The images oozed prosperity. People were happy. War was behind them, bright futures ahead. And one possession above all others represented suburban success incarnate: the automobile.
"Cruise-O-Matic: Automobile Advertising of the 1950s'' (Chronicle Books, $18.95, paper), a reissue of the well-conceived 1988 book by automotive advertising authority Yasutoshi Ikuta, captures the essence of this economic bonhomie.
Using very little text, Ikuta lets the advertisements speak for themselves. And speak they do -- loudly and exuberantly. The graphics, the sloganeering, the linkage of automobiles to status and class and happiness all make for a supremely entertaining collection of imagery that is also, in a very crucial way, the documentary history of an era.
Superlatives abounded. The Pontiac was ''a beautiful dream that can come true.'' The Jeepster was ''a daring, fun-loving dream realized in steel and chrome.'' The Hudson Hornet was ''glamour with a powerhouse punch!'' The protagonists were women in furs and pearls, and well-tailored men with angular jaws. In the case of family cars, add thickets of apple-cheeked children ready to hop in and get on the road.
Given postwar America's profound love affair with the automobile, this is a fitting way to describe it -- through the very persuasive advertising techniques of the era that now seem so quaint and amiable. Yet behind each one sits a fascinating little lesson about what America was during that now-iconic decade.
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Every city has its soundtracks, perhaps none more so than New York. With "New York: Songs of the City'' (Billboard Books, $35), musicologist and folklorist Nancy Groce explores the songs that have defined the city -- and how the city itself has defined music for more than 150 years.
With an amazingly comprehensive collection of anecdotes, lyrics, biographies and artwork from decades of sheet music, Groce offers a musical ethnography of the city that never sleeps. Rodgers, Hart, Porter, Cohan, Berlin -- all are woven into the tapestry of lyrics and music.
From ''Harlem Nocturne'' to ''Broadway's Gone Hill-Billy'' to ''The Subway Glide,'' they're all here; songs you've probably never heard of (''I Saw It in the BRT,'' an ode to the old Brooklyn Rapid Transit System) along with old standards (''The Sidewalks of New York'').
To see how music has evolved in the city is fascinating enough. To read about it in such a well-researched, well-illustrated manner is even better. This book is a fine piece of work befitting the daunting subject it chronicles.
Set in stone?
Skewering sacred cows can be an important duty, especially when they're the monuments and memorials that dot our landscape -- and that we as Americans take for granted. This is where author James W. Loewen takes aim in "Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong'' (The New Press, $26.95).
Few historic sites are safe from his prying eyes. The Jefferson Memorial's meaning is explored in an essay called ''Juxtaposing Quotations to Misrepresent a Founding Father.'' Other pieces include ''Making Native Americans Look Stupid,'' ''Celebrating Genocide'' and ''Telling Amusing Incidents for the Tourists.''
''Rarely do historic markers and monuments criticize the state,'' Loewen writes. ''Instead, they make things that were problematic seem appropriate, ordained, even commendable.''
Nattering negativism? Not really. Loewen takes on the juggernaut of American mythmaking and, pugnaciously, emerges as the winner through sheer force of will and well-referenced fact.
In a country where revisionist history often is created to preserve the purportedly grander narrative of American progress and to market history as a commodity, ''Lies Across America'' and books like it are necessary pauses, designed to drive home an important lesson: that the makers of history, just like us, had agendas and foibles and hopes for immortality that might have colored their views or compromised the facts.
And the difference between their interpretations of history and what actually happened might be wide indeed.
Lauded and loved for its design, the Airstream trailer is an icon of the American road. In "Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht'' (Chronicle Books, $19.95, paperback), it gets its moment in the sun.
Graphic designer Bryan Burkhart and culture writer David Hunt leave few pebbles unturned in their unremitting examination of this corner of the culture. Between the covers are old ads, travelogues, blueprints of interiors, critical design analyses and photos of Airstreams in nearly every possible situation.
What emerges is a picture of American mobile culture in its infancy, fueled by the design of a trailer that remains staggeringly beautiful and streamlined today. This is one of the key contraptions that got Americans on the roads and kept them there, rolling along miles of highway.
Despite this book's appealing design and impressive collection of graphic materials, you'd have to be a real fan to appreciate everything it has to offer. But for aficionados of American roadside culture, not to mention auto buffs, ''Airstream'' delivers enough nostalgia and detail to satisfy just about any brand of wanderlust or nostalgic craving.
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