The Admiral’s New Socks

This week I have been casting my eye northward, which may seem like a strange thing for an Antarctic researcher to do. There is a southern connection, though – thanks to a series of print adverts from the 1930s, Admiral Byrd is firmly in my sights. He was quite the one for capturing media attentions, and now that he has my attention, I am also intrigued.

Head South these days, and there are North Face logos everywhere you look. They may be geographically confused, but they give off the rugged, intrepid aura all the same. As it happens, this is actually nothing new. Admiral Byrd was at it over 60 years ago, even going so far as to have a label named after him. (See When Byrd Was the Word).

Other products associated Byrd’s second expedition include soap, antifreeze, building materials, dog food and laxatives – people just couldn’t get enough of him. Then there is the longer list of apparel to go under, over, or alongside said coat. Watches are useful, sure, and socks are a necessity, but the two page spread on just how necessary they were for Byrd’s team and their tootsies leaves nothing to the imagination. There’s a foot, a sock, a testimonial, while the brand name takes pride of place: Interwoven Socks.

This advert is an example of a product that has been used in Antarctica and then uses its credentials as having stood up to the coldest, windiest, remotest part of the planet as a selling point for domestic consumers. If the socks could keep feet warm at the South Pole, imagine how toasty they would keep you in a more temperate climate! A testimonial is used to underline the Antarctic connection and give weight to the sock maker’s claim that they are ‘the greatest name in socks.’ A facsimile of a radiogram from Byrd’s supply officer, dated 17 March 1935, takes up the top 2/3 of the advert and proclaims ‘On our recent expedition to the Antarctic entire personnel wore interwoven light weight lisle socks and interwoven lisle lined wool socks stop…’ The radiogram sits on a jaunty angle above a polar scene of sled dogs, penguins and ice, making the setting obvious to viewers in just a glance: everyone knows that penguin = polar

A facsimile of the radiogram helps convince consumers that these socks come highly recommended by providing testimonial evidence, but words don’t always convince on their own, nor do they carry a personal touch. The photograph on the opposing page offers incontrovertible evidence of the socks’ charm, thanks to the furrowed brow of the sitter – who is presumably deep in thought about the qualities of wool and its ability to protect him on the frozen road ahead – and the caption proclaiming the shot to be ‘A study in Antarctic Socks Appeal.’

As Robert Matuozzi put it, ‘The popular history of polar exploration is in large part the story of its promotion in the mass media.’ That mass media includes advertising, and that advertising includes adverts for products that are often overlooked (like socks). Byrd’s involvement with the media certainly had a strong bearing on his actions in the Antarctic, providing both finance and a platform from which to take his exploits into the public arena. His many contracts with news agencies really deserve several posts of their own, but we’ll start from the bottom up, because everyone knows that life is much more pleasant if your feet are warm and toasty (thanks, Interwoven!)

Admiral Byrd, you may be more important to my project than I first thought…

REF: Matuozzi, Robert N. ‘Richard Byrd, Polar Exploration, and the Media.’ The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 110, No. 2, Richard E. Byrd and the Legacy of Polar Exploration. 2002. 209-236.

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