Jay Gitlin, a history professor at Yale, begins a panel discussion on “The Rebranding of Connecticut” at the New Haven Museum by recalling the first time he saw a copy of Connecticut Circle magazine, which from 1938 to 1971 sought to brand our state as a charming colonial oasis.
“About four years ago, my son [Basie Bales Gitlin] brought home a couple of the magazine’s issues he had found at Whitlock’s Book Barn in Bethany,” Gitlin tells the audience. “I thought: ‘What is this thing? It’s a glossy magazine and it’s about Connecticut. It’s like Life magazine for Connecticut.’ ”
While Gitlin browsed through those pages from a transitional period of our history, reading stories about the invention of the Mounds bar in New Haven, construction of the Merritt Parkway, and Bridgeport’s Adriana Caselotti, the voice of the title character in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he thought to himself: “There’s something else going on here. There’s a fascinating subtext.
“And it hit me: This is not just a news magazine; it’s selling an image of the state to attract tourists and people wanting to buy a second home. It’s a clear case of wanting to rebrand Connecticut.”
As a historian, Gitlin can tell us what was going on in our state in the late 1930s. “Farming and industry were in decline. And so there was a general anxiety in Connecticut about the future: ‘What’s to become of us?’ ”
Gitlin considers 1938 “a year of biblical proportions” for Connecticut. Five months after the January debut of Connecticut Circle, the Merritt Parkway opened from Greenwich to Norwalk, an event that would transform the state. On Sept. 21, a devastating hurricane slammed into Connecticut. And in November a Republican governor, Raymond E. Baldwin, was elected, replacing Wilbur L. Cross, a Democrat.
Connecticut Circle covered all of this, while projecting the image of a bustling, attractive state.
As a member of the Acorn Club, which promotes the study of Connecticut’s history by publishing hard-to-access primary sources, Gitlin asked others in the club: “Why don’t we do something a little more recent than Connecticut in the Civil War?”
And so the club published a book, Country Acres and Cul-de-Sacs: Connecticut Circle Magazine Reimagines the Nutmeg State, 1938-1952.
Gitlin, who edited the book, says the magazine excerpts stop in 1952 because the magazine’s first decade and a half is when it put out its best issues.
“Clearly, the magazine didn’t sell that well,” Gitlin says. “It was always on a shoestring budget. So they put out special issues emphasizing something local — Bridgeport, Meriden, New Haven — to get local ads.”
The magazine was founded by Harry Franklin Morse, who operated the Noank Shipyard, turning out yachts, schooners and other vessels for an elite clientele. Gitlin in the book writes: “One does not get the sense that Harry Morse entered the publishing business to satisfy some higher calling for journalism or writing. Rather, print journalism meant publicity, public relations and promotion.”
The Circle continued publication under several different owners until the July/August issue of 1971, when it was sold to Dan Lufkin. This led to the launching that fall of Connecticut Magazine.
While Gitlin is not a great admirer of the Connecticut Circle brand of journalism, especially in its later years, he finds it clearly illustrates the mood of that time and the desires of upper-crust residents, amid their anxiety over where the state was headed, to attract “the right people” here.
“Every issue had a sales pitch: ‘Come to Connecticut! We have fine schools, an easy commute, low taxes and colonial homes and history.’ ”
Gitlin notes this is in line with how Hollywood portrayed our state in that period. He cites Christmas in Connecticut (1945), Holiday Inn (1942) and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948).
Gitlin is fond of quoting a scene from Mr. Blandings, in which Jim Blandings, a New York advertising man (played by Cary Grant), is pursuing a home away from the crowded city. The real estate agent tells Mr. and Mrs. Blandings (played by Myrna Loy): “You’re buying a piece of American history.”
When Grant’s character asks him to explain, the agent says: “General Gates stopped right here to water his horses.” Mr. Blandings replies, “Old General Gates, huh? Civil War.” And the agent snorts: “Revolutionary War!”
Gitlin found plenty of interesting nuggets in the pages of Connecticut Circle. “Who knew that somebody in Connecticut [Marty Gilman] invented the football tackling dummy? And Muzak was invented in Connecticut. The World Music Service marketed it as Telemusic.”
What about our state’s current attempts to brand or rebrand Connecticut? When that question comes up during the New Haven Museum discussion, Helen Higgins, former executive director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation and a contributor to the Cul de Sacs book, brings up the tourism slogan “Connecticut: Still Revolutionary.” She says, “I don’t know what that’s doing for us.”
In a follow-up conversation, Gitlin says of that slogan: “It’s a little dull, a little bit on the stuffy and superficial side. And I don’t think it’s a good sell for kids. I don’t know if we’ve sold our history as creatively as we could. When you use history in a not very robust way, it doesn’t work as well.”
Gitlin has this suggestion: “You could do a pop culture tour of Connecticut.” He notes that Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo, was from Bridgeport. Then, thinking of all the celebrities who have lived in our state, Gitlin imagines “a tour of the stars’ homes.” He acknowledges, however: “They want to protect their privacy.”