Mad Men Indeed
July 16, 2009 8:41 AM   Subscribe

I have been watching the AMC series Mad Men (set in NYC office setting around 1960) and it made me wonder. Just how accurately does it portray the professional workplace of the period? (Ubiquitous smoking, drinking, degrading comments to women and overt flirting, etc.). In particular, was it ever considered normal to keep a stocked bar in every office/conference room? I realize things are exaggerated for TV and to contrast with today’s norms... but generally speaking was it really this bad back then? I guess I am looking for responses from those who are familiar with the TV show and worked in an office in this timeframe.
posted by punkfloyd to Grab Bag (38 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

There's a stocked bar in my office's conference rooms right now in 2009. When you get into Business with a capital B, I think there are just different rules in general.

And while I certainly wasn't alive in the early 1960s, I'd say the institutionalized sexism (if not the rampant extramarital sex) of Mad Men can't be too far off the mark. The leaders in advancing feminism of the early 1960s (Betty Freidan, for example) didn't devote their lives to solving a problem that didn't exist.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:56 AM on July 16, 2009

I know going back to just the 80s, the agency and print shop my dad worked in allowed a lot of smoking at desks.

Also, I don't think drinking is that out of the realm of normal now, especially when you get to the higher professional levels. There was a president of a former company where I worked where the owner had a bar in his suite. I know Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming, Jack Donaghy, drinks on 30 Rock and that's modern times.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:57 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm a big fan of the show, but I was born in 1983 so I'm disqualified from having first-hand experience of office life in the 60s.

However, because I'm a dork for the show I've watched many of the AMC "making of Mad Men"-type featurettes and it's clear that the show runners are obsessed with authenticity. You can watch the videos here, and this one in particular might be of interest.

It's not definitive proof, but I'm okay with taking them at their word because it's such good TV.
posted by thebergfather at 8:59 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Correct me if I'm wrong (as I haven't seen the show) but isn't Mad Men set at an advertising agency? I wouldn't necessarily consider that the benchmark of a "professional workplace".

As it happens, I work for a large ad agency that will remain unnamed, and up until around 2000 we still allowed smoking in closed offices. And cocktails at a client meeting aren't completely unheard of even today.
posted by JaredSeth at 9:01 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

My mom (who is in her late 60s) won't watch Mad Men because it reminds her of the rampant sexism she endured in her youth. So that element, at least, seems pretty accurate.
posted by killy willy at 9:12 AM on July 16, 2009 [10 favorites]

Response by poster: @killy willy Even though I love the show, after the first episode I wanted to go hug my mom.
posted by punkfloyd at 9:17 AM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

The smoking, definitely. I graduated college in 1980 and, even then, smoking was ubiquitous in many, many offices.

As for the bars and drinking...You need to remember this is the Madison Avenue advertising world they are portraying. Yes, stocked bars and drinking was done.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:19 AM on July 16, 2009

Best answer: Happened to see this yesterday: Mad Men Gets It Right.
posted by dixie flatline at 9:20 AM on July 16, 2009

The New Yorker recently did a piece on Helen Gurley Brown which includes this story of her working at a radio station around 1942. There's a scene very similar in an episode of Mad Men (that I thought at the time was a bit out there - turns out they didn't even go as far as they could have...)

She was, at the time, employed as a typist at a radio station whose male personnel enjoyed a game that they called Scuttle. They chased a female co-worker around the office until they cornered her, then pulled off her panties. Brown was hurt that, for some reason—maybe she was too flat-chested—she was never their scuttlebutt. It was eventually pointed out to her that scuttling constituted a rather egregious instance of sexual harassment. In her view, however, most advances, including unwanted ones, are a compliment, and a girl should have enough street smarts to deflect them without making it “a federal offense.” She noted, “If you’re not a sex object, you’re in trouble.”
posted by witchstone at 9:21 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's pretty accurate, but in Boston, in those days, the liquor and barware was always kept behind a door in your desk return, and it wasn't so cool to drink openly before 5 p.m. (NYC folks were supposedly a bit less Puritanical, in those days, so I give 'em the open bars in every office.) A lot of folks would shut their office doors and share a pop with a coworker earlier in the day, if there was some good news to celebrate. Smoking was constant, everywhere, except that secretaries weren't supposed to smoke at their desks, which were just outside their office bosses' office doors, just as you see on the show. Many executives smoked cigars in their offices. "Danish Modern" teak furniture was de rigueur, as you see on the show. Flirting with the secretaries was pretty constant, but you only "got away" with it if you stayed within certain bounds; you couldn't generally push it quite as far as they do on Mad Men, and if you did, the secretaries had ways of evening up the score. If you did stay within the bounds of decorum, however, the "girls" would generally flirt back, as they were often bored to tears, especially during weeks when their bosses were away traveling; the real no-no was any affair between a secretary and her boss. That was called "dipping your pen in the company ink," and it got you transferred or fired, as it was something that every executive's wife was hypersensitive about, and wouldn't tolerate, so senior execs didn't want any hint of that going on at the company to be getting back to their wives. Nor did the senior execs want any scandals or compromise of sensitive company information by disgruntled employees. It was common place for secretaries in our company to bring coffee to their bosses and visitors, particularly for morning meetings; nobody ever drank plain old water.

