writing that talks down to the reader or goes to obvious lengths to make it clear that the article was being published in a magazine with a readership generally under the age of 18. There’s nothing ostensibly in his articles about Scouting…or boys. Instead, we have articles about the history of the Targa Florio (August, 1967), Duesenbergs (January, 1967), and Porsche (August, 1971). What the reader gets is the same level of writing that established Purdy as one of the most revered automotive writers of the 20th century. Another well-known automotive writer – Ed Janicki – wrote the monthly Boys’ Life Autos column. As a column (versus feature article), Janicki’s work does reference Scouting, but is still solidly about cars and reads much like any write-in column in a car magazine.
At least in the mid-century years, many of the articles in Boys’ Life were written by authors who were just as likely to turn up in adult-focused magazines such Esquire, Playboy, and any number of science fiction magazines. A careful reading of Boys’ Life comparing it to Esquire or Playboy shows that all of these magazines had a somewhat similar editorial style. All were driving toward providing sophisticated entertainment for a male readership with what were taken at the time to be culturally defined “male” interests. What Playboy lacked in articles and ads about taxidermy and firearms it made up for with pictures of naked women; and Esquire provided more coverage about politics than camping and knot-tying. But all three magazines were built around solid writing about the subjects intended to be of interest to the reader. To accomplish this, all of these magazines relied upon the talents of authors who not surprisingly contributed to all of these mainstream magazines.
A Boys’ Life issue in 1969 (March) barely missed containing both a column by Bobby Fischer (Fischer was the magazine’s regular chess columnist…yes, there was a monthly column about chess) and a story by Nobel laureate and leader in the Yiddish literary movement Isaac Bashevis Singer. At the time, Fischer had not yet come forward with some of his more controversial political positions, while Singer was still a decade away from his Nobel Prize for literature. Having both Fischer and Singer as contributors was not quite as odd in 1969 as it would be if it had happened a few years later. But the point is that for a time Boys’ Life managed to accommodate the talents of both of these memorable 20th century figures.
Moving beyond the feature articles and writers, it’s the ads in Boys’ Life that really illustrate the magazine’s deep connection to automotive interests.
GM was a major advertiser in the magazine. GM was also the main corporate sponsor of the Soap Box Derby (a relationship that ended in 1972). In fact, as a kid coming up in the 1960s, I held the mistaken belief that the Scouts had an official relationship with the Derby. In fact, the extent of that relationship was that the Derby was heavily advertised in the Scouting magazine; and of course both the Derby and Boys’ Life targeted the same audience and interests.
I am betting that some CC reader knows who did the artwork in these ads. I love them, and in particular the excellent use of white space on these full-page ads. Everything about the ads indicates the amount of funding that GM was willing to invest in this campaign. For those who don’t have any hands-on experience with Boys’ Life from the mid-century, it was a large format magazine similar to LIFE or Look Magazine. Those were big ads.
Equally interesting are the Boys’ Life ads that feature various endeavors out of the GM Tech Center. These ads were a regular feature throughout the 1960s and each contains highlighted text that explains the interaction of a high school student (a boy, of course) with some GM engineering project.
Many of the ads make a somewhat awkward, endearingly geeky, attempt at humor as if the engineers at the Tech Center were recruited as copy writers.
“Designs on a computer”. Get it?! Ha! That’s right, in a very clean and wholesome way (it’s the Boy Scouts, right? Well, anyway…) Boys’ Life did manage to work in some acknowledgement of what its target audience was no-doubt thinking about when not absorbed in thoughts about automobiles and taxidermy.
I think she’s a little old for him, but I guess she was impressed with his range. Not to mention 80 hours on one set of batteries. Jeepers!
Even when the product being advertised wasn’t directly connected to cars, they could still figure as themes for the ad. This one for the Instamatic has both cars and girls and conveys a real American Graffiti vibe. Curt’s shirt, Steve’s haircut, and Bob or John’s car.
I had Curt’s shirt. I didn’t have his du cheveu, but my Fiat 128 did a plausible imitation (a few years later).
Before moving away entirely from the GM ads, it’s worth mentioning those from the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild.
This program had a bit of a specific connection to Scouting in that a reference was made to the “model building” merit badge (more on that in minute).
For what it’s worth, Ovid O. Ward (featured in the ad above) seems to have done well with his Craftsman’s Guild scholarship. Apparently he ended up working as a designer for Chrysler and later was a marine architect designing boats.
Modeling, or the building of plastic models, seemed to also be a big deal for Scouts at the time. Not ever having been a Boy Scout, I’m probably missing out on some of the nuances of what it took to get a Modeling merit badge, but suffice to say that I was totally fascinated with the ads and emphasis that Boys’ Life placed upon model-building.
