Now… using racism to advertise exotic products, by Dominique Dubé

July 30, 2021
ARCH 251
Professor Annmarie Adams

Advertisements often use subliminal messages for sales. The 1956 advertisement for Mengel Doors posted in the shelter magazine House and Home goes further by blatantly capitalizing on racism for sales. The company, located in Louisville, Kentucky, promotes their doors and matching plywood panels made from Gold Coast Cherry wood. Emphasis is put on this particular type of wood, the words ‘Gold Coast Cherry’ appear in large and a considerable proportion of the poster is occupied by an illustration of the wood’s detail. But the fundamental appeal of this professed beautiful hardwood as advertised to the consumer is that it comes from Africa. More precisely, it comes from the American company’s “own exclusive timbering concessions”, which can be read on the small map of Africa below the door detail. A white circle generally indicating the location of this Gold Coast is even drawn on the map.

Advertisement for Mengel Doors, House and Home, November 1956, 25. Extracted from: Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minnesota Scholarship Online, 2015), 95.1

Before discussing the more disturbing elements of the poster there is already much to be unpacked. The text and the map alone express a strong colonial attitude. On two occasions, the ad states that the wood is imported from the company’s exclusive African concessions. Now, it is important to note that the trade of exotic goods between countries and across oceans was quite common when this ad was published during the postwar period. Even in cases of mercantile trading between colonies and their mother state, it wasn’t always at the blatant disadvantage of the colonies. Take, for example, the shipping of Canadian timber to Great Britain in the early nineteenth century. This timber trade fueled economic growth and the development of the country. However, Africa’s trade history is infamously unilateral. White colonial countries divided the continent to extract their share of the land’s resources for the profit of no one else but themselves. By the 1950s, this was a centuries-old practice and likely common knowledge at the time. So, to announce multiple times that the company imports its resources from its exclusive African concessions sends a powerful message, especially with the use of the word “exclusive”. It suggests that the American company, just like a white colonial country, has a monopoly over the precious resource that is the Gold Coast Cherry wood. The white circle on the black map of Africa reinforces this idea. It symbolizes the delimitation of the company’s “colony” on the African continent. Furthermore, the “still priced lower than many other hardwoods!” implies the material harvesting practice is an advantageous arrangement for the company. It is likely that the rightful landowners that should benefit from this natural resource, the African people of the region, probably receive not much in return. Additionally, although it might be by pure accident, I find the choice of colors for the design of the map quite telling. Drawing a white circle on a fully black African continent portrays a clear separation between the land controlled by the white colonials and the rest of the land inhabited by the Black indigenes. It can be also argued that the grey area created by the transparency of the white circle over the black background serves to show the “whitening” of the African region under external control. In brief, these elements craft an omnipresent theme of imperialism in this ad, depicting Africa as a free pantry of valuable goods for the exclusive use of white buyers and homeowners across the ocean.

Another theme closely associated with the imperialist mentality is predominant in the ad. Notice how a different font and color are used to write down “Gold Coast Cherry”. I argue that by using a special font and color to accentuate these words, the reader’s attention is drawn to them. The characters chosen appear very exotic, even a little tribal or uncivilized when you compare them to the other font. They appear as if they were hand-carved pieces of wood glued to a poster board in front of the fictitious “Gold Coast Cherry” plantation. This idea is supported by the shadow effect given to the characters, making them appear in three dimensions. This is further accentuated by the contrast with the black, smooth, sharp characters used to name the company and to announce the advertised products. In brief, the characters used to describe the American company make them appear conventional and standard, while the ones used to describe the African region where this exotic hardwood comes from make it seems like it is an uncivilized place.