As for all the other extra-marital sex, I think that there was plenty of it then, and plenty of it now. Corporate America, after WWII wasn't really writing new rules for men and women working together, it just was applying the old rules to what were then white collar, paper driven office situations. The men "created" the paper, and the women typed it, filed it, copied it, and distributed it, but the politics of sex in those offices were pretty much the same as those in taverns, shops, factories, and farms, since the 1830s. If you want to get a sense of how Mad Men just demonstrates a work culture originally developed in the Lowell mills of the early 19th century, visit the National Park in Lowell, MA sometime, and understand the Mill Girl's stories.

This report brought to you from a denizen of a Fortune 500 company, Boston headquarters, at the end of that decade, circa 1970...
posted by paulsc at 9:28 AM on July 16, 2009 [36 favorites]

I worked at a Fortune 500 company in the late 70s/early 80s, and everyone smoked wherever they wanted to, men smacked women on the behind regularly and made humiliating sexist remarks and nothing was ever done about it. The conference rooms had huge, fully stocked bars and it was routine for a lot of the executives and sales men to gather in there beginning at 5PM and drink for an hour or so "until traffic cleared." Then they'd drive home drunk. Only nice thing was they didn't keep track at all of their bar supplies, so anyone could stroll in during the day and grab an airline-sized bottle of "get me through the rest of this day."
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:43 AM on July 16, 2009

My parents are both gone now, but my father was an executive in NYC at that time and my feeling is that Mad Men is pretty completely accurate. I was born right around the same time, so my first memories of visiting my dad's office are from the early 70s, but given those and conversations over the years, I'd say they're right on target.

My father and his friends were heavy drinkers. Two and three martini lunches were the usual and they commuted back and forth to Connecticut in the bar car. There were always bars in the conference rooms. My parents threw lots of big boozy parties - my father said they would often invite new hires and people they were considering promoting, to see if they could handle their liquor. If they couldn't, they were out. Unless they were openly AA - that was okay.

Everybody smoked - I have an engraved silver cigarette box that was given to my father as some sort of corporate recognition thing; everyone also had ashtrays with the logo on them and so on.

There were no female executives but there were lots of pretty secretaries and, interestingly, lots of women designers (my father was a textile executive) which became one of my career aspirations. Flirtations and affairs? Oh yes. Resultant drama? Ongoing.

And the furniture! Everything was, yes, Danish teak - and it eventually came home, too, and would be my first apartment furniture, including a bizarro little teak bar that had a mirror in the back and felted shelves in the doors for your bottles. Very handy when you're 21, I must say. Probably worth a fortune now - too bad the dogs and kids destroyed it.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:56 AM on July 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm too young to have worked back then, but I did work for a company whose office had been built in '63. The executive section was never updated, except for replacing the original carpeting with wood floors.
Every office had a built-in wet bar. In front of office was a permanent desk for that executive's secretary with a hard-wired buzzer system. The main conference room was still fully stocked (early 2000s). Being a techie, I never got invited to any meetings where it was put into use.
The building also had a full-sized auditorium for presentations. On the back of every seat there was an ash tray.
posted by Eddie Mars at 9:58 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a good article from Design Observer: I was a Mad Man.
posted by nushustu at 10:16 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nthing what Killy Willy said. I'm not quite the same age as mom and can't watch it either, but Mad Men is like the bank I worked in right out of school. Let me tell you about the bank manager who got drunk and locked himself in the vault with the head cashier. Eveyone thought it was a cool joke and just carried on. And, btw, if you wonder why old ladies get annoyed (OK, raging angry) when young women think the women's movement was silly, this is it. They have no idea how much things have changed. I'm just glad life isn't like that any more for my DDs. And,yes, the clothes, office furniture/decor/equipment are spot on. Do they mention that women made 25-40% of what men made? And that there was no such thing as executive training for women?
posted by x46 at 10:28 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

