Cosplay with Dennison Tissue Paper

The young lady wearing the stunning paper headdress above might be surprised to learn that elaborate costumes made out of tissue or crepe paper is not a new phenomenon. The dress to the right from the collection of the FIDM Museum in Los Angeles, is a relic from the 1930s, when the trend was well established.  In fact its popularity increased during the Depression when people had less disposable income.

Around 1892, Dennison Manufacturing, a Massachusetts firm specializing in paper products, began importing crepe tissue paper in a delicious array of colors from England. By 1914 Dennison had established an art department to exploit the products’ uses, launching a stream of  well-illustrated ten cent pamphlets full of detailed instructions for making artificial flowers, home décor like lamp shades, holiday decorations, and fancy costumes for various occasions.  The machine-crinkled paper was surprisingly strong, easy to work with, and much more affordable than woven fabrics, making it possible to create a rather showy ensemble for pennies.  References to tissue paper party dresses begin cropping up in fiction as early as 1900, one example appearing in The Little Colonel’s House Party by the once popular author Annie Fellows Johnson.

In Dennison’s first pamphlet, Tissue Paper Entertainments, which introduced novelty crepe tissue paper to the American public in 1892, the manufacturer claimed that it was a godsend to any organization trying to mount children’s programs with very limited resources. Dennison did more than serve as the source of raw materials, it acted more like an impresario, dramaturg, and a coach. The preface assured adults that they could succeed in producing pageants if they kept the following tips in mind at all times:

  1. Opportunity for many to take part.
  2. No long speeches.
  3. No special talent required to fill the part, such as dramatic power, a powerful voice, etc.
  4. Such alternation of recitation and singing as may secure a pleasing variety.

The buyer could be confident that the product had tested: the pupils of a poor Mission Sunday School had been invited to make the costumes especially designed for the scripts contained in Dennison’s Tissue Paper Entertainments: two for girls, two for boys. The author(s) were not credited anywhere in the publication. Dennison thoughtfully estimated the size of the cast, recommended the best colors for performance in natural and artificial light, and total cost of the paper.  The locations of Dennison’s metropolitan retail outlets below, for convenience in ordering.  A section on gestures and a blocking for the concert recitation was offered to bolster the confidence of inexperienced directors…War and Peace (no connection to Tolstoy’s novel) for 48 boys divided into 8 groups of 6 was surprisingly easy to costume.  The short boys were to be cast as the minor nations in the group comprised of France, Austria, Germany, Italy, England, Russia, and the United States. “Some attention should be paid to complexion,” instructions ran, “the swarthiest for Italy, the fairest for Russia.”  Different options were given for making the military uniforms.  A scarf of cut paper could be draped over the shoulder, paper basted onto a garment, or a uniform entirely of paper lined with cheesecloth.  Stripes down the side of the trousers, epaulets, chevrons, and stripes on the sleeves could all be made with bright yellow paper.  Appropriate flags could be made of tissue paper copying the designs in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.  The production ended with the entire cast singing for the advent of world peace.

Dennison outdid itself with three-act The Story of Joseph.   All ten brothers of Joseph had lines to learn, but Reuben, Jacob, Judah and Joseph were given multiple speeches.  Joseph brought down the curtain with a solo. His coat of many colors could easily be fashioned from 6 different colors, so he would stand out from his older brothers in drab, dark robes.  Joseph was also the only character with a costume change–purple for his royal robes and a suitable headdress modeled on something in an illustrated Bible.  Scenery was required for acts 2 and 3: an “oriental” tent and a state apartment, both of which could be furnished with crinkled paper hangings and coverings for the throne.

How successful was this venture?  Until someone makes it their business to find out, we have to assume it never generated the revenue as the market for Halloween, which Dennison masterfully saturated.

Cinderella and the Admen Live Happily Ever After

East of the sun or west of the moon, Cinderella is probably the best known fairy tale in the world and her story has been co-opted by shrewd businessmen eager to sell products.  Three creative examples of advertising ephemera from the collection which exploit the cinder wench are highlighted here.

