Advertising in the Golden Age of Science Fiction

I’ve wanted to write about some of the ads I’ve come across in Astounding during my Vacation in the Golden Age, but I haven’t really had a chance. Each episode typically tops out somewhere north of 3,000 words and I want the focus to be on the content of the issue. So I figured I’d take this opportunity to do a brief write up on some of the more interesting or amusing ads I’ve seen in my vacation so far.

Keep in mind that what hold true for my vacation in the Golden Age holds true here too: that I am a visitor from the future, and bring along all the baggage of that foreknowledge with me.

Smoking, of course, was big 1939 and while there may have been the vaguest of hints at its health hazards, those hints didn’t seem to show up in the popular press. Of all the cigarette and tobacco ads I’ve come across in Astounding, I think that Union Leader’s are the most amusing to me. Take this one below, for instance (and click on the image for a larger version):


Here is a father lecturing a son on the joys of tobacco–something so different from what we experience today as to be almost alien. (Perhaps there are fathers that still do this, but you’d never see this in an advertisement.) Of course, sex sells, too and in the late ’30s and early ’40s, the definition of “sex” was somewhat different than what we have today. Take for instance this Chesterfield ad:


The ad illustrates the Chesterfield “Smart Girls” for March covered to the neck, and wearing gloves. If these kinds of cigarette ads were allowed today, imagine how much less clothing (if any) the Chesterfield girls might have.

Making money–and in particular, getting rich quick–is something that everyone is interested in, and you can find schemes in all kinds of magazines today, but especially online. It never occurred to me that these schemes were age-old and probably go back to ancient Rome and Greece. But I discovered that many of these same schemes existed at the dawn of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Perhaps not all of these were “schemes” per se, but the advertisements read as if anyone who took these courses (which, of course, cost money) could raise their prospects considerably. Take, for example, electricity:


And if that didn’t suit you, you could always go and work for the Federal Government, which had, it would seem an endless supply of jobs with good benefits (paid vacation!) and excellent salaries:


Another thing that changes over time (aside from government salaries) is fashion trends. For several decades, the men and especially women who grace the cover of our magazines have become slimmer and slimmer. Slim is in, so to speak. And yet there was a time when skinning and slender was not in fashion and young men were encourages to bulk up, as this ad illustrates:


Of course, this ad suggests the bulk up can happen simply by taking a pill, a kind of reversal from today where some ads suggest you can lose weight simply by taking a pill. I can just imagine the comedian Steven Wright asking: “I wonder what would happen if you took both bulk-up and diet pills at the same time?” Those who are more serious about fitness might choose some more physical weight of adding muscle tone to their bodies. They would therefore be pleased to come across this device:


Another change in the times: today’s leading men are all rough-shaven characters with some kind of dark shadow mooning the lower half of their faces. That 5-o’clock shadow is all the rage now, but 70 years ago, the ladies weren’t so gaga about it:


Of course, Astounding was a science fiction magazine and so one would expect at least some of the ads to be self-serving. There were ads for other Street & Smith publications, most often Astounding’s sister magazine, Unknown:


And Astounding needed writers to supply it stories and writers need instruments on which to bang out their yarns. So it makes sense that you would expect to find advertisements for typewriters in a science fiction magazine:


I wonder if all of these ads were targeted at the audience thought to read Astounding, or if this was more of a blanket ad campaign? It would also be interesting to see how these advertisement evolve and change over the course of the Golden Age, particularly as we enter the war years. To that end, I may post a follow up to these Golden Age advertisements as I progress through this vacation and together we can see how things change.

Until then, smoke ’em if you got ’em!


  1. A lot of words in those ads…In our future, “Nobody reads long copy ads anymore.” It’s phrase commonly overheard in ad agencies. To be honest, not that many people read at all these days. I’d be curious to see the ads, if any, that exist in sci-fi mags now.

    1. Jason, remember that in 1940 there was no television. I think in part that is why fans in the letter columns are so focused on the illustrations. It was the only way they could visualize a rocketship, for instance. So it doesn’t surprise me that these ads are so “wordy”. If anything they are more like radio spots.

      I meant to mention that there is nothing like this kind of advertising in magazines today. At best, you’ll have full-page ads from the major publishers pushing a new book. But Gillette? Camel? Listerine? No way.

      I almost called you out in the post yesterday, mad ad-man that you are, to see if you could answer this question: were ads back in 1940 targeted to a specific audience they way they are today, or were these just bulk sales that were likely used in all Street & Smith publications, regardless of the genre (i.e., anyone reading a magazine will be interested in this product)?

  2. Lafayette Ronald Hubbard keeps on turning up in your vacation, even in your special features. The ad for Unknown is in fact touting L. Ron Hubbard’s novella “Death’s Deputy” (note the singular). That issue of Unknown was also graced with a spetacular Edd Cartier cover. Take a look-see: Clearly Frank Kelly Freas didn’t come out of nowhere.

    1. Those ads for Unknown are written to push just the right buttons in a s.f. reader. And if I didn’t pretend to be so disciplined, I’d want to go hunt down those issues and read those stories too. Must. Stay. Focused. 🙂


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