My grandfather was in advertising sales for various newspapers and magazines from the thirties through the sixties in Manhattan and I know for sure that he smoked and drank all day at work. At the time the light-rail commuter trains from Jersey into the city (well actually Hoboken) had a bar car at the end that was open for business all day. My grandfather, and all the other businessmen, would get on the train at 7:00AM and start the day with martinis/manhattans/etc before they even got into the city.
posted by octothorpe at 10:35 AM on July 16, 2009

Almost everyone smoked at their desks at work in the 1960s. People smoked in doctors' offices and hospitals--I still remember ashtrays in the hallway of the hospital from the early 1970s, when I was a little girl. My mom would visit me in my room and then go out into the hallway with the doctor and smoke while they were discussing my progress.

If you were born in the US after 1980, it's hard to grok this: the past was like another planet with the smoking. Every restaurant permitted smoking at table, and at least 2/3 of adult customers would smoke after dinner at table, or even between courses. People smoked on airplanes. About the only place you couldn't smoke was on the subway, and people would light up as soon as they got to the turnstile.

Do they mention that women made 25-40% of what men made?

At most corporations in the US in those days, there were separate pay scales for women and men. I mean, explicitly separate, like in the employee handbook--there were charts showing that a man accountant with a CPA and two tax certifications and five years of seniority would get, say, $6,000 in annual salary, while a woman accountant with a CPA and two tax certifications and five years of seniority would get, say, $4,500 in annual salary.

I'm with x46--it fills me with rage when I hear some 20-something woman say "Well, I'm not a feminist" while enjoying at least theoretical pay equity, at least theoretical recourse for sexual harassment, at least theoretical maternity leave.

When I was a little girl, women didn't have any of those things, and that's what feminists fought for.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:39 AM on July 16, 2009 [30 favorites]

My work, a public library in Canada has some great photos from the seventies showing employees drinking and smoking in the staff area of the library during office hours. And talking to women who worked in the sixties and seventies, yeah the sexism and skirt-chasing was common, made them feel powerless and very upsetting.
posted by saucysault at 10:51 AM on July 16, 2009

Oh, I just remembered this. When I was a kid, the job classified sections of the newspaper had different categories for men and women: "Help Wanted: Male" and "Help Wanted:Female". From the Google timeline on those links, it looks like that practice stopped in the mid-seventies.
posted by octothorpe at 10:59 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

In some countries, this is still not uncommon.

In 2004 I attended a meeting with some senior management types of a very large consulting company. The meeting was in their main Milan office. To my surprise, the receptionist escorted me to a bar/cafe in the back of the office, where a very sexy female uniformed bartender offered me my choice of beverages while I waited. I just had an espresso, but could have had my choice of booze. Smoking would have also been ok. I am not sure what would have happened had I patted the barkeep on the ass.
posted by charlesv at 11:17 AM on July 16, 2009

If you're interested in a contemporary-to-Mad-Men's-era take on the drinking, sexism, and sexual harassment in the workplace, I would recommend the 1961 Broadway musical (and later 1967 film version) How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Song titles include "A Secretary Is Not A Toy" (sung initially by a boss lecturing his lecherous employees -- who later turns out to be sleeping with one of the secretaries) and "Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm" sung by the female protagonist, a secretary who dreams of marrying her boss and moving to New Rochelle as a happy housewife. They are meant only slightly ironically.

Actor Robert Morse, who starred as the amoral social climbing employee Finch in the show and film, now plays the wise grey-haired Cooper (of Sterling Cooper) in "Mad Men".
posted by Asparagirl at 11:38 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not old enough to remember, though I think as a kid in the seventies I remember people smoking on airplanes, which blows my mind. My Dad remembers giving cartons of cigarettes to family members for birthdays. I remember my grandfather talking about three martini lunches as his regular thing...
posted by xammerboy at 11:59 AM on July 16, 2009

Ashtrays. They were everywhere. Enormous fancy colorful glass decorative ones that took up a third of a coffee table in every living room, even if you weren't a smoker. Utilitarian glass ones, often with printed advertising, on every office desk, bar top, restaurant table, library table and college classroom desk. On airplanes in first class you got individual chrome metal ashtrays instead of the little metal box built into the armrest for coach. Big metal stands next to every chair in airports, bus depots, department stores and, yes, doctor offices.

