One of the most frustrating aspects of reading or watching a bad period piece is the inability of the writer/director/whomever to remove the modern cultural assumptions from the work. Now, no one can ever completely achieve this, but so many are positively injecting modern morals and prejudices where they don’t belong. It’s distracting and grating.
Old movies, commercials, music and books are a valuable pursuit for those who wish to understand history. Also, much of what survived from decades past is simply delightful. A close watching will tell you how much cultural consensus around politics, home, religion and morality have shifted. Case in point, Billy Wilder’s 1955 classic: The Seven Year Itch.
In the film, Richard Sherman (no relation to the Seahawks’ cornerback of the same name) is subject to all manner of temptation in Manhattan while his wife and child are vacationing in Maine. The primary test of Sherman’s willpower comes from, of course, the voluptuous Marilyn Monroe. But, the hero tries (and fails) to resist the charms of many lesser vices including cigarettes and whisky.
On the first night of batching it, Sherman resolves to follow his doctor’s orders. In a manful effort at virtue, he eschews his grain alcohol of choice in favor of raspberry soda. Did you get that? Soda was the healthy choice in 1950’s America.
Sherman himself wonders at the wisdom of his doctor’s advice when he reads the ingredients on the bottle:
Carbonated water, citric acid, corn syrup, artificial raspberry flavoring, vegetable colors, and preservative. Why is this stuff better for you than a little scotch and a twist of lemon?
If I were writing a story set in 1950s Manhattan, I would certainly consider using this piece of information to create an authentic atmosphere. At the very least, I’d think twice about having a character talk about the dangers of soda as if everyone knew they were bad for your health.
History ain’t just events. It’s ideas, subconscious bias, and unspoken expectations. These attitudes are easier to understand through the media of the age.