As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s

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Overview

It was America in the 1950s, and the world was not so much a stage as a setpiece for TV, the new national phenomenon. It was a time when how things looked—and how we looked—mattered, a decade of design that comes to vibrant life in As Seen on TV. This book captures a visual culture reflecting and reflected in the powerful new medium of television. Looking closely at a number of celebrated instances in which the principles of design dominated the public arena and captivated the popular imagination, Karal Ann Marling gives us a picture of the taste and sensibility of the postwar era. From Walt Disney's Wednesday night TV show, the leap was easy to his theme park, where the TV characters could be seen firsthand, and Marling conducts us through this heady concoction of real life and fantasy. She takes us into the picture-perfect world of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book of 1950, and shows us how the look of food, culminating in the TV Dinner, attained paramount importance. From the public fascination with the First Lady's apparel to the television sensation of Elvis Presley to the sculptural refinement of the automobile, Marling explores what Americans saw and what they looked for with a gaze trained by TV. A study in style and in material culture, her book shows us those artful everyday objects that stood for American life in the 1950s, as seen on TV.

From the paint-by-numbers fad, to the public fascination with Mamie Eisenhower's apparel, to the visual explosion that was Elvis Presley on stage, As Seen On TV explores what Americans saw and what they looked for during television's first golden era, the 1950s.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Historian Marling (Iwo Jima: Monuments and the American Hero) takes us back to those early days of television, when Ike was in the White House and everybody loved Lucy. The author explains TV's tremendous influence: it allowed Mrs. Eisenhower to give the nation the "Mamie Look,'' and advertised both Disneyland and the big-business "leisure society'' created by the 40-hour workweek. Marling also looks into America's love affair with the automobile ("Drive your Chev-ro-lay through the USA,'' sang Dinah Shore); the importance of Elvis and Betty Crocker; and Cold War politics, featuring Richard Nixon in the kitchen with Nikita Khrushchev. A nostalgic, informative and sometimes funny view of 1950's American culture. Photos. (Sept.)
Booknews
Marling (art history, American studies, U. of Minnesota) captures a visual culture reflecting and reflected in the new medium of television in the 1950s. She looks at instances in which the principles of design dominated the public arena, such as Mamie Eisenhower's new look, Disneyland, America's love affair with the car, Betty Crocker's cook book, and Nixon in Moscow. Includes b&w photos. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
New York Times Book Review

[Marling] offers in seven chapters some witty riffs on 50s themes: the topics evoked in As Seen on TV are, in order, women's fashion, amateur painting, the arrival of Disneyland, those fabulous finned autos, the taming of Elvis Presley, home cooking and Richard Nixon's "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev...[It is] an intellectual romp, a dizzying free fall through the exuberant 'visual culture' of that first post-World War II decade.
— John Updike

Los Angeles Times

Irresistible...Karal Ann Marling's enthusiasm is refreshing, entertaining and imaginative. Her energy is infectious...She manages to make the decade that time forgot come alive.
— Karen Stabiner

Reviews in American History

As Seen on TV offers fresh, imaginative readings of individual artifacts, particularly Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book and television commercials for automobiles. Moving Beyond text to context, chapters on the ongoing spectacle at Disneyland and the one-time-only "Kitchen Debate" between Nixon and Khruschev provide suggestive rereadings of familiar topics. [The book] becomes most interesting when imaginatively leaping from one set of cultural products or practices to another. It glides from Mamie Eisenhower's New Look to the 'Chemise' or 'sack dress'..As Seen on TV draws on an extensive, eclectic array of sources: presidential archives, museum collections, business publications, scholarly accounts, popular histories, and even the responses of listeners to Professor Marling's appearances on radio talk shows
— Norman L. Rosenberg

Boston Globe

In this entertaining and informative book, Marling uses a variety of visual icons of the 1950s to depict the decade as an ocean of vibrant color, movement and style...[She] is one of this country's strongest advocates of the study of popular culture. She is also one of our most eloquent analysts of the meanings to be found in objects. Her book's multilayered, dizzying descriptions...plunge the reader into a culture drunk on color and form. They testify to the complex cultural significance with which Americans in the postwar years invested commonplace objects and images. They also blur the lines between aesthetics and sociology...Marling's full and convincing interpretations of the objects under discussion exhibit both humor and empathy.
— Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat

New Statesman and Society

This is a gorgeous confection of a book...As Seen on TV manages to plug directly into the more mundane fads and fashions of popular culture.
— Angela McRobbie

Times Higher Education Supplement

Karal Ann Marling's book is an invitation to celebrate the dawning of the world as television...[She] lovingly guides us through this landscape, the world of what design critic Thomas Hine called the "populuxe," glitz and glitter for the postwar masses...The whole period has found a sympathetic chronicler in Marling and her account of the influence of television on 1950s America makes for fascinating reading.
— Gareth Stanton

eattle Times

As Seen on TV combines high seriousness and just plain fun. It's a pleasure to read...Marling is as mercilessly convincing as she is witty and bright. Her stinging portrait of the 1950s easily extends beyond that much-satirized decade, enabling us to see its primitive reflection in today's popular culture and mass markets.
— Joseph F. Keppler

New York Times Book Review - John Updike
[Marling] offers in seven chapters some witty riffs on 50s themes: the topics evoked in As Seen on TV are, in order, women's fashion, amateur painting, the arrival of Disneyland, those fabulous finned autos, the taming of Elvis Presley, home cooking and Richard Nixon's "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev...[It is] an intellectual romp, a dizzying free fall through the exuberant 'visual culture' of that first post-World War II decade.
Los Angeles Times - Karen Stabiner
Irresistible...Karal Ann Marling's enthusiasm is refreshing, entertaining and imaginative. Her energy is infectious...She manages to make the decade that time forgot come alive.
Reviews in American History - Norman L. Rosenberg
As Seen on TV offers fresh, imaginative readings of individual artifacts, particularly Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book and television commercials for automobiles. Moving Beyond text to context, chapters on the ongoing spectacle at Disneyland and the one-time-only "Kitchen Debate" between Nixon and Khruschev provide suggestive rereadings of familiar topics. [The book] becomes most interesting when imaginatively leaping from one set of cultural products or practices to another. It glides from Mamie Eisenhower's New Look to the 'Chemise' or 'sack dress'..As Seen on TV draws on an extensive, eclectic array of sources: presidential archives, museum collections, business publications, scholarly accounts, popular histories, and even the responses of listeners to Professor Marling's appearances on radio talk shows
Boston Globe - Tinky "Dakota" Weisblat
In this entertaining and informative book, Marling uses a variety of visual icons of the 1950s to depict the decade as an ocean of vibrant color, movement and style...[She] is one of this country's strongest advocates of the study of popular culture. She is also one of our most eloquent analysts of the meanings to be found in objects. Her book's multilayered, dizzying descriptions...plunge the reader into a culture drunk on color and form. They testify to the complex cultural significance with which Americans in the postwar years invested commonplace objects and images. They also blur the lines between aesthetics and sociology...Marling's full and convincing interpretations of the objects under discussion exhibit both humor and empathy.
New Statesman and Society - Angela McRobbie
This is a gorgeous confection of a book...As Seen on TV manages to plug directly into the more mundane fads and fashions of popular culture.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Gareth Stanton
Karal Ann Marling's book is an invitation to celebrate the dawning of the world as television...[She] lovingly guides us through this landscape, the world of what design critic Thomas Hine called the "populuxe," glitz and glitter for the postwar masses...The whole period has found a sympathetic chronicler in Marling and her account of the influence of television on 1950s America makes for fascinating reading.
eattle Times - Joseph F. Keppler
As Seen on TV combines high seriousness and just plain fun. It's a pleasure to read...Marling is as mercilessly convincing as she is witty and bright. Her stinging portrait of the 1950s easily extends beyond that much-satirized decade, enabling us to see its primitive reflection in today's popular culture and mass markets.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674048829
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Karal Ann Marling is Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
1 Mamie Eisenhower's New Look 8
2 Hyphenated Culture: Painting by Numbers in the New Age of Leisure 50
3 Disneyland, 1955: The Place That Was Also a TV Show 86
4 Autoeroticism: America's Love Affair with the Car in the Television Age 128
5 When Elvis Cut His Hair: The Meaning of Mobility 164
6 Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book: The Aesthetics of Food in the 1950s 202
7 Nixon in Moscow: Appliances, Affluence, and Americanism 242
Afterword 284
Notes 289
Illustration Credits 319
Acknowledgments 321
Index 323
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