Except in movie theaters where you just shook your ashes onto the floor with all the spilled popcorn.
posted by JackFlash at 12:42 PM on July 16, 2009

The Apartment (1960) is a great look at early '60s New York office life. The women (mostly secretaries, telephone operators, and elevator operators) are playthings for the executives.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:38 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Having worked in ad agencies and speaking woman to woman with senior female management who lived & worked through the 1960s and 1970s--yes, it was absolutely like that. Sometimes worse. At one office "back in the day" it was the official practice that all female hires (even if you had a masters or were hired as a designer) worked the reception desk for at least one year first. Men were exempt from this rule. And that is the *least* sexist story I've heard. I could curl your toes with stories I've heard (and believe) but I'm not posting anonymously so I'll respect their privacy.

I'll say this--I still detect whiffs of that "boys club" at just about every agency I've ever worked at. It's quiet and barely discernible, but there nonetheless.
posted by muirne81 at 2:39 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Without appearing to defend or indict the times Mad Men represents, I will say there were some asymmetric policies, benefits, and work rules that women of the time used to value, too. For example, at various companies I worked at in that era, women office employees got free lunches at the company cafeteria (to encourage them to stay in the building, where they could be paged, at lunch, when they might have gone out, to avoid mingling with the predominantly male factory workforce). At one company, women office workers got dozens of pairs of free, high quality shoes in their sizes each year, simply for agreeing to act as fit models, one afternoon a month. At another, women office workers typically got fairly nice gifts when their bosses returned from successful international trips - one woman I know who had worked for a senior VP of Sales for more than 10 years got a 8mm x 80mm Mikimoto pearl necklace one year when her boss came back from a trip to Japan around Christmas time. In the days when women office workers still made 98% of travel arrangements, most secretaries could easily get comped 1 or 2 trips a year for themselves, by the corporate travel agencies. It wasn't unheard of that women office workers who took on the roles of planning large customer events, would be given their bosses' company credit cards, for a dinner at Legal Seafood or the Harbor Club, for themselves and husbands/dates.

Women office workers in most companies at that time unofficially got much more liberal sick time than men (up to 1 or 2 extra days a month). And women's restrooms at that time often had 1 or more upholstered lounges, where "girls" could retire to "put their feet up" on stressful days. There were weekly fresh cut flowers in the women's restrooms, and often bi-weekly arrangements for their desks. Women office workers, who had worked any significant amount of time for a given boss, often were practically exempt from layoffs, so they essentially had tenure in their jobs (even if those jobs came with a glass ceiling), at a time when male employees were learning about the fickle nature of management-by-objective, first hand.

And once the accounting departments were all computer based, women office workers with any moxie often aligned themselves with the tech gnomes down in the computer room. A "girl" who could get your expense checks cut on a Friday, or your sales report re-run for a new customer range on a Monday afternoon, could command a lot of attention and special perks for herself. When the PC was first introduced, many "girls" rode their initial relationships with the mainframe guys down in the basement, into getting PCs on their desk, when Multiplan and Lotus 1-2-3 were still killer apps. For much of the 80s, those "girls" were learning about computers and networks, when their bosses thought the right place for any computer in the office suites was out on their "girl's" desk.
posted by paulsc at 3:34 PM on July 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

I'm not old enough to remember, though I think as a kid in the seventies I remember people smoking on airplanes, which blows my mind.

There was still a smoking section on transatlantic flights in the early 90s!

The smoking, drinking, rampant sexual harassment and sexism didn't even really begin to change until the late 80s; by the mid-90s, the culture of the workplace in the US in general had changed significantly.

I'm only 35, this change occurred within my working lifetime. When I hear griping about "the good old days, wah, I can't say nothin' without the PC police," I'm happy to tell those dudes to shut the fuck up and get back to work. (I'd tell 'em to kiss my feminist ass, but I'm more professional than that.)
posted by desuetude at 3:49 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I will say there were some asymmetric policies, benefits, and work rules that women of the time used to value, too.

It would be fascinating to see some citations for all those perks.
posted by OmieWise at 4:07 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

... women office employees got free lunches at the company cafeteria (to encourage them to stay in the building, where they could be paged

What? Were they carrying cardboard signs scrawled with "Will work for food"? Geez.
posted by JackFlash at 5:08 PM on July 16, 2009

At one company, women office workers got dozens of pairs of free, high quality shoes in their sizes each year, simply for agreeing to act as fit models, one afternoon a month.

