Leading ladies of the laboratories – pharmaceutical tour guides

Over the years I’ve come across a number of postcards of a bunch of women in identical outfits arranged in classic group poses – lined up, fanned out, and stepped arrangements. Given enough time, in this case 50 or so years from their initial distribution, these things hold a certain fascination. While one card can be interesting, a collection of them can be both amusing and illuminating. The changing fashions and hairstyles and the robotic look of identical poses are irresistible to collectors of kitschy chrome postcards like me.

When I finally gathered these together from their various categorical homes in my numerous file drawers, I realized that they all had something else in common. Every postcard depicts tour guides for a pharmaceutical company! Actually they represent just three different companies: Abbott Laboratories of North Chicago, Ill.; Lederle Laboratories (a division of American Cyanamid) of Pearl River, N.Y.; and CIBA Corporation of Summit, N.J. Judging by clothing design and hairdos they most certainly range from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. Did that many people really tour pharmaceutical labs in the 1950s and 1960s? Were they giving away drugs at the end of the tour?

Lederle was obviously the first to promote this public relations ploy. Their earliest card is the only somewhat casual pose with hats reminiscent of a military cap and austere overcoats. By the time they issued their fifth postcard the escorts are sporting Jackie Kennedy inspired pillbox hats and increasingly higher (though still discrete) hemlines. Lederle used basically the same pre-womens liberation caption for the entire time: “The escort’s day is pleasant because she meets so many interesting people. These girls are specially selected and trained to show visitors around the Laboratories.”

Abbott Laboratories apparently also saw a need for Stepford-like escorts. Starting with rather drab olive green outfits in the late 1950s, they progress through three cards. The third card not only reveals kneecaps but also a nauseating color combination that was inexplicably stylish in the 1960s: avocado suits and tangerine blouses. Some of the women even have shoulder length hair. Oddly enough, Abbott always accessorized these “Escorts of the Public Relations Department” with rather large purses. Why they would be expected to schlep these cumbersome things around all day is a mystery to me.

Based on the appearances of the guides on the two CIBA cards in this group, CIBA didn’t promote guided tours until the early 1960s. The red blazers and knee length black skirts on the first card were exchanged for sky-blue outfits with above-the-knee exposure and some sort of beret-tam combo headwear that probably would have been fashionable around 1967.

Aside from documenting the styles of fashion and photography from 1950 to 1967, these postcards offer an opportunity for speculation on the advertising, public relations, and competitive practices of pharmaceutical companies. It was an era when we weren’t bombarded with non-stop drug commercials and endless ad pages extolling the latest fix for whatever ails us.

In today’s highly competitive and secretive corporate environment it seems rather unlikely that any of these companies would still employ a gaggle of identical “girl” guides to lead tours in their labs. And it’s even more inconceivable that they would distribute postcards of rows of fashionable frontwomen!

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