Ida Rentoul Outhwaite (1888-1960)  is not a household name in America, but she is one of the Southern hemisphere’s most beloved children’s book illustrators.  Famous for having created distinctly Australian fairies and elves, Outhwaite was not above drawing pictures for advertising brochures. “Cinderella’s Dream and What it Taught Her” (ca 1931; Cotsen 86877) is one of her rarest works.  A Fairy Queen visits Cinderella’s dreary room late one night, saying sweetly,  ‘I am here to cheer you dear, / For you work like a drudge all day: / But listen to me, and you soon will see / How your work will become mere play,” as soon as she purchases all the versatile germ-killing products manufactured locally in Melbourne by J. Kitchen & Sons.  (Several will be essential in cementing her power as princess.) No longer will her ugly, fault-finding sisters complain of shrunken woolens once they are washed in Kitchen’s Merino.   Her glass slippers, filthy from running home from the palace through the streets, can be disinfected like the drains and sinks with Kitchen’s strong Phenyle, a deadly poison sold in  glass bottles marked with molded Xes  Her dressing table in the palace will have bottles of Kitchen’s Velvet Salts, talc for the bath, and medicated soap to keeping the fair complexion fresh.  The flame of the prince’s love will burn true as long as she discreetly stocks Kitchen’s Velvet Shaving Stick.What must it have taken for mild-mannered Will Keith Kellogg to break away from his brother Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, of Battle Creek Sanatorium fame, and start his own cereal company in 1906? After improving the recipe for their flavorless corn flakes by sweetening them with malt syrup. There being few things to distinguish one breakfast cereal from another, Will set out to vanquish his competitors through the stream of premiums designed to create customer loyalty.  Between 1910 and 1940, Kellogg Co. produced lines of blotters, paper dolls, radio shows, souvenir postcards, and pamphlets mostly aimed at children.

A 4-volume set of Story Game Books featuring characters famous in children’s literature copyrighted in 1931 are now collectibles.  The “Sunshine Fairy” offered general instructions for play and noted that each one in the volume would have individual directions that would need to be learned. The first story in the first volume was Cinderella’s rise from dirty rags to silken gowns (Cotsen 22579).  The prosaic retelling was accompanied by a board game designed by Bess Devine Jewell, a commercial artist who also illustrated Pansy Eyes: A Maid of Japan (c.1922).  This twelve-square adaptation of the classic game of the goose sets players on a quest to find the maiden whose foot will slide into the glass slipper, which cannot be stretched to fit.  The back cover was covered with information from Kellogg’s Home Economics Department on meal planning for growing children.  Mothers were advised that if their little ones did not like milk,  “Cereals are especially helpful in getting milk into the diet.”  A box top from any of Kellogg’s five nutritious cereals and 10 cents glued to the inside of the letter mailed to the company would send a copy of Cinderella and friends to anywhere in the US except for Wisconsin, Washington, Nevada, and Kansas.

Mrs. Cinderella  (Cotsen 21954) has a very complicated origin story, compared to the previous two pamphlets.  For its pavilion in the 1939 World’s Fair, General Electric commissioned William Duncan and Edward Mabley, co-principals of the famous puppet troupe Tatterman Marionettes, to write and perform a piece promoting the wonders of electricity. After the exposition, the show was taken on the road and performed hundreds of times across the country.  Programs for the original production have survived, but this colorful pamphlet illustrated by North Carolina artist Corydon Bell seems to have been printed  for distribution in retail outlets: the name of Herr’s Garage in Landisville, Pennsylvania is stamped on the rear cover.

It’s unclear how faithful the story in verse here is to the original script for the puppet show that played at the World’s Fair, but the outlines were probably identical.  The prince carries his bride over the threshold of their starter palace and leaves her the next morning to explore the premises.  After a morning of dusting and mopping, Cinderella discovers that the goblins in residence whose delight is undoing her work.  With a stiff upper lip and sore back, she tries to bake in the ancient kitchen and do the laundry in a wash tub while they wreak more havoc.   Surely her fairy godmother can help her with the gnome problem… She recommends calling General Electric at G-E 1939.  No sooner had she hung up the receiver when a host of elves in tip-top physical condition and dashing uniforms.  Armed with guns, they shoot at the goblins and force a retreat.The elves have just begun to work.  The inadequate kitchen and laundry room are completely modernized, from the plumbing to the cabinetry.  Within hours they install the entire range of GE labor-saving appliances–refrigerator, dishwasher, garbage disposal, toaster, coffee maker, washing machine, water heater.  The powerful new vacuum cleaner makes the disgraceful living room carpet look like new in sixty minutes.  And they thoughtfully prepared a hearty, heartwarming meal for her charming prince when he comes home.The moral is too obvious to bear repeating, but here it is anyway:

The General Electric Co. is able / To sell you, thru a plan that’s all its own, / ADDED HOURS OF FREEDOM,/ And for happiness you need them,/ Cause there’s nothing so important as your home.

Someone–a woman–who owned of this copy left a tart note inside. complaining about a woman of her acquaintance who swallowed the message whole before learning that “all men are rats.”