I’ve spent a significant amount of time this year traveling for the Adobe Creative Residency, which means I’ve also spent a great deal of time recovering from illnesses I’ve picked up along the way. Thanks to this newfangled downtime, I’ve been able to catch up on a lot of television I’ve missed out on from over the years. I’ve been working through AMC’s Mad Men since May, and with only two seasons left and a few more trips on the horizon, I know I’ll be finished with it in no time.
I don’t particularly like any of the characters on the show: Betty Draper is miserable, Pete Campbell insufferable, the rest of the office gang from Harry Crane to Roger Sterling much too foolish. I am too conflicted about Don Draper to even attempt to summarize him with just one adjective. The only character I can semi-relate to is Peggy Olson, but even that is not much to get by on. Arguably, I think such an ensemble of off-putting personalities was created on purpose. As a viewer, I’ve become entranced by the world in which they live in, rather than with the people themselves. My favorite characters on the show are not technically characters at all, but the inanimate objects and details that make up each set instead.
Perched on top a shelf in the kitchen of the Draper residence of the first few seasons, there sits a ceramic cookie jar. Bright letters and shapes disrupt its creamy surface, making for a dashing accessory too bold to ignore. It appears in the background of nearly every kitchen scene; a fly on the wall for every marital fight, neighborhood gossip session, and family meal. This cookie jar is as culturally appealing as it is visually appealing. It is a consistent third-party perspective that keeps the chaotic narrative grounded in its time, a swift reminder of American mid-century norms that might seem archaic upon reflection.
Appreciating such details while watching Mad Men over the past few months has forced me to confront an ongoing personal fascination with mid-century nostalgia. Especially in food-based projects, I’ve become fixated with capturing small notions of the 1950s and 60s in photography. Whether it’s echoing old cookbook aesthetics in The A to Z of Foods I Like or riffing off packaging design in Feast Your Eyes, the influence is there, even if not as readily apparent. This time period represents exciting change where technological innovations seemed to advance society post-war. With food so ingrained in daily life, what and how we eat is indisputably informed by such changes, and a great way to gauge the cultural norms of the time. This twenty-something year period is a small pocket of innocent excitement I find captivating to revisit, and this holiday season, I realize I am not the only one.
Every winter, society seems to collectively pine for these “simpler” times. In the last few weeks of the holidays, we seek to reclaim the tastes, sounds and smells of tradition, pursuing the comfort in the nostalgia of seasons past. Today, we are so intimately connected on a global scale where news travels faster than ever before. With such an influx of information, we have become acutely aware of not only our immediate surroundings, but the world as a whole. With such a sensory overload, it is easy to feel like everything is falling apart, and it has become only natural for any good news to fall by the wayside. This winter especially, we seem to be relying on our holiday nostalgia as an indulgent form of escape. But is it effective?
As silly as it might sound, watching Mad Men has taught me a lot of lessons: while things may always seem better looking back, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that it didn’t necessarily feel perfect at the time. The majority of the show takes place in the 1960s, overlapping with many significant historical events. From Kennedy’s assassination to The March on Washington, the show’s plot line is consequently intertwined with such moments. Similar to how threats of war linger over our head today, the looming threat of the Cold War is a common thread for worry throughout the entirety of the series.
In 2011, Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris took its own playful approach to escapism. A screenwriter finds himself mysteriously transported back to the 1920s every midnight while in Paris, so obsessed that he prefers living in this past fantasy world. The film defines this concept as the “golden age of thinking,” or a denial of the present so strong that “the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in [is] a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” Perhaps a more PC—albeit broader—approach to this philosophy could be found in the “grass is always greener” adage.
Upon the arrival to my parents’ house for Christmas this year, I noticed a new addition to the kitchen counter: our own cookie jar, this one in the shape of what I’d imagine was the artist’s best interpretation of a bear from the 1960s. Completely stripped of any of its original paint, its distractingly pointy nose and absurdly blank pupils make for quite a beast. If there were any cookies in the jar today, I’m sure it would remain full, as it is frankly too scary looking to go anywhere near. When my mother looks at it, however, she sees something different. While helping her parents downsize into a new home this past summer, she came across the jar that was always out in her kitchen as a kid. Now, it sits in ours, a reminder of her family while growing up.
As I become more and more fascinated with the past through an anthropological approach, I recognize the feelings of the warmth and ease that come with it. For me, the impact of nostalgia is twofold. The mid-century period is long enough ago that I never personally experienced it, but close enough that it has directly shaped the lives of the people around me. Whenever I watch Mad Men, I can’t help but think about my mother as baby Kiernan Shipka or, heaven forbid, my grandfather as a Sterling Cooper employee going to work (although I personally like to picture him as more of a Robert Morse).
I might not yet have the proper perspective on gaining perspective. But it’s the slight tinge of comfort in these moments, the inexplicable charm contained in the details of a bygone era, that keep me looking back. For me, for now, it’s the only way to move forward.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a show to finish.