We Read it for the Articles

This post originally appeared on The Playboy Project.

We read it for the articles.

Really.

The old tongue-in-cheek justification for reading Playboy magazine genuinely applies here. What began with an informal conversation between myself and Interim Manager of Methodist Library & Special Collections, Candace Reilly, about the preponderance of advertisements for radar detectors in issues from the late 1970s and the 1980s has in the space of a few months become The Playboy Project, a collaborative student-faculty research project funded by the Drew University Digital Humanities Summer Institute.

In His Electronic Materials (the title is a play on the Philip Pullman novels), the first of hopefully of many iterations of the project, we were interested in examining the relationship between Playboy’s ideal of masculinity – the young, affluent, sexually liberated, and sybaritic bachelor in pursuit of the “good life” – and the cornucopia of consumer electronics – the playboy’s toys – that characterized the abundance of postwar American society and its emerging technoculture. If founder and editor-in-chief Hugh Heffner had intended for his publication to be a guidebook for the modern, urbane male interested in the finer things in life, the prevalence of advertisements and articles and photospreads of the latest hi-fi sets, tape recorders, cameras, and stereo systems suggested that knowledgeability about, and ownership of such gadgetry was an integral part of the playboy’s identity.

His electronic materials even abetted his sexual conquests. Indeed, describing the playboy’s ideal of a good time, Heffner wrote in his inaugural editorial that, “we enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”

To examine this relationship more closely, our student researchers, Tessa Bagby (CLA ‘22) and Julia Pietro (CLA ‘22), have scanned an enormous number of images of articles, advertisements, cartoons, and photo spreads featuring consumer electronics during the course of the institute. Their work added to the images previously scanned by Candace Reilly, and now totals (as of this writing) 1728 images, covering all of the issues of Playboy magazine held by Drew University Archives and Special Collections from 1955 to 1975. This twenty-year span has yielded a rich database of images that will allow our team, and members of the Drew community and future students to come, an opportunity to study the role of consumer electronics in American life in the middle to late twentieth century, the contemporary emergence of a masculine consumer ethic, and the evolving and sometimes strained relationship between masculinity and technology.

I look forward to what comes next.

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