STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE WINTER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Over the past 100 years or so, the ukulele has been featured in countless forms of printed media, everything from calendars to luggage tags to Valentine’s Day cards. Of course, there are innumerable music books, instruction booklets, and pieces of sheet music that feature the ukulele, but these have been covered in past writeups in this magazine. In this article, I’d like to focus on vintage newspaper and magazine advertisements, comics, cover illustrations, and related printed media from the 1910s to the 1960s. (Today’s “third wave” of uke popularity offers plenty of current examples, as well, but I am not including those). These publications rarely mention the ukulele’s musical qualities, but rather employ it to evoke an image, feeling, or memory of what the ukulele represents, be it simple musical pleasure, a leisurely life in a tropical paradise, or the innocence of a bygone era.
Of course, it’s natural that the first advertisements that featured ukuleles promoted ukuleles themselves. The earliest known print ad that referred to the ukulele as a unique instrument (as opposed to a machete, the Portuguese instrument from which the uke evolved) appeared in the October 19, 1895 edition of the Honolulu Evening Bulletin. The ad, placed by pioneering luthier Jose do Espirito Santo, proclaimed his business as makers of “taro patch and ukulele guitars made from Hawaiian woods.” Dozens of such ads appeared over the following decades in various periodicals, promoting the uke-building enterprises of both small-shop luthiers and larger companies in Hawaii and on the mainland. These ads were often accompanied by testimonials from musicians, actors, and celebrities. One of my favorites is the 1950s-era ad for Lapin’s plastic “Happy Tune” ukes.
It includes quotes from flamboyant bandleader Cab Calloway (“Hi-de-ho—a real buy”), legendary jazz drummer Gene Krupa (“Hot and sweet”), and TV character actor Morey Amsterdam (“YUK-A-PUK, What a uke”).
Advertisements for Hawaiian products and travel embraced the ukulele as a key part of their brand imagery. The Dole food company featured a ukulele in stylish ads promoting its pineapple juice and, later, canned pineapple slices. The Matson Steamship company’s travel ads and brochures often pictured the ukulele along with carefree shipboard passengers. The uke was also featured on Matson’s menu covers and decorative murals.
It didn’t take long for advertisers to employ the uke as a go-to prop for selling all manner of non-musical products, from shampoo, toothpaste, mouthwash, beer, hair tonic, and deodorant to automobiles, pipe tobacco, clothing, photographic film, soft drinks, and even feminine hygiene products! Ads created in the 1920s–’40s commonly exploited the consumer’s fear of embarrassment to make their products seem indispensable.
Take, for instance, the Vaseline Hair Tonic ad that pictures a hunky uke-playing guy next to a girl who is thinking “Oh-oh, dry scalp!” In the ad’s text she goes on to say: “His music isn’t bad, but his hair is awful.” Listerine’s ad for their mouthwash, which ran in the September 1929 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal contained a more subtle message. Displaying a lovely painting of a “gay Philadelphia girl” jauntily strumming her uke, and the somewhat cryptic headline “Outdoors adored… indoors ignored,” the ad required a close read to discover just what it was about: thwarting bad breath by gargling with germ-killing Listerine.
Using sex to sell products is a classic advertising device clearly evident in Jantzen’s ’50s-era magazine ad promoting their line of Tahitian-style “Cabana Mates” clothing. The artwork shows a seductive swimsuit-wearing woman, an acrobatic young boy, and an irritated-looking man playing a decorative uke (I can just hear him saying, “get lost kid!”). The ad’s less-than-subtle implications are summed up in its bold text: “for glamour… and l’amour…”
Another gambit commonly used by advertisers was to employ the ukulele as a symbol of wholesome family values. Consider the ad for 7-Up soda on the facing page, which shows a young ukulele-toting girl and harmonica-holding boy drinking 7-Up on a hayride; what could be more all-American? To drive the point home further, the ad’s subhead announces that 7-Up is “The All-Family Drink!” Ansco used a similar photo to promote their color photo and movie film, showing a young blonde couple laying on a stack of hay.
In the early 1950s, Coca-Cola tied the ukulele to patriotism, running full-page magazine ads showing an illustration of a young uniformed soldier evidently on leave or back at home. As he smiles and plays the piano, his son plays a tenor uke and sings as his wife serves up frosty bottles of Coke.
Nostalgia provided yet another vehicle for advertisers to deliver their product-promoting messages. In the 1960s, decades after the uke’s “first wave” of popularity had faded, Revelation tobacco ran pen-and-ink ads showing a pipe-smoking man strumming his ukulele in earshot of a pair of bathing beauties; all are clad in old-fashioned swimsuits. The ad declares that “Revelation hasn’t changed since Uncle Charlie wowed the girls at Coney Island.”
Product tie-ins and placements are common in contemporary movies. For example, Woody Harrelson eating Twinkies in Zombieland and the yellow-and-black Chevy Camaro “Bumblebee” car in 2007’s Transformers. But movie-product tie ins aren’t a new concept: Coppertone’s ad, shown below, features the movie’s lead actors, Deborah Walley (who stars as Gidget) and Jimmy Darren, with Darren playing a uke—something he doesn’t actually do in the film.
