It was remarkable, says Ellen Freund, the former property master of Mad Men, that by the end of season four of the show, “people were emptying out their closets and sending clothes to her colleague, costume designer Janie Bryant. “They would send notes saying, ‘I know Megan can wear this.’ ‘This was my grandmother’s purse, my mother’s shoes.’ These were big boxes.”
Those donations show only too well how style was central to those immersed in Mad Men, and just how much viewing pleasure and visual fetish of the show was tied up in Don’s style, Megan’s late 60s hair, the sleek furniture, the desk tidies, the lawnmowers that would suddenly spin dangerously out of control...
Under the stringently watchful eye of creator/executive producer/writer/director Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s look—whether clothes, cigarettes or pie dishes—was meticulously curated and filmed.
Now, in an online auction, fans can bid for more than 1,500 production-used props, wardrobe items, set decorations and other vintage and mid-century memorabilia from the show.
Some of these were shown at last year’s Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men exhibit at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, and at Modernism Week 2016 in Palm Springs.
Fans of the show, surveying the items they can bid for, will likely salivate, including Don Draper’s Bar Cart Dressing, Don Draper's Wallet, Peggy Olson's Moving Banker Box, Peggy Olson's SC&P Typewriter, Joan Harris' Office Ice Bucket & Tumbler Set, Ted Chaough’s Globe Bar Cart, Don & Megan Draper's Clear Glass Ice Bucket & Scotch Glasses Set, Roger Sterling's Ray-Ban Sunglasses, SC&P Kodak Projector with Stand & Reels…
Freund’s personal favorite is Roger Sterling’s Polaroid gift to Lee Garner. “We sourced the vintage polaroid camera on eBay, having to buy a few of them so we could get all the bits and pieces,” she recalls. “We built the box and the film boxes, sourced real filming all of the proper paperwork. Then as a bonus there is the garland of Lucky Strikes that decorated the office for that fine party!”
Freund would curate all the small items we associate with characters, while Bryant oversaw anything costume-related, and set decorator Claudette Didul the lamps and furniture. Freund curated 2,500 objects for this auction, edited down to just half of that.
Freund would source a lot of objects for the show from eBay, Etsy, thrift shops, and vintage stores. She also used experts in every field: Joe Keeper of Silver Lake’s Bar Keeper helped source glassware. “I had a watch guy and an eyeglass guy, whose knowledge was so important, and an expert on bakeries in 50s and 60s New York. If I couldn’t find something appropriate he would bake something for me. I had a guy who made all the ice cubes for the show. We wanted them to be a particular size and shape, so they looked like advertisements you saw in the magazines of that era.”
“I’d go ransack my parents’ house,” Freund says. They had lived there since 1950, and so there was a myriad of wonders there—pretty fantastic,” she says. “A lot of Pyrex dishes, baking dishes, and model making. My father always made airplane models, so when Ted made them on the show I went through my father’s stuff and found enamel paints, brushes, thinner, all from the 1960s.”
The pleasure Freund took in this maddeningly exacting job is audibly clear.
For office scenes the background actors would be given a briefcase, newspaper, and coffee cup, and so for the auction Freund—who is clearly a masterful present-giver—has gathered a bunch of briefcases, and in each has put business cards of the characters, some newspapers, magazines, some Sterling Cooper/Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce paperwork, and folders.
“It’s almost like a grab-bag surprise, you’ll not know what you’re going to get,” she says proudly.
Actors hide pages of their scripts inside briefcases too, and so lucky bidders will find some of those pages too, as well as notebooks and pens.
Mad Men fans were eagle-eyed, but when struggling to find a lampshade for Joan’s apartment the design team might raid Don’s apartment for an emergency one.
Researching the auction led Freund to unite all the pieces for Don’s “beautiful” outdoor barbecue, and while Roger Sterling was her favorite character (“he had all the best lines”), for shopping it was Peggy who offered most pleasure.
“She changed so much over the course of the show. Every year we changed out her watch, her briefcase, items on her desk. All those things symbolized how she continued to grow in the same way as a real person of that age rose.”
