The History Behind Mad Men Moments

Mad Men gives us a glimpse into yesteryear by using accurate historical themes.

Tara Sharp of TrèsSugar, tells readers how Mad Men incorporates real historical themes into everyone’s favorite advertising, scotch-drinking, suit-wearing, cigarette-smoking show.

After waiting a year and a half (17 months, to be exact), Mad Men is finally returning to TV this weekend. It’s still a mystery what year the new season will take place in, but we’ve learned a lot reliving the ’60s for the past four seasons. It was a decade of ups and downs for the women of Mad Men, which mirrors what the real-life ladies of the ’60s went through dealing with sexism and the growing pains of the impending women’s lib movement. If you’re curious about the references and themes of Mad Men, check out the real-life historical moments behind the show that has brought this swingin’ slice of our country’s yesteryear to the limelight.

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In season four, Joan admits that she’s had two abortions. But how were doctors performing abortions before Roe v. Wade passed in 1973? Abortion was legal in the US until the mid-19th century when the drive to criminalize it began. By 1910, it was illegal for anyone, including doctors, to perform abortions in 49 states, except when a woman’s life was in danger. Threatening to commit suicide, and thus endangering the mother’s life, became a sure way to persuade most doctors, while others continued to perform it—for a high fee—illegally. The rate of abortions declined in the mid-20th century as doctors, under pressure from hospital administrators, failed to report them.

Carefree Girl in White

On season four’s Christmas episode, the agency gets a lesson in market research. The woman who gives the presentation is touted for her impressive achievement: she’s the brains behind the “indelible image of feminine hygiene products—the carefree girl in white.” The “carefree girl in white” has become a cliche in tampon and maxi pad advertising for new ads to riff off of, but it was not so long ago the ads were all dressed in white.


When Betty Draper gives birth on Mad Men, she’s in a semiconscious state. More formally known as twilight sleep, this state is brought upon with a cocktail of drugs to relieve pain and induce amnesia.

Doctor Eliza Taylor Ransom founded the New England Twilight Sleep Association in 1914 to ensure hospitals offered twilight sleep during childbirth. Considered more humane and even aspirational, it initially took off among wealthy women, who formed Twilight Sleep Societies and praised the procedure for the “healthy, beautiful, and intelligent” babies it produced. Doctors quickly discovered semiconscious women made excellent patients, and women, assuming they had no choice, accepted the procedure as the norm. What was created to be an alternative to natural childbirth was used in every hospital delivery by 1938, and it continued until the natural-birth movement took over in the ’70s.

David McCallum

In a shocking episode of season four, 10-year-old Sally’s sleepover is declared over when she’s caught playing with herself while watching TV. But what is she watching that’s such an impetus? She was watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a fictitious spy show starring the then 31-year-old David McCallum as a secret agent.


Two-piece bathing suits may date back to antiquity, but modern history’s first two-piece was designed in 1913 by Carl Jantzen—the same brand that comes to Sterling Cooper Draper Price on Mad Men to make its floundering suit desirable but not too sexy. Like many things, the bikini found acceptance in the ’60s. Private pools made trying them out less risque, and by 1967 Time magazine said 65 percent of young women wore them. Pinup posters of Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch and movies like Dr. No and Beach Party made it more acceptable, clearing the way for the first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in January 1964. By the end of the decade, bikinis were the norm.

Quickie Reno Divorces

Season three of Mad Men ends with Betty on a plane to Reno, NV, for a quickie divorce. Reno was the divorce capital of the US throughout the midcentury. It became popular in the ’30s when Nevada reduced the divorce waiting period from six months to six weeks to ease its Depression-era money problems. Divorce hopefuls quickly began flocking to the state, especially Reno. Where other states required proof of adultery (pictures, eyewitnesses), Nevada required nothing but an accusation. And the options went far beyond philandering! From failure to provide and desertion to habitual drunkenness, impotency, and “extreme cruelty entirely mental in nature,” just about any reason was sufficient in America’s biggest little city.

Playboy Bunnies

One of Lane Pryce’s secrets is that he’s a key holder at New York’s Playboy Club. Hugh Hefner opened the first Playboy Club in 1960 in Chicago to bring the Playboy magazine experience to life. He quickly grew the Playboy empire by opening clubs around the world. They were elegant, high-profile spots and symbols of status (only 21 percent of key holders ever went to clubs because membership was enough), but it was also a bit of a knockoff of Chicago’s Gaslight Club, which Playboy ran a feature on in 1959.

Cigarette Ads For Women

Philip Morris is behind Virginia Slims (also the company that approaches Sterling Cooper Draper Price in season four), the most successful women’s cigarette in history. It learned what women like—long cigarettes, thin cigarettes, all-white cigarettes—and approved the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Then, catching its mistake, deleted “baby.”

Working Women

Peggy Olson is the resident career girl on Mad Men. The median age for women to marry in 1965 was 20.6 (it was 25 in 2008), so at 26 she was moving from a single girl to an unmarried woman. But 1965 was a crossroads, and she could see herself two ways—someone to be pitied or admired.


It isn’t easy to figure out Don’s secretary Megan when she joins the gang in season four. Does she want to be Peggy? Or Betty? Or both? Helen Gurley Brown spread the gospel of good looks in the ’60s. First in 1962’s Sex and the Single Girl and later as editor of Cosmo, she advocated tactics that ranged from flirting to sex. Maybe this is the career advice Megan follows?

