Texas’ 1936 Centennial, when the power of marketing tricked everyone into thinking Texas wasn’t Western Mississippi – Sappo – Feb 13

So everyone knows how Texas (and Texans) have this absurdly self-aggrandizing reputation, this attitude of superiority… that their state is, as my friend put it, The Rootinest Tootinest Pollutinest State in the Union…

But what people may NOT know is that that reputation, that attitude, is wholly the product of marketing and a massive national advertisement campaign. Before 1936, no one thought of texas as a “western” state. It was, from the perspectives of the rest of the US (including the people of Texas itself!) just another southern state; no different from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and points east. What happened, quite simply, was a massive advertising and marketing campaign, on radios and newspapers across the country, advertising Texas’ Bigness, its “westerness”, exemplifying its cowboy heritage and cribbing heavily from the real history of Kansas and the other plains states and points west rather than anything to its east… and most importantly, glorifying its anglo roots, skirting the black history of the state, erasing and otherising its mexican history and the hispanic population of the state, all of this culminating in the Texas centennial expo and world’s fair.

What happened was, basically, the discovery of oil in ~1900. For the first few years or so, all of that money tended to flow out of the state, towards the east and midwest; megacorps like Standard Oil and suchlike siphoning the wealth from the state. However, following the breakup of Standard Oil and the reshaping of the oil company landscape, larger and larger portions of that money began to settle in Texas itself, giving a nascent white oil nobility the money to effect what they wanted, while they ever more chafed at the restrictions placed upon them by their state’s image as just another poor southern state full of mixed races. The combination of wealth with the southern tendency to be aggrieved by the north blended, and eventually came to a head in the following decades.

The idea was originally conceived of in 1923 by a racist new york cotton broker, Theodore H. Price (1), and sold to business councils to begin an advertising campaign. The first stages of it were focused internally, to attempt to homogenize the culture of Texas towards a new, synthetically imagined culture… as described, it was meant as “texanizing texans”, in practice, it meant the erasure of hispanics the suppression of black culture, and the glorifying of whites. The worship of “The Alamo” became resurgent with this, and that once long-forgotten idea became rewritten as an eternal and immutable part of Texas culture. This also came hand in hand with racist idolizing of The Alamo, which led to visiting german sailors laying wreaths at the site in 1935 (2), and a nazi rally glorified by the city papers across the state- such things are swept under the rug now, but were considered a point of pride and nobility then.

As 1936 approached, and the advertisement within the state deeply influenced the immigrants and new transfers from elsewhere in the US who were moving there due to the presence of wealth while the rest of the country suffered, the advertising campaign moved to something more national. Over a short span, nearly half a million dollars were spent on advertisements nationally- the equivalent of about eight million dollars today, and in a time when advertisements were much, more more cheap. The result was a national re-arrangement of the image of Texas. No longer was it a “southern” state, now it was imagined as a Western state… and more importantly, it rapidly became such that everyone imagined it had always been a western state. This sort of thing becomes evident, when you ask people who ‘the first southern president’ was… many people think of Carter to answer this question, only a few people remember Lyndon B. Johnson despite his quintessential southernness.

What’s fascinating about all this is how this complete rewriting of history shows up, when examined with cultural geography tools. House design, foodways, gravestone design, etc… all quintessentially southern, but indeed, after 1936 there was a shifting of material culture in texas from top to bottom in many, many ways as they turned away from their southern history… and more importantly, began to imagine that it had always been so, that this is how they had always been.

The book I link below glances along this topic, but its main focus is the resurgence of mexican and mexican-american and hispanic literature in Texas in the decade following the centennial. This was, as the book claims, a response to all this explicitly racist, revisionist history that attempted to erase their presence and essential involvement in the state and state’s history. I have not yet had the opportunity to read it, however. This post is a product of some reference lookup and my notes from a cultural geography course I took a few semesters ago, which touched on this topic; I used it recently to antagonize a texan acquaintance of mine who is the sort of person who imagines texas is eternal and immutable; as my friend put it, “1519 – Spanish explorer Alonso Alvarez de Pineda stops off at Galveston for some brisket and pulled pork”. In the process of looking up reference stuff, I found out about stuff like the nazi rally at the Alamo and the more explicitly (though in hindsight, obvious) racist aspects of this revisionist history campaign.

(1) http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117159/m1/310/
(2) http://books.google.com/books?id=b489oNoCGGcC&pg=PA34&lpg=PA34&dq=Theodore+H.+Price+texas+centennial&source=bl&ots=Zeety_TnHL&sig=9HKBfA5IDbjp5AIU-YWi_bYr9XY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Y3wRUZH8OObP2QW8yIHgDw&ved=0CEcQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=Theodore%20H.%20Price%20texas%20centennial&f=false