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Culture

'Mad Men' types needed: Sort through vintage New York Times ads

A world of mini-skirt, fiberglass car and Paul Newman movie ads awaits you with the New York Times' Madison, a project that asks the public to dig through vintage advertising.

New York Times Paul Newman ad
Take a trip back to the 1960s via Madison. Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET.

The New York Times has a century-and-a-half history. That means its archives are massive. While historic news stories are fascinating, you can learn just as much about a culture and a time period through the advertisements that ran alongside those articles. The Times has put out a call for help for volunteers to pore over and make sense of digitized versions of ads.

The result is a project called Madison. It serves up random ads from the 1960s (more time periods coming later) and lets you comb through them. Madison offers up several different ways you can participate. You can identify ads, tag ads with product and company information or transcribe ads into searchable text.

The New York Times wants volunteers to come back, so it has integrated some mild gaming elements into the work. You get a little progress meter that tracks how many ads you've processed and you get new designations, like "Fledgling Finder" or "Rookie Finder" as you keep going. It's kind of like leveling up.

The ads are a fascinating peek into history. A "sales-help-wanted-male" ad puts out a call for church furniture salesmen. "Would prefer a man with some experience in selling to churches," it reads. An ad from 1967 states, "Hombre means man... Paul Newman is Hombre!" with a picture of Newman's face looking out, enticing moviegoers to see his new film.

You never know what's next. It might be a slew of classified ads offering up office space, large visual ads for department store sales or exclamation-point-packed ads for dune buggies, sand chariots and a weird all-terrain vehicle called the Terra Tiger.

In my travels on the site so far, I've seen $18 luxury pillows of imported 100 percent white goose-down, $1.95 (on sale) cotton gloves and enticements to move to Vermont and subscribe to Vermont Life Magazine in 1969. Did you know Vermont is booming in its own quiet way? Plus, you can subscribe for just $2.50 a year, provided you can find a time machine to take you back to 1969.

The gaming aspects are a nice way to track your work, but what really keeps you going is the gaze through a window of history that makes you wish you could pop down to Saks Fifth Avenue in 1960 for a cashmere coat with an 80-inch sweep, hustle over to Bonwit Teller's once-a-year-sale on "Mary Chess Toilet Water" or buy "Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits" for $2.99 on a stereo LP in 1969. It's a nice bonus that your work on Madison will help researchers of all kinds as they mine the ad archives for fresh clues to a bygone history and culture.

New York Times clothing ad
It's the latest fashion. Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET