University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
From 1947 to 1974 Shell Oil Company sponsored a public relations program that engaged single and married women drivers. They especially targeted married women who helped plan leisurely road trips for their families, and single “gals” who wanted to see the country. Over twenty different women portrayed its figurehead, the pseudonymous Carol Lane. For most of the program’s twenty-seven years, two or more Carol Lanes split the United States and Canada geographically and lectured concurrently, while a third or more, at times, played her on television or radio. No single face represented “the one.” Each Lane had her own biography for press releases in what seems to have been an effort to individualize the new “girl” and highlight what special areas of expertise she brought to the character. At the same time traits essential to the composite biography carried over. What I aim to discover is who Carol Lane was to the women who played her, the PR department who created her, and her audiences.
I situate Lane in the company of two other better-known American “living trademarks,” Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker, who were also both played by multiple women, sometimes simultaneously. Aunt Jemima and Crocker were the face of domestic products, and Lane an attempt to domesticate products—automobiles and gasoline—not necessarily associated with the home or women. All three had radio and television presences, well-defined skill sets or expert knowledge, and public personas that shifted over time. Caroline Iverson, who developed the Lane persona while employed on Shell’s public relations team, cited Crocker as a direct influence in correspondence with her departmental directors (Ackerman papers, 1927-2004). In crafting biographies for each of the women who portrayed Lane, I am following Marilyn Kern-Foxworth’s lead on her history of Aunt Jemima (Kern-Foxworth, 1994). In short paragraphs, she honors each woman who played Aunt Jemima, who embodied a living brand that was so racially charged yet represented employment and perhaps fleeting celebrity. I also turn to a number of authors who collocate an incomplete collective biography of Crocker including Carolyn M Goldstein, Susan Marks, and Laura Shapiro. I have yet to discover another scholarly endeavor that uses prosopography as a method to study a phenomenon like Carol Lane or Betty Crocker, let alone a digital humanities project focused on collective biography about women in the public relations field.
My digital dissertation combines textual and visual data, all displayed, searchable, and readable on the ArcGIS-based website. The combination of prosopography (Stone, 1971), mapping/graphing, close reading, and display of primary documents is methodologically appropriate and necessary to advancing my analysis of the Carol Lane phenomenon on macro and micro scales. On the macro level I develop how Shell public relations visually, rhetorically, strategically, and physically positioned Lane in relationship to her audiences and as part of company’s larger marketing efforts. I also place these relationships in the context of the larger petroleum and public relations industries. Mapping her routes and grouping her audiences thematically and locationally also falls under the macro level. On the micro level, I assess richer, more granular details about audiences’ socioeconomic standing and their race- and class-orientations, as well the individual women who played the role of Carol Lane. While Lane received considerable press compared to similar women-fronted PR programs, the women who portrayed her, Lane’s audiences, and the people in the PR department who created her -- collectively Lane’s known associates and network -- did not. Information about them is tucked away in newspaper articles, photographs, corporate and personal papers, genealogical databases, yearbooks, obituaries, television footage, census records, and more. The remarkable amount of labor already put into scanning and otherwise facilitating the discoverability of newspapers and other resources – long before I began my research -- make prosopography, or collective biography, tenable.
I bring together disparate bits of information from a large-scale database into a composite view of Carol Lane. Prosopography can shed light on lives whose footprints may be documented in only ephemeral and fragmentary ways. On the ArcGIS platform, I present, for others to use, a subset of the total data (4000+ magazine and newspaper articles) I have collected to date, and input myself. The assembled ephemera are displayed in an online archive exhibition space, as will be textual analysis and video essays. Thus far I have created a fully articulated website with biographical sketches, print advertisements, complete copies of Carol Lane publications and films, a crowdsourcing form for sourcing information on unidentified Lanes, methodologies, video essays, how-to information, etc. I have input data for over 1500 sources that underpin the site’s visualizations and maps, and will add a selection of approximately 500 more before I submit my final project to my committee (adding more as I continue with the project). I am also in the early stages of creating the contextual and analytical narrative for each chapter on the site (see a video screen capture here:
). In future, the site will be available at
My hybrid method takes a more feminist approach in visualizing related data in more ways than a straightforward relational database. Because I cannot anticipate who my (hopefully multiple) audiences may be, my project presents my analysis, and the raw data itself so visitors to the site may come to different conclusions than I. Of course with that I will include an explanation of the decisions behind how the data is structured, visualized, and categorized.
Kern-Foxworth, M. (1994).
Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus : Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, pp. 67-70.
Papers of Caroline Iverson Ackerman, 1927-2004 (inclusive), 1939-1949 (bulk), MC 572; Vt-157; MP-57, 12.6-12.8. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
(accessed April 23, 2019).
Stone, L. (1971) “Prosopography,” in F. Gilbert and S. Graubard eds.,
Historical Studies Today. New York, 1972; rpt. of Lawrence Stone, “Prosopography,” Daedalus 100.1 (1971): 46-71.
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