Lucy Devine ’20

“Wise Women in the World of ‘Mad Men’: The Forgotten Story of Jean Wade Rindlaub and Early Female Advertising Executives”

Tell us about your thesis!

My thesis is primarily about a woman named Jean Wade Rindlaub who was an important figure in the advertising industry from the thirties through the sixties, but is rarely ever discussed in the literature on the industry or histories of women’s labor. She became a vice president at Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO–one of the biggest ad agencies in New York at the time) in 1945, was the Advertising Woman of the Year in 1951, and joined the board of directors at BBDO in 1954. The reason those dates are important is because they seem way earlier than one would think a woman would have been successful in advertising. After all, Peggy from Mad Men was a secretary until the mid-1960s. Interestingly, cultural portrayals of women in the ad industry differ from what was the reality. My thesis compares the real life successes of Jean Wade Rindlaub and the mostly negative cultural representations of female advertising executives, primarily in two romantic comedies from the time: Take a Letter Darling (1942) and Lover Come Back (1961). 

How did you choose your topic?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do original archival research at Schlesinger Library. I had been doing research there since freshman year and I always had the most fun on projects involving materials from Schlesinger. So, when looking for a topic, I immediately went to their website and searched through their Subject Guides. A lot of my previous projects had been about women and work, including a paper on 9 to 5 the movie and the organization that inspired it and another paper dealing with the magazine Working Woman, so I kind of had an idea where I wanted to look. When I stumbled upon the description of Rindlaub’s archives, I knew I had found something cool. I got into the archives soon after and just ran with it!

What were the biggest challenges?

I think one of the biggest challenges was keeping motivation high after finishing the first chapter and deciding what to write next. I was so interested in Rindlaub and her life, but I didn’t want to write a biography (that’s not the assignment), so I had to broaden my scope a bit, but I didn’t know how. Also, there’s a bit of a break after submitting the first draft chapter and it was really tempting to just stop thinking about it for a while. My adviser was amazing about helping me with both of those issues and by the time I was back on campus during winter break, I knew what I was going to write and I was ready to roll. 

Did you encounter any surprises along the way?

Luckily, I didn’t encounter any bad surprises, but there were some happy surprises! I was able to track down the woman who originally archived all of Rindlaub’s papers and meet with her. It was a really insightful meeting because she had seen every paper and advertisement in the archive so could speak to trends she saw and important things I just couldn’t miss. Also, she had been lucky enough to talk to some of Rindlaub’s family members and get a sense for who she was apart from her documents, so it was really cool to hear that. I also was surprised to find out that Lizabeth Cohen, the author of one of my main secondary sources, A Consumers’ Republic teaches on campus so I met with her to run some ideas by her and that was a very special experience. 

What did you find most rewarding about the process?

Hm… That’s a hard question. I think just the overall experience was so rewarding. I was so hesitant to declare Hist & Lit because I was so scared of writing a thesis. At the point of declaration, I think the longest paper I had ever written was 12 pages long, and I never really thought of myself as a “writer.” So, even completing the thesis is an accomplishment. I think it was super rewarding to even see that I could do something I never thought I would be able to do. Also, getting to work with and to know my adviser Lauren Brandt was just honestly a blessing (and I’m not even religious). 

What was your favorite thing about your thesis?

My favorite thing about my thesis is how many different types of primary sources I used to write it. I used Rindlaub’s archival papers, newspaper articles, books (obviously), a TV show, two romantic comedies (I can’t believe I was able to base half of my thesis on romcoms), press kits, motion picture codes, and print advertisements.

What advice would you give to juniors?

I think the biggest piece of advice I would give to juniors is to come back to campus early over winter break to write. I know that’s not super philosophical or inspirational, but coming back early gave me a chance to fully immerse myself into the project with no distractions (other classes, family, social obligations, etc.). That time is when I really fell in love with my thesis and enjoyed writing it most. Also, it meant that by the time classes started up again, I didn’t have that much more to write. Would recommend!

Alexandra Summa ’20

“Corn Nationalism: Exhibiting Mythologies of ‘America’s Crop’ 1887-1918’

As corn became a dominant resource in U.S. industry, the crop was placed on display in festivals and museums across the country. In my thesis, titled “Corn Nationalism: Exhibiting Mythologies of America’s Crop, 1887-1918,” I study how corn exhibits reflect myths and metaphors of land and nation by interrogating Sioux City’s Corn Palace (1887), corn demonstrations at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition (1893), and exhibit “Food Values and Economies” at the American Museum of Natural History (1917). In these case studies, I show how businessmen, authors, architects, cooks, and curators use corn as a metaphor for national prosperity. I argue that white cultural creators of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contextualized corn by applying visual and rhetorical strategies to replace and erase Indigenous peoples from histories of the resource. This was to advance myths about the origin of American civilization and fashion expedient meanings of the crop in the present day. By rejecting the novelty of King Corn and reading against the grain of his rule, we reveal a strange and understudied history that demonstrates the deep connections between the American West, museums, and colonial history, which further conveys the importance of continued decolonization and increased need for Indigenous cultural rights. 

In this process I was supported by my wonderful advisor, Reed Gochberg. I also met with other members of the Hist & Lit department who guided me as I curated this archive and defined “corn nationalism.” Additionally, I received a grant from the Harvard College Research Program that allowed me to travel to Iowa and research in the archives at the Sioux City Public Museum. 

Sophie Barry ’20

“‘Make America Fit Again!’: Superman #170 and the Rise of Youth Fitness Culture in Cold War America, 1953-1964”

My senior thesis delved into the intersection of two of my favorite passions: fitness and superheroes. How are these two linked? Well, it turns out when President Eisenhower created the President’s Council for Youth Fitness in 1956, it completely changed the way Americans viewed fitness in their daily lives. White male youth, in particular, became subject to numerous advertisements promoting fitness.

My thesis is separated into three chapters, with the first two looking at how Eisenhower and Kennedy approached the politicizing of fitness and how they applied their points of view on generational heroism to fitness programs. The final chapter is a close-analysis of Superman #170, which was commissioned by JFK. This issue follows Superman as he encourages white male youth to abide by the government fitness programs through somewhat strange measures. The main argument I weaved throughout all three chapters is the idea of the double entendre of fitness. By that I mean the idea of fitness as a physicality and the question of “who truly fits the term ‘American?’”

Because my thesis encompassed materials and a time period that excited me, I learned so much about this era and how fitness culture was seeded in the Cold War. I had the lovely support of my advisor, Tim McCarthy, along with many members of the Hist & Lit department. Further, I went to both the JFK Library and the Eisenhower Library to look at materials firsthand.