Spring 2007

Sex machines

Water-slide decals from the 1960s to the 1980s

The postwar development and prosperity of the United States reached all aspects of the economy, including the growth of the vending machine industry. With the gradual relaxing of social mores, it was only a matter of time before vending machines selling prophylactics and sexual novelty items began to appear in public spaces, such as bars and lavatories.

Designed to hang on walls, these vending machines were long and narrow, without the display window or lighting common to the larger floor-standing machines that sold snacks, beverages and cigarettes. These restrictions required that the products be advertised and promoted via decals on the front of the machines.

Most of the advertisements took the form of tall, slender, water-slide decals that were full of bright colours, simple graphic forms and often images of women in provocative poses and clothing. Every square inch of the decal was used to promote products through language and cavalier sexual messages typical of the pre-AIDS era. Products such as ‘French ticklers’, multi-coloured condoms and playing cards were promoted under names such as ‘Pandora’s Box’, ‘Porn O’ Plenty’ and ‘College of Sexual Knowledge’.

In today’s cutural landscape, dominated by conflicting ‘safe sex’ messages, explicit imagery and life-threatening diseases, these labels are a curiosity. Yet these vintage decals – produced by now-defunct manufacturers and anonymous designers – reflect an odd, macho attitude that remains sadly commonplace to this day.

Mike Kippenham, designer, lecturer, Bozeman, Montana, US

First published in Eye no. 63 vol. 16 2007

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.