Just how historically accurate was Mad Men?

The following piece is an excerpt from Celebrating Mad Men, available in paperback and for Kindle.

“I talk to them about relationships, how people might interact with a certain company at a client meeting. I also ask really simple questions, like ‘Where did you eat lunch?'” –Mad Men researcher Kathryn Allison Mann on interviewing industry veterans (source)

When Mad Men first hit the air, few things garnered as much attention as the show’s slavish devotion to capturing period-accurate detail. The show developed such a reputation for being correct in its period details that sticklers for historical accuracy have kept a close eye on things like the fonts being used just to catch them in an error. (Font Designer Mark Simonson has a fantastic breakdown on the show’s fonts on his website.) Even the typewriters used in season 1 became a target, as the IBM Selectric models shown did not come out until 1961, one year after the season was set.

Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) - Mad Men - Season 1, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/AMC

Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) – Mad Men – Season 1, Episode 2 – Photo Credit: Doug Hyun/AMC

While it’s true that one could compile a laundry list of anachronisms that have slipped into Mad Men, more important than fonts and typewriters and whether or not Lane’s dictionary was period accurate (it’s not) is whether or not the tone and spirit of the show is accurate. Is the behavior we’re seeing a real reflection of how people in this time and place behaved? Are the things we’re seeing events that might have actually happened? Does this window into the world of advertising in the 1960s show us a semblance of truth?

The answer, with a few exceptions, is yes.

Take, for instance, the issue of sex.

Human beings have always enjoyed sex. That’s no secret. Works of art dating back thousands of years explicitly depict sex acts, early celebrations of human sexuality that over the centuries were slowly moved out of the public eye. Western society eventually came to embrace modesty, and open shows of sexuality became frowned upon. The late 1960s are known in part for being an era of awakened sexual liberation in America, the dawn of a new era that was in some ways looking back to sexual immodesty we had long ago left behind.

If that’s the case, then aren’t Mad Men’s many affairs and liaisons blown a little out of proportion, given that the sexual revolution had barely begun? There couldn’t have been that much screwing going on in Madison Avenue offices, could there? According to Lola Cherson, a veteran of Grey and Davis Advertising circa the ‘60s and ‘70s, the show is an accurate reflection of what she saw. “Everybody was sleeping with everybody. People had affairs. This was the era. But if you met somebody in an office, if you were dating them, you met away from the office. You weren’t supposed to be dating employees. In a lot of corporations, it wasn’t allowed.”

Jane Maas, the legendary ad agency creative director who came up with the “I Love New York” campaign and author of the book Mad Women, a real life account of what it was like to be a woman in advertising in the 1960s, supports Cherson’s take on the show’s accuracy. Maas told Salon that in her experience, a great many of the men on Madison Avenue were having affairs:

“A lot of them were. I began to realize why a lot of this was happening – particularly with the very senior men. It was because the senior vice presidents and executive vice presidents of our agency (and probably every other agency) were the ones who got there at 7 in the morning, and stayed there until 9 at night, and then got on a train and got home to their suburban houses at God knows what hour. They weren’t spending any time with their families; they weren’t spending time with their wives. I think part of it was just pure sex, and part of it was that they were kind of lonely. Here were all these young women – many of them single – working as secretaries but wanting very much to get professional jobs, and they’d be happy to sit down and talk about the brands that these guys were working on, and the future of the agency, and what was going on in the office. And they were also sexually available. So a lot of the men fell in love with them, divorced their wives, and ended up marrying the women from the office.” (source)

And those men were indeed drinking and drinking and drinking some more. However, according to Cherson, the show exaggerates the manner in which people drank. “It’s absolutely true that many executive lunches were three-martini affairs,” Cherson told The Atlantic. “But it’s not true there was liquor in senior partners’ offices and drinking in the office. People didn’t get loaded in the office with booze. There were long, long lunches; anybody could put anything on an expense account. Later in the 70s, the creative people were growing pot in their offices.”

Mad Men - Historical 03Lunchtime cocktails were indeed a big thing at the time. According to former bartender Brian Rea, in the 1950s, his place, the Little Club, was a prime hangout for advertising types. And they drank lots. “Lunch was a big thing,” he said. “They took two and a half hours. We had a lot of agency people come in, from Cunningham & Walsh, BBDO, all having serious lunches with drinks.”

