Robert Kennedy wears the George Washington Medal awarded to him as National Father of the Year, in 1960.Stanley Hall/Corbis

Among the weary and cynical, Father's Day is one of those American traditions sometimes called Hallmark Holidays. The term refers to holidays and celebrations that are primarily commercial in nature. They exist so that people will feel obligated to buy gifts for other people. Think Sweetest Day, Grandparent's Day or Secretaries' Day (now called Administrative Professionals' Day, thank you very much.)

In the United States, Father's Day is believed to have originated as response to Mother's Day, a holiday that itself began earnestly enough as a way to honor those who had lost children to war. But by the 1930s, both Mother's Day and Father's Day had become thoroughly commercialized, promoted by the greeting card industry and groups like the New York Associated Men's Wear Retailers.

In fact, many enduring traditions actually have their origins in the boardrooms and marketing departments of America. Here's a sampling.


As anyone who has been though the process knows, the wedding industry is essentially invisible until you actually get engaged. Then it comes crashing down like a thousand-foot tsunami.

While the idea of betrothal or promise rings goes all the way back to ancient Rome, the modern diamond engagement ring is a purely commercial enterprise. Such rings started popping up in mail-order catalogs around the turn of the century. By the 1940s, the retail industry had completed its decades-long campaign and diamond engagement rings were de rigueur for the fashionable American fiancee.

Russell Underwood/Corbis

Embalming practices also have ancient origins, particularly in Egypt where the process of mummification was invented. But modern funereal practices in the United States and Canada -- especially the use of preservatives and chemicals -- are largely the result of industry changes during the time of the Civil War.

Advances in the use of formaldehyde, coupled with the devastating human toll from the war, created demand for a new class of skilled worker: the embalmer. This emergent class of funereal worker formed professional associations, supported by chemical manufacturers such as The Dodge Company and The Champion Company. Practices established in the era have largely remained to this day, although chemical embalming is rarely practiced outside North America and some European countries.

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Complaints about the commercialization of Christmas go back almost as far as the holiday itself. Many of the traditions we associate with yuletide happiness can be traced back to commercial campaigns.

For instance, the familiar pop culture image of Santa Claus -- red suit, white beard, jolly disposition, etc. -- was popularized by a Coca-Cola advertising campaign launched in the 1930s. For more than three decades, artist Haddon Sundblom painted hundreds of Santa ads each Christmas, which Coca-Cola disseminated worldwide by way of their vast marketing and distribution system.


Considered by some to be the single greatest marketing campaign ever, The Great Underarm Campaign was launched in 1915 to convince American women to shave their armpits. The initial ads featured a woman in a sleeveless toga-style dress reaching skyward. The first part of the ad read: "Summer Dress and Modern Dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair."

The ad went on to introduce a depilatory powder, but this would soon grow into an entire industry for women's razors, gels and accessories. Since a passing fashion for sleeveless dresses spurred the initial underarm campaign, companies tried it again when hemlines started rising. Such is the power of fashion that underarm and leg shaving were commonplace within a matter of years.


Is nothing sacred? The green bean casserole is a Thanksgiving staple and perhaps the quintessential American comfort food. Surely this is a quaint agrarian tradition, passed down from some colonial-era matron with a name like Betty or Hazel?

Nope, it comes directly from the Campbell Soup Company, who in 1955 tasked a small team to come up with a recipe that would help sell their Cream of Mushroom Soup. Enter Campbell employee Dorcas Reilly, B.S. in Home Economics from Drexel University. (Seriously.) Reilly delivered the 1950s kitchen version of the  killer app, and her recipe was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame in 2002.