A note to fans of Little Golden America: as of issue No. 22, Admit Two adopted a PDF format, which means you will have to access individual back issues to get to further chapters of Ilf and Petrov's American adventure.
… America Cannot Be Caught Napping
WHEN WE had driven thirty miles away from Schenectady, Mrs. Adams
said to her husband:
“It’s getting cold; put on your hat.”
Mr. Adams fidgeted for some time, rose a little and searched his seat
with his hands. Then, groaning, he bent over and began to look under
his feet. Finally he turned to us.
“Gentlemen,” he said, in a tearful voice, “will you look and see
whether my hat is back there?”
There was no hat.
Mrs. Adams drew up to the side. We got out of the machine and
began to search systematically. We examined the baggage rack, we
opened all the suitcases. Mr. Adams even slapped his pockets. The hat
“And yet,” remarked Mr. Adams, “I remember quite distinctly that I
had a hat.”
“Do you really remember it?” asked his wife with a smile that made
Mr. Adams quake. “What an excellent memory!”
“It is quite incomprehensible!” muttered Mr. Adams. “An excellent
“You forgot your hat in Schenectady!” exclaimed his wife.
“But, Becky, Becky, don’t talk like that—forgot in Schenectady! Oh,
no! It hurts me to hear you say that I forgot my hat in Schenectady.
“Well, then, where is it/”
“No. Becky, seriously, how can I tell you where it is?”
He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and began to mop his
head with it.
“What is this?” asked Mrs. Adams.
“This is a handkerchief, Becky!”
“This is not a handkerchief. This is a napkin. Let me have it. That’s
just what it is—a napkin with the initials of the hotel. How did it get
into your pocket?”
Mr. Adams squirmed. He stood beside the machine, the collar of his
coat turned up, and impatiently stood first on one foot, the on the
other. Drops of rain fell on his bald head.
We began to consider the newly arisen situation with some heat. We
decided that we had seen the hat fro the last time in the hotel restau-
rant. It lay on a chair beside Mr. Adams. During luncheon there was a
great argument about the Italo-Abyssinian War.
“Evidently it was then that you shoved the napkin into your pocket
instead of your handkerchief!” Mr. Adams conjectured.
“Ach, Becky, you must not talk like that—put a napkin in my
pocket! No, no, no! it is cruel of you to talk like that!”
“What shall we do then? Go back to Schenectady to get your hat?”
“No, gentlemen,” said Mr. Adams, who by this time had managed
to recover from the shock, “that would be a silly thing to do—to return
to Schenectady. Would it be a wise thing to do? My hat cost four dol-
lars in 1930, plus cleaning in 1933, fifty cents: altogether, four dollars and
Mr. Adams took a pencil and a notebook out of his pocket and began
“In its present condition my hat is worth no more than a dollar-fifty.
It is sixty miles to Schenectady and back. Our car makes on an average
ff sixteen—well, let us say, fifteen—miles per gallon of gasoline. Alto-
gether we would have to spend four gallons at sixteen cents per gallon;
total, sixty-four cents. Now we must take into consideration the amorti-
zation of the automobile, expenses for oil and grease. Seriously, it would
be silly to return to Schenectady form my hat.”
Mrs. Adams suggested that we return the napkin by mail, asking the
management of the hotel to send the hat to General Delivery, say in
Detroit, where we would be two days later.
While we were lunching at a small café of the next little town, which
was either Springfield or Geneva, Mr. Adams went to the post office.
He soon returned with the proud and independent air of a man who
had fulfilled his duty.
This was the third day of our journey. The month in New York had
brought many impressions, but the more we saw of people and things
the less we understood America. We tried to generalize. Scores of times
“Americans are as naïve as children!”
“Americans are excellent workers!”
“Americans are sanctimonious!”
“Americans are a great nation!”
“Americans are stingy!”
“Americans are senselessly generous!”
“Americans are radical!”
“Americans are stupid, conservative, hopeless!”
“There will never be a revolution in America!”
“There will be a revolution in America within a few days!”