Not everyone who experienced that time and place agrees with Cherson’s assessment. Legendary art director George Lois calls Mad Men “the most irritating thing in the world to me.”

“The creative revolution was the name of the game. This show gives you the impression it was all three-martini lunches … We worked from 5:30 in the morning until 10 at night. We had three women copywriters. We didn’t bed secretaries.”

Another who disagrees with the portrait painted by Cherson is Jerry Della Femina, a veteran of the industry ranked as one of the 100 most influential people in advertising in the 20th Century by Advertising Age magazine. However, he disagrees with reasons directly contrary to what Lois says. Della Femina said he thinks the show downplays the amount of smoking and drinking that went on. He said executives did, in fact, drink in their office – openly and copiously:

“Bottles in desk drawers were not the exception but the rule. I had an open bar at the agency in which I kept 10 to 15 bottles of booze. Anyone at the agency could walk in and get it. Invariably, one or two guys would come in at 9 a.m., pour a shot and slug it down. It was a business of drinking. The way we lived really would make the characters in Mad Men all look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. We drank and screwed around.” (source)

He says the sexual escapades depicted on the show only just begin to scratch the surface, too. “I don’t know of a single marriage that survived that time,” he claims. According to Della Femina, “There was too much booze, too many cigarettes and too many women. People found themselves in this wonderful gold rush. Mad Men only touches on how wild it was. It was beyond whatever I thought could happen to my life.”

Della Femina’s recollections may help explain away another anachronism routinely depicted on the show: divorce. Divorce is fairly common on Mad Men. In fact, four partners in the agency (including Joan) have been divorced. We see three divorces take place all right around 1967. However, according to a National Health Survey from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, in the northeast the divorce rate was only about 11 percent in 1967. Sarah Wexler writes for Vulture:

“It’s possible that Weiner didn’t know he was creating an anachronism, but his attention to period detail … makes that seem unlikely. Maybe it’s that our current national rate of divorce and our comfort with it have just seeped into the writers’ room.”

Mad Men - Historical 02Wexler’s criticism is well-taken, but there are no statistics specific to Madison Avenue. Certainly we must remember that Mad Men is a work of fiction, and Weiner and company often make choices in service of story rather than fidelity to history. Perhaps more importantly, the picture Della Femina paints is one of an environment that must have been destructive to marriages. The northeast may have divorced at a fairly modest 11 percent, but Madison Avenue? Maybe that was another story.

If Mad Men does drop the ball in a big way when it comes to tone and spirit, Jane Maas says it’s in how cutthroat everyone is depicted as being. Pete Campbell is the worst of them, to be sure, but almost every character is more than willing to sabotage another in the name of career advancement. Maas said that was not her experience:

“I think what it’s getting totally wrong is the lack of genuine admiration that people had for each other’s talents. The show puts a lot of emphasis on the combativeness of people … Everybody is eager to throw somebody else under the bus, and be able to step over that body and make their way up. In truth, we were a lot more gentlemanly, especially at the Ogilvy agency. There was a lot of ambition, but I don’t think it was as ruthless.”

There is no drama if there is no conflict, of course, so it’s not surprising to learn that Weiner and company may have created some where it did not previously exist. If Don was quick to praise Peggy for her work, if Pete was not willing to screw over anyone to get ahead, if the agency was not constantly trying to position itself to get ahead of other agencies, what do we have? A show about alcoholics in unhappy marriages.

So naturally, we’re going to see a lot of turmoil both personal and professional. It’s the stuff compelling television is made of, after all.

And we don’t begrudge them that one bit.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, those 1961 Selectric typewriters? Matthew Weiner knew they were an anachronism when he used them. From the DVD commentary:

“The error is, more or less, on purpose. They could get the 1960 typewriters, but not enough of them. And they didn’t work. And they had manual carriage returns. So faking that they work, and doing the sound editing to make them sound as if they worked, was all too much.”

Even when you have the wrong typewriters, then, the show must go on.


For more about this amazing show, including examinations of each season, a look at characters like Don, Peggy, and Joan, and more, check out Celebrating Mad Men: Your Unofficial Guide to What Makes the Show and its Characters Tick, available in paperback and for Kindle.


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