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Essay On Advertising In America

The Rise of Advertisement and American Consumer Culture

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During the middle of the nineteenth century, the nature of the American business market began to change in dramatic ways. Earlier in the century, the steady rise of industry and the formulation of a market economy - fueled by wage labor instead of the traditional system of apprenticeship - as well as the formulation of national banking standards created a sound, firm base for modern, capitalist economics.  From the increasingly industrialized and urbanized American landscape, a unique phenomenon in marketing was born, and sometime around the 1840s, the concept of modern advertising emerged in American society.

Predominately appealing to American women - who were seen as the bedrock of American families, and thus, those most likely to make use of consumer goods - companies began to advertise in newspapers, on broadsides, and billboards. The reality of this new form of advertisement is seen in this document packet's photograph of a boardwalk, where product names literally cover the entire streetscape. Of course, the custom of placing advertisements in newspapers held a tradition in American society; however, the advertising techniques and strategies that formed in the middle to latter part of the nineteenth century acquired a different character.  Traditionally, businesses would post brief assessments of their wares in the advertising sections of newspapers, merely providing a list of their goods to inform the public of what was available for purchase.  The new advertisements, by contrast, focused on creating unique slogans that customers would remember and that cast products in an optimistic light.  The Industrial Revolution saw a slew of innovations in technology and medicine, and these innovations fueled a growing advertising industry.  Products of similar designs began to compete against one another - a particular model of steam engine would feature unique instruments and features, for example, and these differences would be emphasized in the product advertisement.  Perhaps the most famous examples of these type of advertisements can be found in the now-famous Sears and Roebuck catalogue.

By the 1880s, advertisement seemed to take on a driving aspect of its own, and focused on the creation of "wants" and "needs" in the growing consumer population.  In order to create a market for certain items, clever businessmen would advertise products in careful language, designed to influence potential buyers into seeing the necessity of owning particular products.  Evidence of this is seen in the growing number of appliances such as cooking stoves, washing machines, and sewing machines produced at this time, and found within "modern" households.  Advertisements appealed to women especially, detailing how the possession of a cooking stove, for instance, was guaranteed to reduce the toil and labor of the kitchen, and thus free time for "nurturing" the family according to the values and standards of the day.  Women were intended, in a sense, to be the principle consumers of the new market economy.  In creating wants and needs in a population of consumers, advertisement was instrumental in paving the way for successful capitalism in America.

The place of women in the new economy was even more firmly cemented in the early decades of the twentieth century, with the rise of Progressivism and supply and demand economics.  Progressive reformers and businessmen alike appealed to and propagated the idea of virtuous households, carrying a theme from the culture of sentimentalism in the 1850s that stressed the value of nuclear families with morally upright - if submissive - mothers.  Many of the advertisements seen in this collection are clearly directed at women.  The "Fleischmann's Recipes" cookbook celebrates the wholesome properties of the yeast, but in addition to this, it also promises women that the use of the yeast will ensure a happy household and family life.  Domestic economy - the science of good housewifery - is usually attributed to post World War II years, at least in the minds of the American public.  In fact, the foundations of household economy were raised in the early twentieth century and during the World War I era.  Home economy, in theory, allowed the housewife to make the most of finances, so that her family could purchase current technological innovations like automobiles, radios, and refrigerators.  The logic here was that, with these new technologies, life would be made easier for both the housewife (for whom societal values provided a labor-intensive schedule of household "duties") and her family, as well as provide capital for the growing economy.  An excellent example of this household economy - produced by a woman, the famous home economist Christine Frederick - is found in the form of a lengthy pamphlet included in this document packet.