The illustration of the African man (or woman, it is impossible to tell) culminates this theme of capitalizing on the implication of African savagery. This depiction is impossible to miss, despite minimizing their portrayal to half of the height of the other figure. Already a clear judgement is articulated on their social hierarchy: they are worth half of the other human. That being said, what makes his representation so striking? To start, we must examine the color used to picture their skin: a pitch black. A black as deep as the black used to color the map of Africa, as if the whole continent was filled with similar inhabitants. This black appears in even higher contrast against the white-colored elements that complete their portrayal. Again, the distinction between black and white couldn’t be clearer here. Moreover, one of these white elements encompasses the whole inventory of their outfit: a simple loincloth. If this tribal reference wasn’t loud enough, the African person is seen holding in one hand what seems to be a shield. The shield is decorated like an African face mask, an object you often see tourists bring back home from their trip to the continent. Their other hand is not visible, but keeping up with the present theme, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them holding a lance. The illustration of this character’s facial traits heightens the absurdity of this portrayal. Indeed, they feature largely disproportionate eyes and mouth. Their thick lips are a commonly stereotypical portrayal of a Black person. Their hair seems wild and untamed as if haircuts do not exist where they’re from. The final touch is the addition of the hoop earring, probably the last item on the list to check to portray an exemplar member of a primitive society. These techniques cumulatively depict a stereotypical African in the most reductive manner, illustrating how the American company and people perceive Africans. Most shocking is the profound lack of details and the overwhelming simplicity of this character’s representation. Indeed, the drawing is almost cartoonish, conveying they lack worth of even the time required for a more elaborate drawing. Put simply, this Black African is depicted as a whole other being requiring a completely different form of representation.

This is especially relevant when compared to the other figure on the ad: the woman dressed in exotic attire. Everything is in contrast here. First of all, she appears to be a white woman. Indeed, when you compare the tone of her skin next to the African man, she looks very pale. It could also be argued that the logo of Mengel Doors represents a white man and that his skin tone is the same as the woman’s one. Furthermore, she is depicted twice as tall as the other figure and in a lot more detail. Just compare the refinement of her facial traits with the ones described in the last paragraph. She is not illustrated in a cartoonish manner, or at least not with reductive intent. However, something is particularly puzzling in her case: she is not represented as a classic stereotypical white woman. Her attire clearly references generalized African culture (at least to the suggested one). She wears an animal print dress t and multiple bracelets on her wrist, ankle, and hair. A bone, another typical element of stereotypical African representation, adorns her hair. Finally, just like the African character, she wears a hoop earring, although hers seem more refined. The question remains, why would the creators of this ad outfit this white woman in appropriated African attire? Perhaps they sought to establish a connection between the white buyer in America and the African grown material. But I think it serves primarily to promote the exotic quality and appeal of the products. Considering the portrayal of the woman is hypersexualised, this assumption is in keeping with the theme. Her strapless minidress cuts off at her thigh, exposing as much of her legs as possible. Her cleavage is intentionally drawn and she poses delicately touching the plywood panels advertised. So, when the ad promotes their “satin-smooth panels with all the beauty of this exciting wood”, you understand that the word “exciting” is also used to describe something or someone else. Consequently, a parallel is established between the woman and the advertised products. It sends the message to the white male homeowners that if they purchase these products, an exotic and sexually attractive woman will magically appear with their shipment. And more importantly, this woman will be white. A dream situation.

Arguably everything in this 1956 ad for Mengel Doors upholds a racist theme: the connotation in the product description, the Gold Coast on the map of Africa, the different fonts used in the title, and the two very polemical figures. The colonial stance climaxes in the cartoonish depiction of the African inhabitant as a tribal member. The contrast to the depiction of the white woman is particularly trenchant and frankly communicates the perception of Africans in white culture: as different beings belonging to a whole other category of living things. All of this is packaged into the advertisement of an exotic material for use in the typical American house. This exposes the past, and probably continued involvement of architecture in the racist mercantile system of global trading.

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Dominique Dubé is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 251.

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Advertisement for Mengel Doors, House and Home, November 1956, 25. Extracted from: Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minnesota Scholarship Online, 2015), 95.

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