Mad Men Historical Moments

Bello Abdullahi We

© Copyright 2020 by Bello Abdullahi We

Add for the movie.

Historical films or period dramas are set in an earlier time period. They are a kind of virtual time machines, so called because they let you peep into the past just like you would peer over your garden through your bedroom window. Okay, I know, that analogy is not real but it definitely has elements of truth in it. Most people prefer to watch movies over reading books. Even the lesser few who fall in the bookworm category prefer to watch the movie after reading the book. If so, a vast majority of fans could have come across King Henry VIII’s 40-year reign of England via the silver screen (Tudors). I first learned about the Vikings from the movie. Mad Men captures America’s 1960’s like it’s all happening in your backyard.

My first encounter with Mad Men started with a recommendation from a friend. A trailer addict, I find the first season slow to my taste yet, season after season, I consumed the entire show. What kept me going? Two things. One, the drama. Two, the historical moments. I must admit here that the latter is more of an inspiration than the former. My first encounter with the birth of the baby boomers started when I was a teenager, about three decades ago. I was exposed to high-profile crime fiction novels like James Bond 007 and the James Hadley Chase series. These novels are the real deals when it comes to 1940’s and 1960’s America because the authors actually lived through the times. So, when Mad Men started airing I had an inkling that the show could be a reminiscence of my youthful days (minus the criminal plots).

Mad Men is set primarily in the 1960’s. The movie focuses on the day to day activities of an advertising agency known as Sterling Cooper and, later, Sterling Cooper & Partners. According to Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, the initial concept was to write a story about someone like him (Weiner) who had everything but yet was miserable. Also a reflection of his lead character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the idea led to an internet research funded by Weiner which ultimately ended up in a periodic masterpiece.

Scenes in the movie span the era between March 1960 and November 1970. For some the 60’s is not that far away, but a great many things have changed some of which are more noticeable than others. Here are a few of them:

  1. Advertising

Weiner’s funded research led to a huge discovery of the squabbles that existed between 60’s advertising agencies. During that time, advertisers mastered the language of TV, adopted the medium of photography and produced work of unprecedented creativity. This is so evident in the movie’s business world: An advertising agency full of life and creativity. The only thing they lack is the vast popularity of the internet.

  1. The War

Throughout the show, Don Draper struggled with identity crisis. On the one hand, he’s a man who doesn’t have his life together because he doesn’t understand himself. Yet, he understands what makes him a successful advertiser. On the other hand, his real name is Richard Dick Whitman. During the Korean War, he assumed the identity of Lieutenant Don Draper, who was killed in front of Whitman when their entire unit was ambushed by the enemy and in the ensuing chaos Whitman switched tags with Don who was due to be sent home, and escaped.

Greg Harris (Samuel Page), Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) husband, comes back home from his tour of duty in Vietnam only to reveal that he’s being sent back again for another tour of active service.

Most people will dispute that America was still the fighting, discontented bull known for invading foreign lands. They might be right, but the focus of contention has now shifted to terrorism or Arab Lands as opposed to Sino-Asian countries.

  1. National Pride

Characters portrayed mixed reactions to historic events. It was clear that these reactions were driven by national pride. The assassination of John Kennedy, the death of Marilyn Monroe and even the moon landing by Apollo 11 all took their toll on the characters’ lives.

  1. Visual Art

Visual art has been used extensively as a medium of advertising. It is the tradition of the Sterling Cooper Agency to conduct client meetings prior to launching an advertising campaign where they discuss strategies on how to tackle the campaigns. But one thing is missing. Stan Rizzo, the art director of the Cooper agency, does not have a computer or the Corel graphic package that comes with it.

  1. Sexual Relationships

In the 21st century, complete nudity has taken a toll on people’s lives. Porn is everywhere. Even classic movies (Spartacus, Game of Thrones) display nudity like it’s part of the game.

In the early 20th century, most women wore long dresses. In the 1920’s, panties went as far as a few inches below the knee. Bit by bit, however, things began to change. The bikini was invented in the late forties. Mary Quant invented the mini skirt in 1965 and dress codes became even more informal. But still, the degree of nudity is not something to write home about.

Like most 20th century flicks, sexual activities in Mad Men has been reduced to mere kisses. Anything further than that is ‘Cut To’.

The story did not end here. A few scenes did not show any noticeable change, giving viewers the impression that the 60’s is still modern history. The telephone conversations, for example (we missed the cell phones). Or when Draper and his family went for a picnic. Everything looked so modern and real. There were also the secretaries behind typewriters (once again, we missed the computers). You will agree with me that hiring female secretaries had always been the norm.

To the young generation, some things are so relative. But for Baby Boomers who lived through the 1950's and 1960's, and still have some vivid memories of that period, it is indeed starting to seem like a long time ago. Truth is, half a century gone, the 60’s is a bygone era.


History helps you develop an appreciation for your roots and what came before you, along with what sacrifices were made to get there. It also helps you understand the history and evolution of ideas.  In this way it helps you understand the practical consequences for particular ideologies and worldviews and ways of thinking about life, politics, and the world.

A number of tools have been used to help decode the events of yesterday. One of such tools is historical movies or period movies. Historical movies show past events set within a historical period and have the potential to reach even wider audience.

Over the course of seven seasons, Mad Men took us on a roller coaster ride through America’s 1960s. Having ceased production in 2015, Mad Men is history and America in transition. This article examines the movie Mad Men and its connection with history. 


An unpublished  Writer with over five years’ struggle in article-writing, blogging, screenwriting and programming. A self-published author of two works of fiction in addition to several articles and essays.

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