The story behind Roger Sterling’s drinking bird toy in Mad Men:
The Chrysanthemum & The Sword is not only the title of a Mad Men episode (S04E05) but also a reference to an influential study from 1946 by the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict about the patterns of Japanese Culture.
Despite this, the title is not the only reference to the Asian culture in this episode, because the so-called sipping bird toy was invented by an Asian craftsman in the early 20s in China. The plastic bird that visualizes a physical phenomenon was then re-invented and patented in 1945s by US chemist Miles V. Sullivan.
This red, blue and yellow plastic toy that works with an “invisible heat engine” can be spotted in the beginning when the young creative’s Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and her coltish team test it with curiosity and laughter.
It plays also a symbolic role five episodes later in the opening scene of Hands and Knees (S04E10) when Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is staring thoughtfully on the insatiable bird that stands next to his empty whiskey glass. The bird sips and sips ‘nothingness‘ without stopping while Roger has to stay sober.
The wonder toy ‘sips‘ water magically without any obvious cause. This mechanical repetition is a great philosophical symbol for the repetitive processes in the advertising world, that the young laughing creative’s outperform the old tired veterans.
Furthermore, the automatic dipping bird is also a perfect analogy for Roger’s drinking habit that caused his alcohol problem, a sad fact that he probably realizes while he watches the bird’s stoic mechanical movement.
Finally, the bird toy, that was invented in Asia and patented in the US and became very popular in the American school education system is also a subtle symbol for the influence that Asia had to the American culture.
I don’t know if Mad Men set decorator Claudette Didul, prop master Ellen Freund or production designer Dan Bishop had all of this in mind when choosing this philosophical and mechanical toy, but I think it’s an interesting assumption.