It was an awful muddle from which we wanted to extricate ourselves
as soon as possible. And then gradually this deliverance began. One
after the other various phases of American life, which had hitherto been
hidden in the clatter and tinsel of New York, began to disclose them-
selves to us.
We knew. There was no need to hurry. It was too soon to generalize.
First of all, we must see as much as possible.
We glided over the country, as over the chapter of a long, entertain-
ing novel, repressing in ourselves the legitimate desire of the impatient
reader to take a look at the last page. And it became clear to us: the
main thing was order and system.
In the electric house of Mr. Ripley we understood the meaning of
publicity. Let us call it advertising. It did not desert us for a single
minute. It dogged our footsteps.
It so happened that for about five minutes we did not run across a
single advertisement on either side of the road. This was so surprising
that one of us exclaimed over it:
“Billboards have disappeared. Look: here are fields, trees, but no bill-
But the rash speaker was punished for his lack of faith in the power
of American publicity. He had scarcely pronounced the last word of his
sentence when from around the curve droves of large and small adver-
tisements flew to greet our machine.
No! America cannot be caught napping!
Advertisements have penetrated American life to such an extent that,
ff upon walking some amazing morning Americans were to find all
advertisements gone, the majority of them would be in the most des-
perate of plights. They would not know:
What cigarettes to smoke?
In what store to buy ready-made clothes?
Which cooling drink best quenches thirst—Coca-Cola or ginger ale?
Which whisky to drink—White Horse or Johnny Walker?
Which gasoline to buy—Shell or Standard Oil?
Which god to worship—the Baptist or the Presbyterian?
It would be utterly impossible to decide whether it was worth while
to chew gum!
Or which film was remarkable and which simply a work of genius!
Whether one should enlist in the Navy!
Whether the climate of California is beneficial or harmful?
In short, without advertisements, the devil alone knows what might
Life would become incredibly complex. One would have to think for
himself at every step.
No, it is much easier with advertisements. Americans don’t have to
think about anything. The large business houses do the thinking for
There’s no use bothering your head when selecting a cooling drink.
Drink “Coca-Cola!” Drink “Coca-Cola!”
“Coca-Cola” refreshes the dry throat!
“Coca-Cola” stimulates the nervous system!
“Coca-Cola” benefits the organism and the fatherland!
In brief, he who drinks “Coca-Cola” will be well off!
The average American, despite his outward show of activity, is really
a passive person by nature. He must have everything presented to him
in finished form, like a spoiled husband. Tell him which drink is the
best, and he will drink it. Tell him which political party suits him best,
and he will vote for it. Tell him which god is the true god, and he will
worship him. But one thing you must not make him do. You must not
make him think after working hours. He doesn’t like it, and he is not
used to it. And if you want him to believe your words you must repeat
them as often as possible. This is the foundation on which is built
a considerable portion of American advertising, political as well as com-
merical and every other kind.
And everywhere you go an advertisement lies in wait for you: at
home and while calling, on the street and on the highway, in the taxi,
in the subway, on the train, in the airplane, in the ambulance, every-
We were still aboard the Normandie in the harbor of New York,
when two objects attracted our attention. One of them was small, green-
ish—the Statue of Liberty. But the other was huge and impudent—an
advertising shield propagandizing Wrigley’s Chewing Gum—a chewing
gum! From that moment on the flat green little mug with its huge
megaphone, drawn on the advertisement, pursued us all through Amer-
ica, arguing, pleading, persuading, begging, demanding that we chew
Wrigley’s—the aromatic, inimitable first-class gum.
The first month we resisted it. We drank no “Coca-Cola.” We held
out almost to the end of our journey. A few more days and we would
be on the ocean, out of danger. Yet the advertisement won out. We could
not hold out, but succumbed to that drink. We can testify truthfully:
Yes, Coca-Cola really does refresh the throat, stimulates the nerves,
soothes health disturbances, softens the torments of the soul, and makes
a man genius like Leo Tolstoy. We defy ourselves not to say that, after
it has been driven into our heads for three months, every day, every
hour, and every minute.