Therapy Stigma

In season three, Betty Draper resists going to a therapist even though she desperately needs it. In the 1960s, it became more and more popular to work with a therapist, but it must have been hard to trust mental health professionals completely, as at least 50,000 people, including unhappy housewives, were lobotomized in the early 1960s. Even if most housewives were ignorant of extreme cases, the pressure to be perfect was probably enough to keep them from admitting they needed help.

Margaret Mead

Peggy says she feels like Margaret Mead in season four while watching three male colleagues hunt and gather food by picking up and shaking SCDP’s new vending machine. Margaret Mead was a cultural anthropologist who parlayed her early work studying Samoan culture into a gig commenting on American culture in the ’60s and ’70s. She was already popular on the lecture circuit by 1960, but her fame skyrocketed in ’61 with “The Rejected,” the made-for-TV documentary on homosexuality. In it she notes it’s society, not individuals, that determines how homosexuality is viewed, and cites the positive roles it’s played in Ancient Greece and Native American cultures.

Books of the ’60s

The characters of Mad Men read plenty, and the books of the show are as carefully chosen. Each tells us something about the character and the time. We’ve seen Don read more books than any other character. One of our favorites is the original chick-lit book The Best of Everything. Published in the late ’50s, the novel follows around young, single career women—Peggy Olson is thought to be modeled after the main character.

Jackie or Marilyn?

On season two of Mad Men, the gang at Sterling Cooper decide that women fall into two camps: Jackies and Marilyns. These two women are supposed to represent two opposite ends of the spectrum because they shared little besides John F. Kennedy himself. One is brunette, the other a platinum blonde. One has a demure look, the other oozes sensuality. It’s your classic, and simply sexist, Madonna/Whore dichotomy.

Ad Agencies

Veteran Madison Avenue advertising executive Jerry Della Femina shared his experience working as a mad man in the 1960s. He said the characters on Mad Men would look innocent if you compared their actions to what really went down. He said:

“We used to have an agency ‘sex’ contest near the end of every year … We’d go to a no-name Mexican restaurant … and we’d drink giant margaritas all day … We’d take a blind vote to name the person at the agency you’d most want to go to bed with. We also took a vote on the person of the same sex you’d like to go to bed with. We did this for 15 years. I’d get to announce the winners each year. The first prize was a weekend at The Plaza hotel for the winning couple.”

1964 Events

Season four of Mad Men opens in 1964, and this year in American history included real-life events like Vietnam War demonstrations, the first woman on a major party’s presidential ballot, and the British invasion. The Beatles’ first album, “Introducing … the Beatles”, dropped on Jan. 20, 1964, in the United States. By Feb. 1, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the number-one single on US charts.

Pond’s Cold Cream

Peggy and Don push for a new big idea on an old product, Pond’s Cold Cream. The debate in the season four episode is what do women want: indulgence or marriage? In a real-life 1969 Pond’s Cold Cream commercial, women gush about getting married. But Pond’s Cold Cream now targets the 40-plus market and touts the experience with copy like “Pond’s is dedicated to bringing the pleasure back into face care.”

Brady Bunch Connection

On the season four premiere of Mad Men, Peggy and Mark, her junior-level helper who looks like he was sent from 1997, coo “Johhn” and “Marrr-sha” mock-seductively to each other. It’s a reference to the 1951 album John and Marsha. It was recorded by comedian Stan Freberg to parody soap opera dialog by only using two words—“John” and “Marsha.” He later became an ad man himself when he introduced satire to advertising. It revolutionized the staid business and earned himself the unofficial title of “father of comedic advertising.”

The fact that two culture-savvy New Yorkers were referencing it 13 years later shows just how successful and long-lasting its reach was. In fact, it was still being referenced in the early ’70s when Jan Brady famously whined “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha.”

Self-Help Books

The first self-help book, succinctly titled Self-Help and serendipitously written by a man named Samuel Smiles, was published in 1859, but the genre didn’t really take off until 100 years later. The sexual revolution may have made a swinging, anything-goes time, but it left people confused about how the world works. And, maybe most importantly, people stopped trying to appear perfect. So when Mad Men’s Betty Draper put down her polite book about Italy, what did she pick up? Probably one of these self-help hits from the ’60s.

More TrèsSugar Links:

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The History Behind Mad Men Moments

Photo credit: Flickr / aldenjewell


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  1. Actually, the reason that Jan Brady said “Marcia,” (not Marsha) was that was her older sister’s NAME. Jan was the stereotypical neglected middle daughter and was getting frustrated at Marcia getting all the glory. So there is no Brady Bunch connection, just a Stan Freberg one in that particular episode.

  2. Not a fun time to be a woman during the Mad Men era, but boy oh boy what changes were made.
    Thank goodness women don’t have to go through all of that stuff now. It was really awful. Now if men disrespect me it’s out there, but back then it was part of the culture to treat women disrespectfully and it was done in every way. Again, I am so glad no women or men have to experience all of the bad stuff that went on. I can’t even watch Mad Men because it is so real.

    • “Now if men disrespect me it’s out there, but back then it was part of the culture to treat women disrespectfully and it was done in every way.”

      Why don’t you ask an older gentleman who lived during that era what he thinks of how young men treat women today.

      Prepare to be surprised.

      And you might want to not take history lessons from tv shows.


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