Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920


Reviewed: December, 2003
Mounted: January 12, 2004
By Greg Pabst

Site overview:

Emergence of Advertising in America Home Page It is helpful to look at Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920 (EAA) as a “new room” built specifically to showcase a “wing” of an interpretive collection from a major library archive. In this instance that cyber-wing is the John W. Hartman Center For Sales, Advertising and Marketing History - a section of the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library at Duke University which, according to the site, has been “active in building the research collection in the topic fields since 1992,” a collection that the site boldly states is now “one of the most extensive resources for studying advertising in the U.S.”

The general collection holds the archives of several ad agencies including the J. Walter Thompson Company. One of the earliest professional advertising practitioners (founded 1864), JWT became one of the companies that created the modern advertising agency model in the twentieth century and remains a major international player in the business today. The Hartman Center also contains the papers of other advertising innovators including 1960s creative powerhouse Wells Rich Greene and one of the first mega-merged companies - DMB&B, formerly Darcy, McManus Masius and Benton & Bowles - indicating that this collection is both deep and wide. A browse of the links to “Selected Other Repositories for Advertising Research” on the EAA site further confirms this impression.

An “About the (EAA) Site” page self-describes the EAA project as organized to illustrate “the rise of (U.S.) consumer culture, especially after the American Civil War.” This organization is accomplished by narrowing the focus of the vast Hartman collection to a manageable eleven categories of advertising - one being ad ephemera - resulting in 9,000 advertising-defined items and providing both a Timeline, an “Overview of advertising and influential developments, 1850-1920,” and a Search function. And since every library expansion needs funding, this special-study room is the result of a Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition grant, one of only 11 awarded in the 1997-98 competition. This site is also mirrored on the Library of Congress/American Memory site as are all the grant winners.

Timeline Basic Criteria

The database of ad examples is supported by a timeline of more than fairly well chosen “events in business technology, media, marketing and advertising”. These events serve as signposts to the changing customs of the times in which they occurred, events which can specifically help the user to understand how and why the ad examples displayed may have interacted with public culture - and, by implication, within the private lives of the viewer/consumer - during the times in which they were issued, posted or published.

The first listing, for example, is an easy to understand benchmark in the history of the business of advertising, “1841 - Volney B. Palmer opens the first American advertising agency, in Philadelphia.” In the 1870s category, “1870 - Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe) appears in a Harper's Weekly advertisement endorsing Waltham watches,” as the public figure minister/orator became one of the first celebrity endorsers in advertising. The last listing is “1920 - The Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote, is ratified,” important to this collection in that so many examples are of advertising targeted to women.

Browse Files As to the organization and substance of the EAA “exhibit,” the home page offers links to a “Category Descriptions” page describing each of the eleven categories in this particular collection. Going deeper into the site’s curation, each has a link to “More category information” which consists of a compact essay explaining the significance of each of the categories of advertising during this formative time period.

As an advertising educator I would use this site - probably beginning with one or more of these category essays - as a backdrop for college students to begin to understand that advertising, while functionally a non-permanent cultural artifact in the lives of ordinary people, still reflects the values, concerns, prejudices, and common myths of the times in which it is created. (The site carries a caution: “negative stereotypes or language reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place.") I would also require close reading of the ads in relation to the Timeline and encourage students to frame and to explore questions about the function of advertising within culture.

Others interested in the history of American rhetoric, psychology, design, or popular culture may also be attracted to these cultural time capsules. As a creature of Duke University and its archival libraries, the site is very carefully organized and written, free of typographical errors or other graphical distractions, and well documented.

The “About the Project” page clearly identifies the project team and, in many cases, offers their academic credentials, and also provides a link to a very well thought out FAQs page as well as “Technical Information” and “Copyright, Citation and Reproduction Information.” E-mail links to the leaders of the project team offer contact and interaction with those most responsible for the site. Some of the categories - especially of local advertising - may show a somewhat Southern U.S. bias (a large number of items in the “Ephemera” collection and two of the scrapbooks of collectible trade cards are from Southern sources) possibly due to donor connections to Duke University, but this is offset by including national advertising from JWT (“House Ads,”) Pond’s, Kodak, et al.