Presumably either they only hired women with attractive legs, or the women with chubby ankles were just quietly excluded? Yuck, every single one of those perks is borne of the same sexism of the ass-grabbery and the glass ceiling.
posted by desuetude at 7:18 PM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't doubt the smoking and drinking and ass-grabbing are on target - but as far as the other details, they get most of it wrong at the barn where Betty rides, so I assume they are only fetishistic about some aspects of life in the times.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:27 PM on July 16, 2009

And cocktails at a client meeting aren't completely unheard of even today.

At the branding agency where I worked until a couple years ago, there was a fully stocked bar in the kitchen, a party every Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., and mimosas before noon when we landed a big account.
posted by ottereroticist at 10:07 PM on July 16, 2009

For example, at various companies I worked at in that era, women office employees got free lunches at the company cafeteria (to encourage them to stay in the building, where they could be paged

That's not favoritism, that's discrimination. Also, I bet all of those women would have traded the pearl necklaces and occasional paid-for dinners out for equal pay and opportunities for advancement.

Similarly, "Oh, the women who arranged the travel got complimentary trips" isn't corporate favoritism. Travel planners get complimentary trips (or used to) not because of sexism, but because vendors want to build loyalty with the people who make lots of travel arrangements.

Seriously, I think your examples hardly argue against sexism in the corporate environment of days past.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:13 AM on July 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

One of the women in my karate class, who is 74, used to work at Young & Rubicam (?) in the 1960s. When she divorced in 1959 or so, it was dangerous, because as her new status got around in the office, it made the men there think she was fair game: easy and desperate. Apparently, a lot of her being chased around a desk ensued. And she could have never been bigger than 5' 2"; I'm 5'1" myself and I'm taller than she is now. Poor thing. And in spike heels, yet.

She said that the drinking and smoking, sexism and racism are accurate, but that Paul's relationship with Sheila was not, and that the Smith guy who announced his homosexuality was also not realistic. Sheila wouldn't have even been allowed in the offices unless she was one of the cleaning ladies, I was told, and Smith would have been fired, not for being gay, but for making it public. She said the (suspected) gay guys carried themselves almost to a man exactly like Sal, and that ethnic white people were indeed considered as "less than full white," and so struggled to adhere to good-ol-boy Anglo-Saxon hegemony.
posted by droplet at 3:22 PM on July 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

My Aunt Norma, who worked in corporations throughout the 1960s, shudders when she talks about how accurate this show is, as far as how women were treated in the office.
posted by runtina at 7:37 PM on July 17, 2009

Oh, I just remembered this. When I was a kid, the job classified sections of the newspaper had different categories for men and women: "Help Wanted: Male" and "Help Wanted:Female". From the Google timeline on those links, it looks like that practice stopped in the mid-seventies.

I know I'm late to this, but just in case anybody thought that this just stopped of its own accord: it took years and it took lawsuits that went the Supreme Court and it took lawyers working for free to represent small groups of women who sued for pay equity and TV discussion shows and documentary films about bank tellers on strike and arguments around dinner tables across the country. It was fought tooth and nail, too-- for example, women didn't need pay equity because they didn't have families to support, the way men did (this point came up in an episode of Mary Tyler Moore, where Mary discovers that she is being paid less than Lou). Pay equity, it was argued, would bankrupt small businesses and large, and prove far too costly for the government as well. Unequal pay basically had to be found unconsitutional and legislation written and passed before it became the commonplace that we (mostly) think of as a no-brainer today.

Oh yeah, and the smoking thing? I used to smoke in class in college, like half the other students. You could smoke just about anywhere, including hospital corridors and public buildings and your office at work.

I also remember that during the 1970s male faculty pretty much viewed the female students as their private hunting grounds. A friend's supervisor pressured her to pose nude for him so that he could photograph her; he did this to all the female grad students he worked with, and the main recourse the women had was to warn others that they'd be subjected to this. So, yeah, when I hear people moaning about "political correctness" in the workplace, I kind of want to shake them.

[/end lecture/history lesson]
posted by jokeefe at 11:35 AM on October 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I dunno if you're ever going to check back jokeefe, but thank you for reminding the rest of us that change never come without a fight.
posted by ruelle at 6:39 AM on February 24, 2010

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