To get a feel for the Australia of 45 years ago, I decided to take a headlong dive into the pages of the Australian Women's Weekly. The State Library of NSW has a full set – beautifully bound in leather – and so, on consecutive Monday mornings, I spent some delightful hours hobnobbing with the Australian woman of the era.
Much of what I found resonated with my memories. There were pages of crocheted pant suits. There were recipes in which most of the ingredients were canned. There were the family columns of Ross Campbell – recording the antics of Theodora, Lancelot, Little Nell and Baby Pip – which reminded me of his genius.
This, it seems, is a society in which the women feel the
need to drug themselves to the eyeballs.Credit:Getty Images
And there were feature articles which, to be fair, were often serious and well written. I found a good piece on Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb, a great profile of up-and-coming actor Jacki Weaver, and an interview with Margaret Thatcher, said to be an emerging force in British politics.
Some surprises, though, did emerge. For example, many Australian women of the time had names like Barry, Greg and Harold. Was this an early embrace of fluid sexuality?
Not exactly. In the world of the Weekly, married women took not only their husband's surname, but his first name as well. Their own name disappeared entirely. Even someone as famous as the glamorous Sonia McMahon – wife of the then prime minister, Billy McMahon – was nearly always referred to as Mrs William McMahon. She was in the magazine all the time, in photo shoots and interviews and the social pages – usually standing next to a woman called Mrs Burt Carruthers or Mrs Graeme Williams.
If you read nothing but the Weekly, you would never learn the given name of any married Australian woman.
After making this discovery, I spent about two weeks telling everyone I met, "Did you know that in Australian magazines in the early 1970s, they only published a woman's actual name if she was single?"
There were two quite different responses. Friends said either: "Of course, you total imbecile. Everyone knows that." Or they said: "No way, you total imbecile, you are making that up." The two groups differ only according to year of birth. The first group: born before 1962; the latter, born later. Of course, as you'll notice, they both leap to the theory that I'm an imbecile.
Back in the State Library, my eye keeps being taken by the Weekly's advertisements: so many of them are for pills and potions of various kinds – medicines that will help you lose weight, or achieve sleep, or stop offending others with your body odour. This, it seems, is a society in which the women feel the need to drug themselves to the eyeballs. I carefully turn the pages of the library's fragile copies and am caught between two emotions – nostalgia for the crocheted maxi-dresses, the colourful toasters and fridges, and the melancholy that seeps from the tiny boxed ads:
Toppexin.6 Diet Pills "Everyone has a nice flat tummy … except maybe you! … lose 1 pound a day." "She couldn't stand being a fatty." "No willpower needed."
Limmits "Have a Limmits lunch with the slim beauty biscuit diet."
Trim Tabs "One a day for your appetite to lose its edge."
Trimolets "Nothing is fun if you are fat."
A.S.T. Tablets "Ashamed to be seen in a bikini? A.S.T. Tablets – simply take 3 tablets daily. American Sliming Tablets – $1.35 for 2 weeks supply."
Ford Pills were a laxative. So, yes, you could woo your husband, but only if you stayed within running distance of a toilet.
Teradec/S "Diet Discipline Tablets – containing Phenylpropanolamine HCL – 85 mg – and Acetophenolisatin – 2 mg – quell those hunger pains."
What was in all this stuff? Legend has it, some of these pills were mostly speed. In the case of Teradec/S, the main ingredient – phenylpropanolamine HCL – was banned in the US after the FDA estimated it was causing between 200 and 500 strokes per year.
Sometimes the products promised a solution to a troubled marriage. Here's an ad for Ford diet pills from the Australian Women's Weekly of March 29, 1972: "Ford Pills can help make you as attractive as the girls your husband stares at in the street," reads the headline.
Then, in smaller print: "Looked at him lately? Not as a husband. But as a man. Looked at yourself? Not as a wife. But as his secretary. Don't run away from what you see. Start fighting. Get a pack of Ford Pills …" At the bottom, the slogan, again in bigger type: "Ford Pills: we'll give you a second chance." They were a laxative. So, yes, you could woo your husband, but only if you stayed within running distance of a toilet.
Diet pills were not the only product to prey on women's insecurities. Andrews Health Salt, for example, "promotes healthy inner cleanliness". Or better, Amplex Personal Tablets, advertised constantly in the Weekly, which "deodorise from within". Or were, in another ad from 1970, an "internal deodorant" – "Banish body and breath odours the easy, effective way. End worry and doubt. 30 tablets – 52 cents."
What? I can end worry and doubt for 52 cents? Where do I get this stuff? I go online and discover what's not spelled out in the advertisement: it's all about menstruation. Early ads for the product, back in the 1960s, mention "certain times of the month". Perhaps, a decade later, the company believes it has created sufficient anxiety that readers will feel the requisite shame without the need for details.
Meanwhile, other drugs shout for the attention of the Weekly's readers. Persomnia sleeping tablets offer "relief from mental strain, over-excitement and nervous tension". The main ingredients appear to be bromvaletone and carbromal – described as "sedative-hypnotic" drugs.
More commonly, people chose the two popular headache powders: Bex, popularly mocked in the prescription "Have a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down"; and Vincent's Powders, which, for some reason, were considered slightly more middle class. Both were huge at the time. In fact, in 1956, Vincent's was responsible for the first advertising slogan of the television era: "TV stands for Take Vincent's!"
Both Bex and Vincent's were compound analgesics, containing a mix of aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine, leading to addiction and, in some cases, fatal kidney disease. The recommended dose was three powders a day – I know because we used to sell them in our family newsagency. My early arithmetic skills were honed on my ability to add up the standard order of the day – a Daily Mirror, a packet of Winfield Red and a box of Bex. (To be precise: 10 cents plus 67 cents plus 15 cents = 92 cents.)
“Weirdly, the practice of tranquillising yourself before going to bed was so common that, in September 1972, the clothing company Sussan played with the idea when advertising its new nightgowns.”Credit:Archive
Both Vincent's and Bex were banned in Australia in 1977 after their health impacts became obvious. Following the ban, the nation's rate of kidney disease fell sharply. In particular, the rate of female pelvic cancer – a disease for which the survival rate is not good – dropped 52 per cent in the two decades following the products' removal.
Bex and Vincent's were, of course, over-the-counter medications. Many wanted stronger stuff. In the year to March 1971, nearly a million prescriptions for Valium were written by GPs, two-thirds of them for women. Another 800,000 were written for the antidepressant Tryptanol, which advertised itself to doctors as the solution to all sorts of complaints – from "loss of interest" to "loss of confidence and sense of importance".
Weirdly, the practice of tranquillising yourself before going to bed was so common that, in September 1972, the clothing company Sussan played with the idea when advertising its new nightgowns: "Take one before retiring – Sussan's trio of tantalising tranquillisers." The headline is below a photo of three Bri-Nylon nightgowns, each available for the price of $3.50.
Edited extract from The Land Before Avocado (ABC Books) by Richard Glover, on sale now.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale November 11.
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