President Calvin Coolidge and other conservative political leaders and economists of the day - such as Herbert Hoover - placed an undue emphasis on consumerism in a false sense of security that the monopolized market for new technologies would carry Americans through to unrivaled wealth and prosperity.  In reality, many historians find that consumerism in the early twentieth century probably had a negative as well as a positive affect on American society; although advances in technology and home economics doubtlessly improved the quality of life for some Americans, consumerism spurred by advertisement created an illusion of demand that likewise created an overabundance of supply in automobiles and similar products.  The existence of a saturated market is held as one of the heralds or causes of the Great Depression, which led many Americans to experience some of the greatest poverty and economic suffering in American history.  The foundations of capitalism and modern economics - although influenced by many factors - were in large part, strengthened by the rise of advertisement and its creation of an American consumer culture.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades 5-12:

Era 7: The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

   Standard 3: How the United States changed from the end of World War I to the eve of the Great Depression.

        Standard 3C: The student understands how new cultural movements reflected and changed American society. 

        5-12: Analyze how radio, movies, newspapers, and popular magazines created mass culture. [Examine the influence of ideas]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION:Changing Picture Puzzle, "This man is up to date..."
    NOTES:  This puzzle illustrates changing attitudes of the public towards modern advertisement, and those who resisted its development. For related materials, see American Memory's Advertising Ephemera Collection.
    REPRODUCTIONS:Availability of Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT:Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920: Selections from the Collections of Duke University
    REPOSITORY:  Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. 

  2. DESCRIPTION:  Pamphlet, "Fleischmann's Recipes"
    NOTES: For related materials, see American Memory's Nicole Di Bona Peterson Collection of Advertising Cookbooks.
    REPRODUCTIONS:Availability of Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT:Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920: Selections from the Collections of Duke University
    REPOSITORY:  Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. 

  3. DESCRIPTION:  Advertisement, "Your skin needs different kinds of care at different times"
    NOTES: This advertisement for women's cosmetic soap includes a coupon offer - another unique development in advertisement designed to stimulate a culture of consumption. For related materials, see American Memory's Pond's Advertisements collection.
    REPRODUCTIONS:Availability of Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT:Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920: Selections from the Collections of Duke University
    REPOSITORY:  Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. 

  4. DESCRIPTION:  "Selling Mrs. Consumer," by Mrs. Christine Frederick
    NOTES: A well-known home economist, Christine Frederick was responsible for a number of publications advertising the virtues of household economy to women across the United States.
    REPRODUCTIONS: How to Order Copies of Photographs
    COPYRIGHT: Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress. 

  5. DESCRIPTION:  Photograph, 1521 Boardwalk- Between Kentucky Avenue and New York Avenue
     July 1922
    NOTES: For related materials, see American Memory's R. C. Maxwell Company Collection.
    REPRODUCTIONS:Availability of Reproductions
    COPYRIGHT:Copyright and Other Restrictions
    SOURCE:  Emergence of Advertising in America, 1850-1920: Selections from the Collections of Duke University
    REPOSITORY:  Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. 

See also:I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke: Advertising in America

Additional Media Resources

From Domesticity to Modernity: What Was Home Economics?

Additional Instructional Resources 

The Learning Page: Collections Connections; Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

Secondary Resources

Hawley, Ellis W. The Great War and the Search for a Modern Order: A History of the American People and their Institutions, 1917-1933. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Garvey, Ellen Gruber. The Adman in the Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

Lears, Jackson. Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Leuchtenberg, William E. The Perils of Prosperity, 1914-1932. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit. New York: Signet Classic, Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.

Ribuffo, Leo P. "Jesus Christ as Business Statesman: Bruce Barton and the Selling of Corporate Capitalism."American Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Summer, 1981), pp. 206-231.

Roberts, Mary Louise. "Gender, Consumption, and Commodity Culture."The American Historical Review, Vol. 103, No. 3 (January, 1998), pp. 817-884. 

Sherman, Sidney A. "Advertising in the United States." Publications of the American Statistical Association, Vol. 7, No. 52 (December, 1900), pp. 1-44. 

Wooster, Harvey A. "A Forgotten Factor in American Industrial History."The American Economic Review, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March, 1926), pp. 14-27. 

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Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Kevin Allor.