Even more frightful, more insistent, and more screaming is the
advertisement of cigarettes. “Chesterfield,” Camel,” ‘Lucky Strike,”
and other tobacco products are advertised with a hysteria which can be
equaled only in the dances of the dervishes or at the celebration of
“Shakhsei-Vakhsei,” which no longer exists, and the participants of which
were wont to stab each other with daggers in sheer abandon and drench
themselves in blood for the glory of their divinity. All through the night
over America flame the electric inscriptions and all through the day the
eyes are stabbed with the colored billboards: “The best in the world!
Toasted cigarettes! They bring luck! The best in the solar system!”
As a matter of fact, the more widespread the advertising the more
trivial the object designated in it. Only the sale of utter trifles can pay
for this mad advertising. The houses of America, the roads, fields, and
trees are mutilated by the boresome billboards. It is the purchaser who
pays for these billboards. We were told that the five-cent bottle of “Coca-
Cola” costs the manufacturer one cent, but that three cents are spent on
advertising it. Where the fifth cent goes there is no need to say. That is
The manufacturers of the remarkable and useful object of technique
and comfort with which America abounds cannot advertise their mer-
chandise with the abandon indulged in by some trashy chewing gum
or some brown whisky with a strong drugstore odor and utterly repellent
Once, passing through a little town, we saw behind a wire granting a
white plaster-of-Paris horse standing on green grass among the trees.
At first we thought this was a monument to the unknown horse which
heroically fell in a war between the North and the South for the libera-
tion of the Negroes. Alas, no! This horse with the inspired eyes silently
reminds those who drive by of the existence of that inimitable whisky,
White Horse, which fortifies the soul, refreshes the brain, feeds learning
to youths and brings delights to the old. More detailed information about
this truly miraculous drink the consumer can find in the “White Tavern,”
located right there in the garden. Here he can learn that one can get
drunk on this whisky in five minutes, that the wife of him who drinks
it will never deceive him, and that his children will grow up without
any mishaps and will even find good jobs.
The peculiarity of this type of advertising consists of grotesque exag-
gerations calculated to bring out a smile in the purchaser. It is important
that he should read the advertisement. That is sufficient. In due time it
will act upon him like a slow Oriental poison.
On the road we happened to notice a wandering circus wagon with
gilt trimmings. Beside it, right on the highway, danced two large pen-
guins and distributed Christmas candy to children. Seeing our machine,
the penguins raced after it on roller coasters. They gave each of us a
long stick of candy, although we had long since outgrown our child-
hood. Deeply move, we drove on, but when we began to examine the
gift, we saw that it had nothing to do with Christmas or with love of
children. On the candy was printed the advertisement of the Shell Com-
pany, which sells gasoline.
The advertisement spoiled the journey somewhat. No matter where
the traveler’s glance is directed, he will inevitably stumble on some in-
vitation, demand, insistent reminder.
“If you want your words to be believed, repeat them as often as
possible.” In the East, in a small town we passed, all the telegraph poles
of the main street were pasted over with exactly the same placards—
a portrait of a minor Republican candidate for Congress.
Not only clothes, candidates, drinks, and gasoline are advertised, but
entire cities. On the road you will pass a colossal billboard twenty times
the size of an automobile. The city of Carlsbad, state of New Mexico,
says of itself;
“Twenty-three miles to Carlsbad. Good roads. Famous mineral springs
[the American might really think that this was the real Karlsbad], good
churches, theaters [evidently they are thinking of two motion-picture
theaters showing gangster pictures]. Free beach. Fine hotels. Drive to
The city is interested in having the traveler drive into it. Even if he
is not enticed by the famous springs, he will undoubtedly buy a little
gasoline on the way or will dine in the city. Thus, a few dollars will be
shown to the benefit of Carlsbad tradesmen. It is at least some small
benefit. Moreover, the traveler might even look into one of Calrsbad’s
good churches. Then God, too, will be pleased.
