Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America, by Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder

Les Gofton enjoys an excellent study of how record sleeve artwork shaped consumerist values

November 2, 2017
Old records
Source: Hedrich Blessing

The reappearance of vinyl LPs on the shelves of retailers over the past few years at first seemed simply another facet of postmodern nostalgia. As the parent of two specialist collectors, I can only hope that the rather battered relics of my misspent adolescence are happy in their adoptive homes.

The authors of this excellent study – proud lifelong enthusiasts for mid-century vinyl LPs – treat them as rather more than a consumer foible. In a detailed review of their history and development, Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder argue that, while middle-class American teens were discovering Elvis, the nascent consumerism of their parents cannot be understood without careful examination of the content of covers clearly directed at their lifestyles and daily patterns of consumption. Most of these series, they find, are pedagogical, providing recommendations for socially aspirant and nascent consumerist citizens, while also offering reassurance and allaying natural fears about the changes being wrought.

The companies producing particular titles – and indeed series – found ways of shaping an emerging consumer ethic among the middle class of the 1950s and 1960s. A thoughtful and detailed analysis reveals, in the case of many series, that the underlying aim was to convey the outlines of consumer rituals as the pillars of American family life – the musical content is almost incidental. Often, the design of the sleeve carries the main semantic content, so Borgerson and Schroeder draw out the connections between the illustrations on the covers and the major influences on household décor and activities of middle-class families. They reveal the impact of key designers and artists on the colour schemes, layout and contents of suburban homes.

Competition with the Soviet bloc formed an important feature of American policies in all the main areas of consumption and lifestyle management. The American National Exhibition, held in Moscow in 1959, took the opportunity to present the daily rituals of US households four times a day for the whole period it was on (42 days). The affluence of the ordinary family, as well as the ubiquity of the rituals themselves, was intended to demonstrate the social solidarity of US middle-class family life. The families are represented as coming together to celebrate a wedding, a honeymoon, a backyard barbecue and a country club dance. These provide the setting for romantic love and interpersonal relations based on choice as exemplars of individual freedom. The honeymoon was the vehicle for the romance of exotic locations, as well as the warmth of family life. The barbecue celebrates the affluence of feasting with friends and neighbours, as well as social solidarity, while the country club dance highlights the possibility of social mobility, and one of the typical arenas where this may be realised.

Much of this was subject to official condemnation by the Soviets, as revealing the triviality of American culture, but Borgerson and Schroeder argue that the communication of these recommendations for good living were carefully crafted. So too, in the artwork offered by the sleeves, emerging consumerist values are weighed against the need to reassure the market of the comfort and safety of the changes.

The authors have chosen a range of LP series to illustrate the topics and treatments that represent key aspects of US values and emerging consumerism. In almost all cases, contemporary art and designs are used to add status while encouraging comfortable learning and acceptance of change. The study offers an excellent example of consumer research subtly linked to political ideologies and shifting consumer attitudes and tastes.

Les Gofton taught consumer behaviour and popular culture at the universities of Newcastle and Durham.

Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America
By Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder
MIT Press, 440pp, £27.95
ISBN 9780262036238
Published 29 September 2017

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