The magazine was chock-full of ads from AMT, Monogram and Revell. Ads like this from AMT where it was supposed that the model builder was talented enough to customize the out-of-the-box kits truly fascinated me. That’s because I was a plastic modeler who was 99% enthusiasm and 1% talent (or manual dexterity…same thing in this case). But I could dream. And I supposed that if I were a Scout, I’d somehow manage to learn the magic skills of modeling that not only relieved my efforts of the giant fingerprints of glue and cloudy melted plastic that were the reality of every model I ever built, but heck, who knows…perhaps I could develop Ovid O. Ward-level skills.
Slot cars and engine-powered model cars and planes were also regularly featured in Boys’ Life ads.
Boys’ Life ads from the 1960s definitely reflect the mid-60’s slot car craze. I recall slot car racing courses popping up all over Baltimore (and I presume other cities) in the mid-to-late 60s. It’s interesting to think about the degree to which this fad may have been fueled by Scouting. In my personal case, slot cars were all about unfulfilled desire. I was a bit too young and definitely too poor to get wrapped up in the slot car thing. Note how the Revell ad from 1966 above says that racing sets were priced from $35 to $100. In today’s money that would be $300 to $850. No way were my parents springing for a kid’s toy that cost $300.
Just like how they weren’t going to buy me one of those cool Sting-Ray bikes ($40 at the time being around $350 in today’s dollars). But then again, maybe I too would have chosen to ride my bike on the airport tarmac…so I guess my folks were just looking out for me. Kids….
They also would not have supported the purchase of something like the Johnny Toymaker. This would definitely fall into “You’re gonna burn your hand off!” territory.
Although, damn, I want one of those now. Seriously.
Ultimately – in the early ‘70s – I did manage to get in on the engine powered model thing by acquiring a Cox model plane. I had to put some of my own money into this as the $15 or so (around $90 in today’s money) for the P40 Warhawk was absolutely beyond my parent’s budget for “toys”. It was a Flying Tigers model and I believe it reminded my dad fondly of his childhood in the early 1940s in Kunming. It was all good for me as I finally got approval to buy a coveted object.
For what it’s worth, I never mastered flying that thing and crashed it hard enough in relatively short order so that it was inoperable.
I still have the engine…having disassembled and reassembled it more times than I can count over the years. Still, those ads for Cox cars called to me again and again.
As it turns out, I probably should have…and perhaps did…pay more attention to the ads for typewriters.
These too were quite popular ads in Boys’ Life. The magazine absolutely knew the breadth of their audience. I can say that over the years, I have purchased more typewriters than most of the other things advertised in Boys’ Life. And while I’ve enjoyed the Cox gas engine and my glue-encrusted models, and have lusted continuously after slot cars, it’s been the typewriters (or at least the skill involved in typing) that has actually propelled me from back then to now. What’s amazing to me is that Boys’ Life managed to have all of those possible life paths covered.
Some kids were into killing “stationary game” (huh?) or pests. And some kids would rather “catch” the “invading chipmunks”. There are ads addressing the sensibilities of both.
And some kids would like to buy a monkey. Right? (Yes, they are 12” high and are adorable in their little monkey sweaters, but are also disturbingly human-like and live approximately 25 years.) But it was just as likely that others would like to forego the monkey and instead build their own mini-bike.
Or start a collection of mounted fish that would “be the envy of all your friends”. Yes, all of them. Except for the aforementioned intellectual on the beach. She was still hung up on the 80 hours of battery life thing.
At this point, the cross-over between Boys’ Life and the J.C. Whitney catalog seemed inescapable, and ultimately my interests bent toward J.C. Whitney.
It was also the case that I was growing increasingly unable to fully engage with the unironic goodness of Boys’ Life. By the time I was in my early teens, I couldn’t read about something called “Beaver Patrol” with a straight face…and I suspect that I wasn’t alone in my cynicism. After all I’d started to devour Kurt Vonnegut (a frequent author for Playboy of course) and had figured out the whole discussion about beavers in Breakfast of Champions. There’s not really any coming back from that at age 12 or 13. And likewise in general, Boys’ Life began to be less relevant to an increasingly sophisticated, not to mention more diverse (as we would now say), image of boyhood and adolescence in the broader culture. So it goes.
Still, it seems clear that the interests promoted – with the possible exception of taxidermy – formed a core part of what many young American men were indeed about in the 20th century. Just how many people wound up in automotive professions, or at least here among the readership of CC due to interests cultured by Boys’ Life is hard to know.
I’m betting it’s more than a few.
All images from Boys’ Life Magazine come from the Google Books archive for the first 1oo years of the magazine.