Church people are not far behind laymen. Neon signs are alight all
Night in America, informing the parishioners about entertainments of
Spiritual and unspiritual character awaiting them in the temples of
Worship. One church attracts with a school choir, another with an hour
devoted to social service work. To that is added a sentence right out of
the vocabulary of a grocery store” “Come in! Your will be satisfied with
We have already remarked that the word “publicity” has a broad
meaning. It is not only direct advertising, but also very kind of mention
of the advertised object. When, let us say, publicity is arranged for some
actor, then even the notice in the newspapers that he recently had a
successful operation and that he is now convalescing is regarded as
advertising. One American told us with a good deal of envy in his voice
that the Lord God has excellent publicity in the United States. Fifty
thousand priests talk about him very day.
There is still another form of advertising. In a certain sense it is
scientific and educational. Suddenly along the road appears a series of
advertising placards stretched out for several miles. It is something in
the nature of a “Victorine.” The same kind of yellow boards with black
letters ask questions of the travelers. Some hundred feet later they them-
selves answer these questions. Bible texts, anecdotes, and various infor-
mation of a geographical nature are cited. Finally, on exactly the same
kind of yellow board from which the board traveler hopes to derive a
few more bits of useful information, he finds the name of the warmly
recommended shaving soap, and realizes with disgust that that name is
now lodged in his memory for the rest of his life.
No matter where the American looks—forward, backward, to the right,
or the left—he sees announcements. Even when he raises his eyes to
the sky he notices an advertisement. Airplanes deftly inscribe on the
blue heavens words which are publicity for someone or for something.
Our gray car rolled farther and farther across the state of New York.
“Stop!” Mr. Adams suddenly shouted. “You must see it and write it
down in your notebooks.”
The machine stopped.
We saw quite a large yellow billboard inspired by no mere commercial
idea. Some American philosopher, with the aid of a press agency, had
placed on the road the following declaration: “Revolution is a form of
government possible only abroad.”
Mr. Adams gloated.
“No, gentlemen,” he said, in his joy forgetting about his hat, “you
simply don’t understand what is advertising in America. The American
is accustomed to believe in advertisements. You must understand that.
Revolution is simply impossible in our country. You are told that on a
highway as infallible truth by this press agency. Yes, yes! No use argu-
ing! The agency knows exactly what it says!”
Here was the very original and daring affirmation that revolution is
“a form of government..” On the other hand, the very fact of the ap-
pearance of such billboard would indicate that there are people in
America whom it is necessary to persuade that there can be no revolution
“When you see twenty-five out of every thirty-five columns of a Sunday
newspaper occupied with advertisements, don’t think that no one reads
them. It would be foolish to think that. There is no advertisement that
does not have its reader!”
Toward evening we arrived at Niagara Falls.
Drenched with spray, we gazed for a long time at the Falls, which
from the height of a skyscraper dropped thousands of tons of water
that had not yet been poured into little bottles to be sold as the most
refreshing, the most healthful drink, of benefit to the thyroid gland,
which aids in the study of mathematics and helps to consummate
successful deals on the stock exchange.
Mr. Adams was shouting, but the noise of the waterfall drowned out
In the evening, departing from the city of Niagara, Mrs. Adams
stopped the automobile at the curb in order to find out about the road
to Cleveland, which was on our way to Detroit. The street was deserted,
not counting two elderly men, workmen in appearance, who stood by
a street lamp. Mr. Adams was still lowering the window on hi side,
when they ran up to the machine, pushing each other aside, in order to
find out as soon as possible what we wanted. Mr. Adams asked about
the road to Cleveland. They began to talk together. For a while we
could not understand anything, but one of them finally took the initia-
tive, pushed his companion aside an began to explain to us:
“My god! The road to Cleveland!” he spoke with ardor. “Why, I
was born in Cleveland! I should certainly know the road to Cleveland!
Why, of course! You may rely on me. The road to Cleveland! You
certainly are lucky that you ran into me!”
He was so happy to help us, explained with such enthusiasm where
we were supposed to turn to the right and where to the left and where
we could buy supper cheaply that his companion nearly wept with envy.
All along he tried to enter into the conversation, but the native of Cleve-
land would not let him make a peep. He would not even let Mr. Adams
say a word. He was sorry to see us go. He was ready to go with us to
Cleveland itself, just to make sure that we would not get off the road.
They finally saw us off with mighty “good nights,” as if we were their
kinsmen departing for the wars.