Newsstand – Northwest Corner of Broad and Snyder Streets. Photograph by Wenzel J. Hess,
November 29, 1949.
In the middle of the 20th century, The Bulletin seemed to be everywhere. Blue newsstands with gold lettering had grown familiar at intersections throughout the city: in South Philadelphia (illustrated), North Philadelphia, East Falls, West Oak Lane, Wynnefield and here and there throughout Center City. In Philadelphia, nearly everybody could read The Bulletin, and many did.
In 1947, when the paper turned 100, circulation stood at the highest its owners had seen before or after. Peter Binzen described the party thrown at the Convention Center. Management ordered a six-foot-tall cake for the paper’s 1,700 employees and read congratulations (sort of) from President Harry Truman (“I have never known it to hit below the belt”) and TIME Magazine (“The Bulletin may be unspectacular, but it is a good newspaper.”)
Backhanded compliments mattered little to The Bulletin’s approximately three-quarters of a million daily readers. For generations, “interior life was what counted in Philadelphia,” wrote John Lukacs. The city had not outlived the “corrupt and contented” tagline given by Lincoln Steffens in 1904; it had embraced it. For every registered Democrat there were two registered Republicans, with politics Lukacs labeled “a kind of Business-Biblical Americanism of the Old Protectionist Dispensation.”
But things were changing. Soon after 1950, Philadelphia forfeited its rank as the third largest American city to Los Angeles (of all places!). The city hovered at the brink of a political and civic reform that would tear down all kinds of walls, not least of which was the so-called Chinese Wall that cut the western half of Center City in two.
Riding high, The Bulletin sought to secure its position with advertising that played on the soul of what would become known as “the private city.” This campaign turned into one of the longest-lived in advertising. For 28-years, Americans awaited the next illustration by Richard Decker over the slogan that quickly became famous: “In Philadelphia, nearly everybody reads the Bulletin.” Decker, the son of Chestnut Street stationers, had a prolific career as a cartoonist for the New Yorker. Ben Yagoda describes him as “a virtuoso of the panoramic full-page gag” with a brand of humor that “sprang from the one key element that was unexpected or out of joint.” Each of these Bulletin ads worked from the same premise: while a scene of some drama unfolds, everyone in the crowd, except one excited, skinny, balding fellow, is complacently reading their copy of newspaper.
Each would be a cartoon, except for the fact that it was really an advertisement. That their humor came at the expense of nearly every Philadelphian gave a few cultural critics reason to take offense. According to Nathaniel Burt, the ads speak to “the Philadelphia lack of curiosity, the inability and unwillingness to observe the unknown, no matter how spectacular.” They project “Philadelphia’s enormous self-satisfaction, the delight in the status quo; above all, the intense groupiness, the cheerful conformity … their complete exclusion of the oddball, the intense, the enthusiastic and the alarmed—no matter how proper his concern.” Burt concluded the message conveyed that “Nearly everybody reads the Bulletin, nearly everybody, that is, except the peculiar.”
Philip Stevick considered Decker’s ads “uncompromisingly derogatory,” especially in light of the fact that Philadelphia had long been the butt of national jokes as “a sleepy town.” When “faced with the unexpected, or the dramatic, or the exciting, or indeed the life threatening, Philadelphians, the ads seem to say, cannot be roused from their daily papers. . . . Experience itself is simply not interesting.”
Burt’s observations date to the 1960s, when the Philadelphia of W.C. Fields still lived large in the national imagination. And even in the 1990s, when Stevick considered the campaign, Philadelphia had not yet shaken its historic self-depreciation. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the city no longer has The Bulletin, or even a robust newspaper with healthy circulation, but Philadelphia is comfortable in its own skin.
Sometimes it’s the artist, rather than the historian, who is the first to hold a light up to the truth. Philadelphia-born and raised singer, dancer Joan McCracken found fame in the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! and then in this politically incorrect period piece Pass That Peace Pipe from the film Good News. Instead of taking umbrage with the campaign, McCracken, herself the daughter of a Philadelphia newspaperman, found inspiration in a Decker ad for The Bulletin set in a theater—and used it for an original dance sequence. McCracken got Decker’s joke, and played into it. She chose herself for the role of the “oddball” in “Paper!” On stage in New York, she was the only Philadelphian, and the only dancer in touch with reality.