In 1998, the Hartman Center and the Duke Library’s Digital Scriptorum won the grant to create the site, and criteria for this funding is documented by a link to the Ameritech/Library of Congress competition homepage. The competition seems not to have continued after 1999, possibly due to the merger of Ameritech into SBC.

Ellen Gartrell, Director of the John W. Hartman Center For Sales, Advertising and Marketing History directed the EAA project at Duke. Since the site is pre-qualified by the Library of Congress through the competition which funded its creation, its content can be considered as credible and accurate as much as is possible.

The scholar in search of advertising resources will find the site informationaly nutritious, and so will the student with an interest in advertising as a career. The EAA point of view seems to be one of careful but informed neutrality, as exhibited in the category descriptions and the Timeline, and therefore the ads and their place in culture are open to interpretation of the viewer/user.

The EAA site seems to have been posted in 2000 and no updates are apparent, nor do they seem necessary based on the clearly defined focus of the project.

However, all links seem to be functioning at the time of this review, indicating that site maintenance, if not content upgrade, is ongoing. As to permanence, a criteria statement on the site for Guidelines for the Library of Congress/Ameritech competition states an intention of long life: “One objective of this National Digital Library Program is to assemble resources that will be of immediate and long-term use to students in elementary and secondary schools, to college students and faculty and that will also be of particular interest to the American public.”

But since the site was funded in 1999, and since it shows no sign of revision after 2000, its permanence may be expected to outlast its timeliness as years pass.

Added Value Features: While this site if fairly lean as to high-end features like multimedia effects, etc., the value of 9,000 searchable items and the consistently apt links providing explanation (or more info) seem adequate within the stated purpose for the site. Oddly enough, the Timeline has no links to any of the examples themselves.

Search Page The site is easy to navigate without plug-ins, works well with either Netscape 4 or above and Explorer 5 or above, and site organization becomes clear to the user after a relatively short time of use. Images are searchable by browsing a category or “Keyword” or “Illustrations or Special Features.” Boolean “Complex Searches” can be accomplished on a separate page, and “How to find” documentation is provided on a simple easy-to-use chart. One problem found is that “Keyword” searches of common words generally result in quite a few files to sort through while searching via “Illustrations and Special Features” - which should be more specific - is limited by a pull-down menu of only fifteen categories.

You can also browse images by simply clicking the link to “Browse the Category” and clicking through the clearly labeled files, though this can be time consuming.

A page of Frequently Asked Questions, in addition to the usual FAQ list includes, in essence, annotated links to additional relevant information. Many of these are internal links to pages within the Hartman Center collection (including an advertising image data base called Ad*Access) for advertising resources not included in EAA. Other links range further afield. For example, “How can I find out about advertisement collections in other libraries?” provides links to collections at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; the National Museum of American History; the State Historical Society of Wisconsin; and a list of “Selected Repositories with Advertising Collections.” Think of it as a fairly rich Links Page in addition to a site FAQ.

The site also offers a “selected bibliography” - find the link in the introduction to the Timeline - of a handful of histories of American advertising. This bibliography is self described as a few “general histories ... as well as titles that focus on subjects included in” the scope of the EAA project (1850-1920) and “not intended to be a comprehensive source list on advertising history.” And it is not.

Technical Aspects:
Speed - I use a dial-up at home and have found the site to load and search within acceptable limits, though (see following) my limits may be generously liberal. At work, the university uses a T-1 line, and I find the pages load very quickly. The database searches seem somewhat “clunky,” nonetheless acceptable. Others who have used the site are less accepting. “I was viewing through a fast connection, and the site ran at a snail's pace whenever it had to access the database,” wrote one critic. This may be closer to Duke Library’s assessment as well, for next to the “Search” button is written, “Searches may take a few moments. After you've clicked the button to execute the search, please be patient for the results.” User beware.