Megan was also “incredibly fun” to shop for, especially as the character lived in Laurel Canyon, where Freund grew up. “All of those things were so familiar to me from childhood. We could have shopped in the same places—plus the explosion in design in the late 60s was so fantastic. One of the things in the auction are Megan’s sheets and towels. The patterning is great.”
Did they clean everything after filming? “We tried to keep things clean. I personally did a lot of dishes.” If people buy the bedsheets, are they buying Don and Megan’s imprint in them? “I’m not sure I can answer that. I know the ménage à trois sheets have been cleaned though.”
When necessary Freund made items herself: stuffed animals, and Roger’s ‘accordion cigarette’ during the infamous LSD party he takes part in. She made tins for canned ham, because she couldn’t find tins of the right size and shape, boxes for Du Maurier and Sherman cigarettes, a box for a Leica camera, and boxes and packets for the instant breakfasts Betty ate when on a diet.
When buying cookware, the tough trick was to find items that looked brand: “Not every 1965 object is created equal,” Freund says wryly.
Eagle-eyed bloggers would tell producers if they had made a mistake, and for Weiner it was not enough for Freund to tell him a water pitcher was correct for a particular era. “He’d say, ‘Prove it.’ I would have to find a picture in a magazine or newspaper that had that exact water pitcher, and then he would let me use it. Sometimes he would say, ‘I want glass mixing bowls with clear bottoms,’ but the item was made three years too late. I’d have to tell him, ‘Sorry you’re wrong—that didn’t exist.’ There was never an occasion when anyone said, ‘That's close enough.’”
Freund most enjoyed recreating restaurant menus accurately. Sourcing the original menus took her to the New York Public Library and Billy Parrott, managing librarian in the picture department. He was writing a blog of every book used in the show, and would retrieve anything Freund wanted from the NYPL archives, if she passed on all the book information he required. “It was a good deal,” Freund says, laughing.
In three storage rooms and a kitchen, she also created food: editors from the show still longingly recall the smells when she was making dishes. The food prepared for the Christmas party conga line, and a brunch Megan makes in the waning days of her and Don’s relationship are remembered particularly fondly.
Just as with the briefcases, if bidders successfully bid for cookware Freund has supplied a cookbook to go along with them.
Out of all the objects on set, Freund herself took away one of everyone’s business cards, as well as a beautiful fondue set Weiner judged too beautiful for the show. “When I look at it, it reminds me of Matt and how hard we all worked,” Freund says.
There were cheats: although many cigarettes were smoked in Mad Men they were fake, which mean the application of fake filters; the colored Sherman cigarettes had an insignia printed on them in the 60s, but not today, and so they had to be stamped.
But attention to detail outweighed the cheats. When Joan received a promotion letter, it was typed as if actual.
“There was a triple intention to that. It had to be accurate for close-up; and we also wanted the actor, opening up the folder leafing through the letters not to be taken out of the scene by paperwork that didn't belong there. We were really loved by the actors for keeping things accurate.”
I ask if any character kept the same prop all the way through the series.
“Don Draper kept his briefcase all the way up to the final seven episodes,” says Freund. “I got him a new briefcase in the very last set of episodes when he went to McCann. I think he only used it once before he lit out of town.”
Freund is working on a new HBO show based on web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, set in present-day South Central L.A.—“a totally different animal,” says Freund.
For her, “the best shows tell great stories,” whatever their era and setting, although she confesses a preference for period rather than modern storytelling because she loves the research and guiding knowledge of experts.
At the end of filming, Freund says Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) took her character’s Thermos and watch, and Kiernan Shipka (Sally) her watch.” And Matthew Weiner? “I’m not sure I’m allowed to say how big a warehouse he took on for everything he has,” says Freund, laughing. “Oh yes. It was his life, totally—his life for so long.”
“It was very sad, the end of filming,” recalls Freund. “We were all on set. It was quite a party. Lots of tears. It was probably time for it to end, and many of us got cameos. I was in Don’s retreat scenes, and even my husband didn't recognize me. He was so involved in the scene he didn’t see me.” Bittersweet memories, then—but at least she has the fondue.