"Brown Paper Wrappers"
Advertisements in the Pulps
Delivered to your door in a discrete brown paper wrapper! Sold only to engaged or married adults! Don't delay! Check, sign and mail coupon today!
Advertisements in Canadian pulp magazines from the 1940s and 1950s reveal something about the character of the Canadian public at the time -- something that normally would only have been revealed behind closed bedroom doors.
As the popularity of the pulps themselves shows, there was definitely a market opportunity for those willing to pander to the public's more carnal interests, and mail order provided the perfect way to do it. Publications that people wouldn't be seen buying at their local newsstand or druggist could easily be purchased anonymously through mail-order companies and delivered directly to their doors in a "discrete brown paper wrapper."
Titles such as Live, Love and Like It, How to Get Along with Girls, and Natural Control of Contraception might seem mild by today's standards, but as Carolyn Strange and Tina Loo (2004, p. 56) observe in True Crime, True North, in an era when the publication of information about birth control was technically illegal, books that dealt frankly with the facts of life were dynamite.
Most of the ads for these books directed people to send their money to the Alexander Sales Co. of Toronto, by far the most prominent purveyor of such materials. Mindful of the watchful eyes of censors, many of Alexander's ads included the prohibition "sold only to engaged or married adults" -- although how the customer's marital status was established is unclear.
Even more dubious is the stipulation that accompanies the ad for the book How to Draw from the Nude by Charles Hope Provost. The ad claims that the book is "The Buy of the Year" and includes "34 photographs from nature." Due to its content, however, it is to be "sold only to art students and adults" (Scoop Detective Cases, 1950, p. 80). Clearly, anyone interested in ogling the models of How to Draw from the Nude could claim to be an art student and, assuming their money was good, get the chance.
Based on the ads, we can construct a profile of the pulp magazine audience, at least as they were perceived by the publishers. The ads indicate that the publishers saw the readership of the pulps as distinct from (and distinctly older than) that of their comic books, and they pitched their sales accordingly. There were no X-ray glasses or itching powders for sale here, and any cartoon books that were advertised were likely to be what was euphemistically referred to as a "bachelor's book," full of saucy illustrations and bawdy jokes.
The people reading the pulps were by and large adults, of both genders, with disposable incomes. They were ready to order and spend for everyday items, such as household tools or gadgets for work or leisure. More risqué items were implicitly advertised in accordance with possible marital duties, and the ads indicated that the publishers knew it. Along with the publications listed above, the pulps sold products designed to appeal to their female readers, such as "Sexational Perfume" (Sensational Love Experiences, 1950, p. 55), the "Great Date Blouse" -- an original creation of the seemingly illustrious "Elizabeth of Hollywood" (Sensational Love Experiences, 1950, p. 49) -- and a mysterious "Hormone Cream" (Sensational Love Experiences, 1950, p. 58) that may or may not have had aphrodisiac properties.
Alongside these items were less spicy offerings like hands-free flashlights, four-in-one screwdrivers, instructions on how to make your own wine at home, complete cutlery sets, luminous paint kits, first-aid guides, pocket telescopes and fire extinguishers. For married or engaged couples looking to equip a modern household (and a modern library) the pulps were clearly an invaluable resource.
For single men and women looking to satisfy their carnal curiosity, though, they offered more -- in the form of the romance pulps and bachelor's magazines.
Scoop Detective Cases. Vol. 8, no. 1 (April 1950).
Sensational Love Experiences. Vol. 9, no. 1 (January 1950).
Strange, Carolyn, and Tina Loo. True Crime, True North: the Golden Age of Canadian Pulp Magazines. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2004.