Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mad Men of an Earlier Era

1905 ad for Colgate's Violet TalcIf you're a Mad Man watcher, you'll know that we don't get a lot of the back story of Sterling Cooper's founders.  But assuming that Bert Cooper (played by 79 year old Robert Morse) is about 75, that means he was born about 1890, and graduated from college about 1911. This was just in time for him to go and work in the fledgling advertising industry.  Although the J. Walter Thompson agency had been founded near the end of the Civil War, what we think of as modern advertising really got its start in the early years of the century.

Prior to the late 19th century, advertising was largely a means for delivering information.  Printing companies often did the design and layout, and many ads used only words.  But in the 1900s, a number of forces came together to result in the development of modern advertising.

  • Rapid growth in technology spawned new printing techniques and new manufacturing techniques.  
  • The growth of mass-marketed consumer products was breathtaking, and companies needed a way to get their message out.  
  • The population of the country was growing at a rapid clip, and there were thousands of magazines and thousands of newspapers to carry the messages.
  • A real middle class was emerging.
The first true consumer culture in the U.S. was birthed in the 1900s.  Because products were being developed so rapidly, advertising was often used to raise awareness of the category.  For example, Colgate promoted the idea of regular toothbrushing, Gillette of daily shaving, and Kodak the concept that everyone should document his/her life.

Technology was also changing packaging--both in the type (the wax-sealed carton or wax wrap for crackers that we still see today in the Ritz box) and in the use of packaging to provide brightly colored brand recognition.

Department stores had developed in US cities in the latter half of the 19th century, but by the 1900s they were adding features that you would still recognize if you grew up in the fifties--soda fountains, lunchrooms, beauty salons, and spacious women's restrooms (with real space for resting!), and advertising promoted all of these features.

In the 1900s, copywriters, artists, designers, and account executives became part of every ad agency's mix.

Advertising and retailing techniques were introduced that are still in use--an enormous customer database at Sears (maintained on index cards and used to segment customers for mailings), advertising jingles, coordinated national campaigns, familiar characters, four-color graphics, advertising in local newspapers, fixed pricing, clearance sales, gift with purchase, pretty girls handing out samples, and even the investigation of fraudulent advertising.

Illustration Credits and References

The ad at the top of this post consumed the entire back cover of the August 1905 issue of The Redbook Magazine.  (Author's collection.)  It appears in four-color print and features a new package for Colgate's Violet Talc and a key benefit for the woman who buys it:  "the new sifter cannot injure soft hands and manicured fingernails, as do the old-fashioned boxes."

The second ad, also from the author's collection, was on the back cover of the June 8, 1905 issue of Life Magazine. While it is not as colorful as the previous ad, the emphasis on filtering and aging, and the well-known tagline, are both techniques visible in beer advertising today.

Information in this post about advertising comes primarily from Bob Batchelor's The 1900s, part of the American Popular Culture Through History series (Greenwood Press, 2002).


Rick Beyer said...

Interesting background. The first radio jingle appears to have come in 1926 for a cereal made by General Mills. The cereal was on the verge of being discontinued. Thanks to the jingle, it was not only saved, but turned into one of their best sellers:


Soon to be one of The Greatest Music Stories Never Told!

You can hear the jingle (really!) at

SantaFeKate said...

Thanks Rick. They sound very sad--doesn't have quite the pep we'd expect today!!