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New book looks at how Old South stays new

Ask anyone from any other region of the United States to describe their most dominant images of the Old South, and they might conjure up a place where flowers are forever in bloom, the Southern charm of gentlemen never fades, and delicate belles drink from an endless fountain of politeness under the fragrance of the magnolia trees.

It's a lot for a handful of states to live up to in modern times. It was a lot for the antebellum South to live up to even back then, when cotton dotted the fields beside white-columned plantation houses.

In "Dreaming of Dixie," a new book by UNC Charlotte associate history professor Karen Cox, the author examines how these romantic notions of the South came to be so engraved in Americans' minds.

Much of the reason, she discovers, comes from the handiwork of advertising agencies, musicians, writers and radio programmers living outside the region, starting in the late 19th century. Their portrayal of the South as still enjoying the pleasures of simpler times struck a chord with people entering the fast-paced, environment ushered in by the industrial age.

"All of a sudden, you're living in a big city and you're part of kind of a big machine. People are working in factories and not back on the family farm," said Cox. "In some ways, the South represented America as it used to be. That you could go to a region in the United States where things didn't seem so rush, rush."

From songs about Dixie to popular radio programs and plantation literature, marketers campaigned to romanticize Southern life as a slow-paced opposite to existing times.

Advertising agencies on Madison Avenue took full advantage of the country's yearning for a little escapism. They were responsible for dreaming up such icons as Aunt Jemima, the nurturing woman who would fix a stack of pancakes for your family.

"They're reaching out to a middle-class audience, and they're doing it through this idea of the romance of the South," said Cox. "That somehow that type of lifestyle might be achieved, even if it's through a quick-fix pancake mix."

Other advertisers, both big and small, began using the Old South to sell products, too, said Cox. Companies included the small perfume company called Old South Perfumers, located on Fifth Avenue in New York City, to large well-known coffee makers.

"When they started the Old South campaign for Maxwell House, within a year they saw increase in the sales of the coffee by over 100 percent," said Cox. "So it was a really good campaign."

Many Southerners embraced the image of the Old South created by the outsiders, too, launching a tourism industry that opened up antebellum homes to the curious tourist, a phenomenon that only increased when the movie "Gone with the Wind" was released in 1939.

"There was an expectation by people who came to the South after that movie," said Cox.

It's an expectation that is often still presumed today, she said.

A recent commercial on television that depicts two Southern belles discussing the deliciousness of a snack only proves her point.

"Still that romantic idea. This is just a commercial that came out last year in which a company is using a Southern belle to sell their product," she said.

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