Heritage, history, and books.

Category: History Notes Page 2 of 4

Luna 2 and a mid-century space obsession

Luna 2, 1959.

On this day 59 years ago, the Soviet Union successfully landed (i.e. crashed and didn’t miss) the Luna 2, a sputnik-esque probe, on the moon for the first time in history and subsequently launched decades of sci-fi madness. I’ve always been fascinated by the visual depictions of life in space generated by the Cold War era space race. I love that it permeated everyday mid-century life through adverts, film, literature, and design. Who didn’t want a spherical telly with unnecessary antenna? I’ve reignited this interest in recent times. I believe we’re seeing a bit of a revival of mid-century design, its nostalgic and exciting, but it is also reflecting modern advancements in space tourism. After all, Elon Musk did launch Falcon Heavy to the sound of 1960’s David Bowie.

The global tension in which the Luna 2 was propelled into space stemmed from capitalism versus communism, to put it simplistically. America and the USSR had already fought over their nuclear weapons capability, and now the Cold War was fuelling the race against time to fund, design, and send man-made objects (and eventually man) to the moon. Yet, the two countries had very visually different ideas of what man on the moon would look like.

1950’s design aesthetic became sleeker and more technology focused

1950’s America. The country’s GDP was growing healthily, rising to the best it had been in several decades. Many Americans were enjoying the benefits of larger incomes, spending their cash on cars, kitchens, gadgets, and re-decorating. The government need not have looked further than the new advertising agencies to help them convince the population of the national benefits of space exploration. Much like Don Draper does in AMC’s Mad Men, 1950’s and 60’s ad-men were harnessing the fervour surrounding new technologies and using it to sell products to fantasising Americans.

Once you integrate a revolutionary idea in consumerism, it becomes a little less daunting and rather more thrilling. American society was somewhat more preoccupied with the designing of space-worthy items than the existential impact, as can be seen in contemporary advertising campaigns. Basic design ideas were reinvented and the minute details of what life would be like in space such as the sensations (note the floating biscuits above) and the look of everyday items captivated the imaginations of the American public. Arguably, this is what we still really think about on an everyday basis, even today… how would I use the toilet on Mars?

1961. V. Volikov. Long live Soviet science. Long live the Soviet man–the first astronaut!

Meanwhile, in the USSR, the Soviet government took a different approach to the space race. Science was integral to the regime and they made advances beyond those of other superpowers, the success of Luna 2 was just the first of several. Their scientists, engineers, and eventually their astronauts were a source of intense national pride. Nevertheless, extra money was poured into creating and distributing punchy visual propaganda, selling the idea that space was the perfect place for communism; It was untouched by all other ideologies (such as capitalism) and, more importantly, it was Godless. Donald W. Cox, in his book The Space Race, adds that probes such as the Luna 2 “added inspiration for the earthbound followers of the communist way of life helping to take their mind off shortages of consumer goods.”

Soviet era posters often emphasised the human presence in space, with little made of machinery or material extras. The artwork is sometimes comically simplistic, almost always featuring slogans in bold print, and were often painted with vivid primary colours. They presented a dead simple, easy to get message – we don’t need to sell this idea too hard, it’s revolutionary. The idea was that you could too join the cosmonauts in deep space once day.

Glory to the Fatherland of Heroes!

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans on the moon in 1969, the obsession with space travel didn’t end there. Today, we can lay on our memory foam mattresses and enjoy watching test flights for space tourism on our satellite telly with the same amazement. We have both countries to thank for those space-race-legacy inventions.

“Imagination is our window into the future. At NASA/JPL we strive to be bold in advancing the edge of possibility so that someday, with the help of new generations of innovators and explorers, these visions of the future can become a reality. As you look through these images of imaginative travel destinations, remember that you can be an architect of the future.”

NASA recently commissioned these very nostalgic space tourism posters:


#Book Club – Microhistories – ‘Perfume’

Microhistory is the “intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (stolen from Wikipedia)


There has been quite a few books popping up recently that focus in on a small object or event, and then look at a larger picture in history. Its a refreshing perspective on the writing of history books, and in many ways makes vast histories of people and events more accessible. And I’m absolutely addicted to them.

As a new feature of this blog, I’m going to read and give short reviews of a few of these microhistories, beginning with ‘Perfume: A Century of Scents’ by Lizzie Ostrom (2015).

Perfume: A Century of Scents


The human ability to smell is not perhaps at the forefront of the list when we think about our most important human senses. Yet, smell is everywhere, and our brains are capable of storing and remembering around 10,000 various smells (according to the BBC…). Even more so, our brains constantly connect smells and scents with memories, which is why we can get all nostalgic when we catch a whiff of something, even if you can’t quite place where you’d ‘sniffed’ it before. Such is like the memories given to us by scents in the form of perfumes. Perfume is one of those things in the modern world that we often take for granted. Many of us wear it daily, or have that one bottle applied religiously on special occasions, it has become part and parcel of getting ourselves ready for life. It is because it is such an everyday thing that it is easy to forget that the wearing of scent has been around for centuries, if not millennia. Nobody would blame you if you thought there couldn’t be a rich cultural history attached to this. But as Lizzie herself comments in the first paragraph:

Scent has radiated from the the collars of politicians as they stand on the steps triumphant, and when they leave, hounded and broken. It has been dabbed on by performers getting into character  for their next role. And it has been present – even playing a supporting or confidence boosting role – in negotiations, tussles, crimes, parties, productions and seductions.


Lizzie, in this wonderfully glitzy hardback, reflects upon the last 100 years of perfume wearing by delving into exactly 100 different scents, popular in their time. She really captures the feel and the impact of each scent, without flapping about trying to convey the actual smell, seeing as they are, in fact, long gone. Its written in an entirely accessible way, and by no means do you have to be a history buff to follow it.

I think the best way for me to explain this book is to give you a little sniff of it:


Mouchoir de Monsieur by Guerlain, 1904. (p.22-23)

I thought this would be a great example from the book to illustrate whats included, not just women’s scents!

Lizzie tells us that this one by Guerlain was what was known as a ‘handkerchief’ scent. Scents in this period would often be daubed onto pieces of cloth or clothing, rather than onto the skin. This was designed to ward off the ‘bad airs’  or revive someone with the flick of your handkerchief. But, as Lizzie explains, these scents weren’t just meant to be strong and powerful, like Dettol, they were designed by expert perfumers.

Lizzie explains that this particular perfume’s cultural history ties in with the Flaneurs. This was a name given to certain men of leisure, men who wandered about towns from cafe, to  theatre, to park, seeking philosophical enlightenment (probably unsuccessfully). A little like a rich bohemian, perhaps. Finally, somehow Lizzie has been able to track down how this perfume actually smelt. She describes it as a “balance between creamy-smelling coumarin and campherous lavender” with some “typical animalic dirtiness beneath” to mimic the urban smells of the Flaneur’s city.

I quite like to imagine this book as a sort of tour-de-force exhibition on the history of perfume. In fact it would make a great physical exhibition, say, at the V&A. But for now we have Lizzie’s book, and I can only hope someone who reads this will give it a go. You won’t be disappointed.

Available at: 


Amazon UK

The next #BookClub microhistory will be ‘The Button Box’ by Lynn Knight.




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