Smoking and drinking were standard back then. “Widespread” doesn’t cover it. They were nearly universal.
It’s easy to forget that Industry won WWII, and that the military-industrial complex crossed the whole society. All young men served in the military, either voluntarily or via the draft. Industry and its companion, Science, ruled. And — to an unhealthy degree — the former drove the latter.
Tobacco was an leading agricultural product, and cigarette manufacture was a leading industry that drove consumption through advertising so thick and ubiquitous — on TV and radio, in magazines, newspapers and on billboards — that for most people the only choice was which brand to smoke.
I remember thinking, as a child, that lighting sticks on fire and breathing the smoke was absurd and unhealthy on its face — and later being the only one of my high school friends who didn’t smoke. But I was weird. Common sense then was pro-smoking.
Drinking and driving was only a little harder to rationalize. I remember statistics that said one in twenty-five drivers at night in the U.S. were drunk.
Industry and Science also together decided, among other things, that —
- Breast feeding was bad for babies, and “formula” was better. Thank you, Nestle.
- Children at birth should be taken from their mothers and stored in nurseries.
- All boys should all be circumcised at birth. So much for the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”
- Tonsilitis” was a disease, and every severely sore throat should be treated surgically, involving removal of adenoids from the nose as well.
- Intestinal infections were likely to be appendicitis, so the appendix had to go too.
- Education is a manufacturing process, the purpose of which is to fill the empty vessels of childrens’ heads with curricula approved by the State.
- Childrens’ intelligence — their most unique and human quality — was a fixed quantity (a “quotient”) that could be measured, as if by a dipstick, with IQ tests, so herds of students could be sorted into bell curves to better manage their progress through systems that regarded them — with the acquiescence of themselves and their parents — as “products” of their education.
I could go on. For what it’s worth, I have my appendix, but lack tonsils, adenoids, spleen and foreskin, all of which were considered “vestigial” or otherwise bad by the medical fashions at the times of their removal. My known IQ scores have a range of 80 points. If my parents hadn’t believed in me, my low IQ and standardized test scores in the 8th grade would have shunted me to a “vocational-technical” high school to learn wood shop, auto mechanics or some other “trade”. I shall always be grateful for that.
Mad Men is close to home for me in another way: I was long in the advertising business too, though a generation after Mad Men’s time, well after the “creative” revolution of the mid- to late 60s. It was one of the great periods in my life, but I’ve moved on. Similarly, I had a hard time watching the Sopranos, because I grew up in New Jersey, knew people like those, and was not entertained.
I think drugs and self-abuse are rituals of youth rationalized in their time by a sense of exemption from the due invoice we call aging. How long before fewer people are being tatooed than those having tattoos removed? I’m giving it 20 years.