Printing - I had no trouble printing EAA images, which I tested on an old/slow laser printer, a new/fast laser printer, and a fairly new HP deskjet. All images, printed using the 150 dpi image option, were sharp and clean in black & white laser and above average and true to color with the deskjet. The FAQ has some words of advice on printing, should the user have problems.

Aesthetics/Visual Clarity & Appeal:
Images load readily and, especially considering the age of the originals, seem to be accurate as to color and detail. Page layout is simple, readable, clear, and - while not flashy - seems appropriate for the subject.

Overall impression of the site:
While an initial viewing begs comparison to adman Julian Watkins’ The 100 Greatest Advertisements, who wrote them and what they did, which shows his favorite print ads from 1882 to, in the revised Dover edition, 1959. Watkins shows the individual ads and provides commentary that builds a case for each to be named among the “best.” The EAA site, upon closer inspection, contains no Watkins-style rhetoric and makes no attempt to identify the creators of the thousands of advertising examples. The site offers the user a compact essay on each of the eleven categories of advertising, provides an historical Timeline as background for thought, and invites the user to ask the critical questions.

Public History Specific Criteria

Interpretation of Materials:
While the site does not offer interpretations of individual primary sources (advertising or ephemera), the contextual essays-- as described above—and the Timeline do a nice job of framing the materials for further inquiry and analysis. As such, it is an effective tool for research as well as for the curious browser, but asks for some interpretation from the viewer/user - which probably limits its use beginning with higher-grade High School at a minimum.

Primary Source Primary Source Documents:
The site is built around a digital archive of primary source documents, all available using multiple search strategies, well digitized (users may choose 72 or 150 dpi) and most being fairly easy to see and read.

The site states that “The materials in the project were selected from eleven separate collections by Hartman Center staff and graduate students in history between May 1998 and December 1998. Advertising items and publications were chosen for inclusion in the project based on attractiveness, size, and their merit as representative of advertising campaigns and companies during the time frame of 1850 - 1920.” Also provided is an extensive discussion of the technical aspects of processing the images which be seen as practical advice for anyone attempting to post original historic documents on the web.

This site does not currently meet the criteria for this category as set by the Public History Resource Center.

Since the category essays within EAA are so well crafted, I find myself wanting to see another one in the introduction to the collection on the topic of Reading Images, how to begin to read pictures and symbols the same way we read text. Such an essay would serve to establish the purpose for this collection as well as give the user some basic tools to interpret/critique the images in the site.

Promotion of a Community of Interest:
This site does not currently meet the criteria for this category as set by the Public History Resource Center.

I suggest that since EAA may be of interest to students thinking of a career in advertising, links to the American Advertising Federation (which has a College Connection program) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (which has links to dozens of member websites) might serve that community of users of EAA.

Point Assessment for Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920
(more information on PHRC's rating system is available)

Basic Criteria
Permanence and Timeliness15/15
Value Added Features12/15
Technical Aspects10/15
Overall Impression10/10

Public History Specific Criteria
Interpretation of Materials30/40
Primary Source Documents20/20
Promotion of a Community of Interest0/20

Total: 136 points -- 3.5 Earths

Greg Pabst (pabst@usfca.edu) has been a Lecturer, Communication Studies, at the University of San Francisco since 1991. He currently teaches advertising. His background includes 25+ years in advertising in San Francisco, including as a Vice President at Ketchum Advertising, an Account Supervisor at Saatchi & Saatchi and President of regional agency Evans Communications/San Francisco. He is currently an MA candidate in American History at San Francisco State University and is also a volunteer for San Francisco City Guides, a public history program of free history and architecture walking tours.

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Last updated on  January 12, 2004