The McCann Time Capsule: Our WWI Service
In August 1917, several months after the U.S. entered World War I, Harrison K. McCann spoke at the agency’s fourth annual convention about the “Effect of the War on the Advertising Business.” He began his speech, which would ultimately focus on post-war growth expectations, by addressing the impact that the war had had on agency staffing.
“As I look around the room, I miss a lot of faces, too. As a matter of fact, we have lost on account of the war, or will lose within the next two weeks, more than any other advertising agency in New York,” he said, then reciting the names of the men from the New York office who were now in the military. Initially there were 17 of them, more than a fifth of the total staff of 70 in the New York office of the H. K. McCann Co.
By 1918, the year the war ended a century ago this past week, the total had grown to 53, including 46 from the New York office and 2, 3, and 2 respectively from the still small San Francisco, Cleveland and Toronto offices. It would also include one woman, Katharine Whitlock, a “sometime proofreader and file clerk” who joined to engage in Red Cross relief work in France. And it also included several of the top executives from the agency: Henry Hawes, who would become VP in charge of the Pacific Coast operations, and George Murnane, the New York General Manager who would serve as the American Red Cross’s Deputy Commissioner for France.
The missing staffers also included two privates who were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by General Pershing for their heroic medical actions during battle, both of whose citations were covered by The New York Times.
In an article on Oct. 14, 1918, the Times described the “extraordinary heroism in action” of Private J. H. Burchfield, a staffer from McCann Cleveland. As the Distinguished Service Cross citation stated, during the July 18-22, 1918, battle in Soissons, France, Burchfield “repeatedly exposed himself to heavy enemy fire in order to dress and evacuate the wounded. On July 22 he went through a heavy barrage to render first aid to the wounded while engaged in the front line and to evacuate them to the rear, and was himself wounded while engaged in this work.”
In an Oct. 30 letter to the McCann agency, which was published in-house, Burchfield took a light-hearted and amusingly client-centric approach to describing his time in France. “By the way, I see many things to remind me of the McCann organization,” he wrote. “For instance—Mack trucks along the road, Del Monte canned goods (fact is I carried a can of their tomatoes on the last drive), Borden’s Condensed Milk. . . Such things as these serve to keep a fellow sort of balanced, and buoyed up”
The other McCann staffer wounded and honored was Private James H. Rorty, who had been a copywriter in the New York office. The Times covered his Distinguished Service Cross on Dec. 20, 1918. As the citation read, during the Argonne offensive at the end of the war, “While engaged in evacuating wounded from a culvert not far from the enemy outpost, fragments of a shell pierced his clothing, and although he was suffering from shock, he repeatedly ran ahead in the dark to guide the car over a road partly destroyed by shells and still under enemy machine-gun fire. Returning with relief cars, he again served as guide and as stretcher bearer until the evacuation was completed.”
While the trade press would publish that Rorty would leave McCann in a few years to join a San Francisco agency as copy chief, the agency did not carry any more information about him. However, corresponding biographical information seems to indicate that the James H. Rorty who worked as a copywriter at The H. K. McCann Co. is the same person who would go on to a distinguished writing career that was about as far away from embracing ad agency work as is imaginable.
As characterized in The New York Times obituary headline when he died in 1973, he was well known as “A Radical Editor.” As the article said:
“Mr. Rorty was best known in the nineteen—twenties as one of the first editors of The New Masses, a radical literary and political magazine. In the fifties he was co‐author with Moshe Decter of ‘McCarthy and the Communists,’ an analysis of the Wisconsin Republican's activity as chairman of the Permanent Investigating Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations. This book, backed by the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, was considered a factor in reducing the Senator's influence.”
Additionally, James Rorty, who was also the father of the philosopher Richard Rorty, was a poet with three volumes of verse and a Nation magazine prize to his name, and a journalist with many articles published in The Nation, The New Republic, Harper's, and Commentary.
But James Rorty’s career in advertising, which also included working at BBDO and other agencies, apparently did not win him over as a fan of the profession. In 1934, he published the first of his several books of social criticism. Entitled “Our Master’s Voice: Advertising,” this critique begins with the opening chapter’s headline confession, “I Was an Ad-man Once.”