An Archives of Maryland Online Publication
© Copyright, Maryland State Archives, August 24, 2006

At first glance, advertisements from the Great Depression are stylish, colorful, and appealing – just as their producers intended. But beneath the surface glamour, 1930s advertisements are rich historical sources that yield insights into a range of topics about the era. They not only provide a unique window into the era’s financial anxieties, but they also reveal valuable information about other topics including ideas about race and gender, the state of scientific knowledge about nutrition, and changing food preferences. 


Even during the lean years of the 1930s, advertisers presented goods as emblems of aspirational lifestyles. Even when choosing something as simple as a brand of baking powder or type of breakfast cereal, consumers were asked to identify imaginatively with both the settings and the characters portrayed in printed promotions or, increasingly, on popular radio programs, which were often sponsored by food companies such as Crisco. Symbols of financial well-being were all over 1930s food advertisements, ranging from descriptions of elegant dining spaces to images of cherubic and obviously well-fed children. However, some marketers sought to avoid alienating consumers by acknowledging, at least subtly, that the easy prosperity featured in their ads was out of reach for many. Increasingly, advertisers emphasized elegance while also celebrating the virtue of economizing. For example, Purina marketed the "Flavor-Fed Domestic Rabbit," shown served on stylish dinnerware, as a "budget saver," easy on the wallet yet high in precious calories.  


When it came to marketing, food producers had an advantage over manufacturers of other consumer goods. While items such as radios or automobiles could be deemed optional during an era of scarcity, food was essential, as even the most cynical critic of the advertising industry had to acknowledge. Yet food marketers still had to contend with the fact that consumers with shrinking budgets had the opportunity to choose between different brand names and specific menu items. In their scramble for market share, food producers were faced with the task of making their products seem simultaneously desirable and practical. The makers of King Midas flour responded to this challenge by proudly labeling their product as a luxury item: the "highest priced flour in America." However, consumers were told that they could both splurge on this high-priced item and yet still practice "true economy" because the baked goods they produced with this superior flour would stay fresher longer. 


White, middle-class characters populated most period advertisements. When people of color were featured, they typically appeared in a caricatured form and were used as a source of amusement or as an object lesson for white consumers. For example, Nabisco differentiated the character of Mandy, a dialect-speaking African American woman who cooked by instinct, from their purportedly more intellectual white customers. White cooks, who lacked Mandy’s innate cooking abilities, would  allegedly benefit the most from printed recipes and modern, ready-made ingredients.


Advertising copywriters generally imagined that their customers were white, middle-class people who were members of families where traditional gender norms reigned. Attractive and neatly attired mother figures adorned ads in newspapers and magazines and graced the pages of carefully crafted product cookbooks. These imaginary figures provided reassurance to a public eager to have their worries soothed by capable maternal hands. Indeed, advertisers knew that many people experienced the decade’s economic insecurities most sharply through shrinking food budgets, and they responded with tips and reassurance. Ads for Nabisco, for instance, tutored women on using ground crackers as fillers to stretch more expensive food products, allowing them to create dishes that "look expensive" yet  "cost little." The baking company also assured insecure consumers that thriftiness was not only a necessity for some but a proud choice for others, claiming "some of the richest people in the world pride themselves upon their care in spending." Choosing Nabisco crackers was framed as a budget-friendly way for average customers to identify with allegedly like-minded wealthy Americans.


The mothers depicted in Depression era advertising were simultaneously traditional and truly modern figures. Some advertisers appealed to a growing instability in conventional ideas about gender roles wrought by forces such as growing male unemployment. For instance, the Heinz company appealed to shifting sensibilities by marketing its products to housewives "whose interests…are more varied" and might well "lie outside the home."  Although some marketers promised that ready-made foods would give women more time away from domestic responsibilities, the advertising of the era overwhelmingly urged modern women not to venture too far from their kitchens – which would ideally be well stocked and full of modern appliances. Women were urged to find contentment by aspiring to the latest kitchen technology built around new appliances such as the "Roper Modern Gas Range" and by using the domestic space to cater to the men in their lives. An advertisement for A-1 Sauce advised: "Don't you dress, make-up and hair-do to please a man? Cook with the same idea in mind."


Advertisers for A-1 Sauce were hardly the only ones writing copy based on the presumption that innate gender differences existed. For example, Knox Gelatine knowingly told its female customers not to forget these distinctions, proclaiming: "Men abominate a lot of sugar in salads." Nonetheless, promoters frequently framed homemaking as an occupation that had to be learned rather than as the outgrowth of an inborn set of aptitudes. Housewives were charged with the responsibility of not only feeding their families tasty meals but also with mastering contemporary scientific information about nutrition. Advertisers repeatedly sought to appeal to both the intellect and the vanity of homemakers. For instance, according to the makers of Ball Mason jars, the typical 1930s housewife "faced a bigger responsibility than her predecessor of a generation or two ago. Upon her shoulders rests the burden of keeping her family in good health through the right choice and preparation of food." 


References to the latest research in nutritional science abound in 1930s food marketing, which urged savvy consumers to choose items that were not only low in price but also high in food values, particularly in recently discovered vitamins. The California Fruit Growers Association promoted the sale of lemons and oranges, foods high in vitamin C, by exploiting fears of failure made more pressing by rising rates of unemployment: they warned darkly that the malnourished "seriously handicap [themselves] in the struggle for success." Thus consumers could increase their life chances by purchasing citrus fruits. Advertisers also frequently preyed upon the anxieties of parents who hoped to help their children succeed in a troubled economy. The manufacturers of Cream of Wheat cereal, for example, promised that their product "fortifies your children for the day before them. It guards them from the dangers of the underweight... Gives them the energy they need." 


Advertisers could appeal not only to the dictates of current scientific information about healthful eating, but they could also create marketing campaigns that tapped into both biological and cultural predispositions toward specific foods. Purveyors of sugar, baking powder, and wheat flour confidently created product cookbooks designed to appeal to the American sweet tooth. Certain that their product was inherently appealing, advertisers for Jack Frost sugar tried to tap into widespread anxieties about health by convincing customers that sugar was not only delicious but also nutritious, describing it as a "wholesome food... [that] conserves protein for body repair… and helps protect the liver from toxic materials." Meanwhile, marketers also used arguments about nutrition to shore up demand for meat at a time when consumers were buying less of it due to rising prices. For instance, Armour and Company capitalized on the predilections of a carnivorous nation by reinforcing the idea that "every well-balanced meal is built around that indispensible protein food, meat." New nutritional information about vitamins gave the marketers of meat an additional selling point when trying to reach those Americans who were reluctant to eat their vegetables. The National Livestock and Meat Board promised that their products would make "savory and interesting the bland vegetables" that accompanied meat in the iconic American meal. Manufacturers of the Presto Cooker exploited anxieties about vitamin deficiencies among children by promising that pressure cooking vegetables would "make vital foods tempting to youngsters."


In an attempt to attract customers, industrial food producers not only created marketing campaigns that promoted the nutritional value of their products, they also promised that their companies were just as reliable as the fictional mothers who populated their advertising campaigns. Knox Gelatine proclaimed that it was produced in accordance with standards "more strict than ever before" and promised certainty in a time of turmoil by claiming: "You can always depend on Knox." Marketers frequently referenced a long scope of history when promoting their products, conflating company longevity with reliability while also invoking nostalgia and positive associations with a more carefree economic climate. Durkee Famous Foods celebrated the fact that its dressing, supposedly characterized by a "delightfully distinctive, spicy flavor that defies description," had been pleasing palates for three generations, while Heinz poetically claimed that its products could invoke the "placid late-summer and fall mornings in the old days" of happier, simpler times. Throughout the Great Depression, advertisers claimed that the food items they sold could meet not only the daily physical needs for sustenance but could also fulfill the psychic need for security in an era of hardship and uncertainty. 

Jennifer Jensen Wallach is associate professor of history at the University of North Texas and the author of How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

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