Lighthearted humor and the uke seem to go hand in hand, so it isn’t surprising that ukuleles have often appeared in comic books and comic strips. Possibly the earliest newspaper to feature a uke cartoon was the November 5, 1916 edition of the New York Tribune. Titled “Ukulele Square, the Hawaiian Quarter of New York,” this full-page illustration consists of a number of single-frame comics, including one featuring a group of uke crooners assembled under a rather unflattering statue of Queen Liliuokalani (top right); another that shows Hawaiian Square’s uke-strumming, grass skirt-wearing snow removal squad (center); and another that portrays a junk man who specializes in buying and selling old ukuleles (lower left). The comics were drawn by political and social satirist Louis M. Glackens, who was well known for his humorous depictions of New York’s melting pot of various ethnic groups in the early 20th century.
Unfortunately, when a uke appears in a comic book or strip, it often ends up being the butt of the joke. For example, in this frame from one of Hank Ketcham’s “Dennis the Menace” syndicated comic strip, Dennis asks his geriatric neighbor George Wilson about his ukulele: “Did your guitar get wet and shrink?” In the remainder of the strip, George reveals that he used his “little 4 string beauty” to romance Mrs. Wilson. However, she then provides the strip’s punchline: When George asked to marry her, she said yes because “It was the only way I could get him to stop playing the ukulele.”
In a similar vein, the cover of “Marge’s Little Lulu” comic book shows Lulu about to dose her uke-playing and singing pal Tubby with a spoonful of castor oil. Her efforts to silence Tubby apparently are part of Dell Comics’ Pledge to Parents printed inside the comic book. It states that “…when your child buys a Dell Comic that it contains only good fun and happy adventures.”
One of the strangest portrayals of the ukulele in a comic appeared in Gold Key Comics’ Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery published in 1975. In a strip titled “Don’t Play That Ukulele,” two boys rafting down a river in Missouri (an homage to Huckleberry Finn?) encounter a giant snake monster, which ends up devouring a couple in a rowboat, apparently attracted by the sound of the man’s ukulele playing and singing.
The enormous appeal of the ukulele in the 1920s made it a popular choice for portrayal on the covers of magazines and novels. Possibly the first magazine to feature a ukulele on its cover was the March 1923 edition of Modern Priscilla. Published from 1887 to 1930, this large-format American magazine focused on women’s interests of the times, including fashion, needlework, and housekeeping. The artwork on this issue’s cover showcased a lovely lass with golden curly locks playing a banjo uke. Unfortunately, no information or instruction about actually playing the ukulele is included in the magazine.
The uke also appeared on the cover of the November 19, 1927 edition of the nationally prominent Saturday Evening Post magazine. The illustration by Bradshaw Crandell shows a woman playing a uke (this time, a standard soprano) much to the delight of her husband, who hovers near her.
Less than a year later, the uke turned up yet again on the cover of the September 22, 1928 Saturday Evening Post in artwork done by Norman Rockwell, one of America’s greatest illustrators. Titled “Serenade,” the image depicts a well-dressed couple of tweens sitting together, with the boy strumming a ukulele and crooning a tune; the red-haired girl’s bored facial expression suggests that she’s not necessarily enjoying his efforts to woo her.
During the “second wave” of ukulele popularity that sprang to life during WWII and went into the 1950s, the instrument appeared on the cover of the July 5, 1941 issue of Liberty magazine. This publication typically featured an assortment of articles discussing politics, the U.S. military, and what it called “the American Way of Life.” The cover illustration, by the well-known pinup artist Edward Gilchrist, depicts a doe-eyed young woman decked out in a floral lei and a Hawaiian-print dress, an obvious nod to the U.S. military presence in the Hawaiian Islands.
Our favorite little four-stringed instrument also appeared occasionally on the covers of so-called “pulp” magazines and novels, which were abundant and popular from the late 1890s through the late 1950s.(The term “pulp” came from the fact that these inexpensive publications were typically printed on cheap wood-pulp paper). These ranged in style and content from somewhat racy to downright salacious: 1930s issues of Real Screen Fun and La Paree Stories both ran covers featuring pin-up style illustrations of scantily-clad women playing ukuleles, images considered inappropriate and distasteful today. A more sedate image of a woman with a ukulele appeared on the cover of Vina Delmar’s 1928 pulp novel Bad Girl. Despite its suggestive title and cover, the book’s story, which takes place in 1920s Harlem, is primarily a cautionary tale about a woman’s risk of acquiring a bad reputation. As objectionable as this saucy cover may seem now, it likely helped generate sales of the book, which was popular enough to spawn both a 1930 stage play and a 1931 movie of the same title, the latter starring James Dunn and Sally Eilers.
However, lest you think that pulp magazines and novels were only devised to appeal to men’s tastes, the cover of the May 1950 issue of Girls’ Romance magazine featured a reclining man strumming a uke, with his head in the lap of his wistful paramour. The text on the cover reads: “His love songs were only for me, but how could I answer when I had already made a… TRAGIC CHOICE.” We can only hope that choice didn’t involve learning to play the accordion.