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By the Book

The Art of Advertising (excerpt)

Julie Anne Lambert

The Art of Advertising invites us to consider both the intended and unintended messages of the advertisements of the past.

The Art of Advertising
Julie Anne Lambert

Bodleian Library Publishing / University of Chicago Press

March 2020 (UK) / May 2020 (US)


Reprinted with permission from The Art of Advertising by Julie Anne Lambert, published by Bodleian Library Publishing (footnotes omitted). © 2020 by Bodleian Library Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

7. Mirror of Society?

It is often maintained that advertisements mirror the society of their time. Indeed, at the height of the poster age W.S. Rogers wrote:

The best posters are not only examples of the artistic originality and technique of the age in which they are created, but are also truthful records, for future reference, of what we eat, drink, and take by way of medicines – of how we clothe ourselves – of our morals, our manners, and our amusements.

But how do we disentangle reality from hyperbole and idealism in handbills, leaflets and posters of the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries? What factual and circumstantial information can we glean from these chance survivals of past eras? In superimposing on them the status of historical documents we distort their original purpose, but it is precisely because of their 'innocence of purpose' that they bear such valuable witness to their age. What aspects of life do they embody and what do they conceal? And to what extent do they encapsulate their era?

Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)


A major category of stand-alone advertising in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries related to the latest inventions. These (unlike the 'puffs' of patent medicine manufacturers) have gravitas and are far removed from later brand rivalry, where similar products vied for custom. There is a certain earnestness in the quest to design the perfect fire grate, cooking range, boiler, lock, safe, scientific instrument, carriage, etc., and a sense of progress, however commercially driven.

The layout of these advertisements, with their detailed illustrations or diagrams and explanatory text, remained largely unchanged up to and including the Great Exhibition.

7.1 This advertisement for Stratton and Crouder's Manufactory and Warehouse which makes reference to magic is indeed a mixture of the scientific and the fantastic. The inventions enable cooking a 'Dinner for 200 to 1000 Persons' and cooking in the open area using a 'Machine, with Table and Cooking Apparatus, to dress a Dinner for the most extensive Purpose'.

Dry and prosaic they may be, but not only are these advertisements full of information: they also have a subtext. In claiming to have overcome the deficiencies of similar appliances, they reveal the problems that blighted that the lives of previous generations. In about 1796, for example, Stratton and Crouder's Patent Magic Stove (fig. 7.1) was marketed in these terms: 'It is so simple, that the Fire may be extinguished in an Instant without dust; it is an absolute Remedy to prevent smoky Chimneys, and to this may be added the only certain Preventive of Accidents happening by Fire.

In 1839, Rippon & Burton were promoting the Chunk Patent Stove, invented by Richard Prosser, civil engineer, for 'its entire freedom from dust or smoke; its very great economy of fuel; and its perfect safety from fire. It has no door, and does not produce any of the unpleasant effects upon the atmosphere which have been experienced in the use of all others.'

By about 1901, the same problem and its latest solution, in the form of Clarke's Patent Syphon Stoves, was evoked dramatically through images (fig. 7.2a). Such examples (and there are hundreds) enable us to evaluate claims by manufacturers of the past not only with a healthy scepticism, but with privileged information that the problem was perhaps not solved, despite assertions.

Some advertisements reveal problems the very existence of which might surprise us. Butler's ingenious and elegant convertible beds (fig. 7.3) were clearly intended for the affluent, but are marketed for 'their Absolute Prevention of Vermin'. The point is made twice.

The phrase 'free from' (so familiar to us today) reveals countless hidden horrors in the nineteenth century: Matchless metal polish (verso of fig. 8.7) was 'GUARANTEED TO BE FREE FROM ACID, POISON OR GRIT.' Saponine (see fig. 1.12) was 'entirely free from caustic properties', while Harlene (verso of fig. 7.12a) was 'devoid of any metallic or other injurious ingredients'. Sparrow's leather sauce was 'free from those dangerous and filthy ingredients which are generally put into common Blacking' and Stower's lime cordial (fig. 7.4) was marketed as having 'NO MUSTY FLAVOUR'.

Pears' frequent contention that their soap was 'free from excess of alkali (Soda), and from artificial colouring matter' was taken further in 1890. Their advertisement 'Poison in toilet soaps' quoted extensively from a paragraph in The Times:

DANGEROUS SOAPS. — At a recent sitting of the Academy of Medicine, Dr. Reveil read a paper on the necessity of preventing Chemists and Perfumers from selling poisonous or dangerous Soaps … he said 'I need but state that arsenic, the acid nitrate of mercury, tartar emetic, and potassa caustica, form part of their ingredients …'

7.2a, 7.2b The avoidance of noxious fumes and smoky chimneys was a preoccupation of stove manufacturers. The depiction of a howling baby in its cot with its wild-eyed mother enabled S. Clark & Co. to make a powerful graphic statement. The verso expresses the advantages of their Syphon stoves more soberly, accompanied by the

Advertisements reveal the specific fears underlying society, none more so than those exploited by the infamous patent medicine manufacturers. These 'puffs' are notorious for their hyperbole and extravagant claims for the efficacy of their cures, but are even more interesting in what they reveal about the range of illnesses suffered in the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries (many now eradicated by vaccination, improved diet or changes in lifestyle) and the lack of reticence in evoking such diseases as syphilis or 'French disease' in newspaper and other advertisements. Symptoms are described in graphic detail. The fear of typhoid, plague, cholera and smallpox was present continuously from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries, as evidenced by the Antipestilential Quilt of c.1780, invented by Sieur Carette in Bruges and sold in Paris, Brussels, Madrid, Amsterdam, Tournay and Frankfort on the Mein [sic] as well as London. The quilt was to sit at the pit of the stomach and worked by drawing perspiration: 'It is by this insensible Perspiration, effected by the Quilt, that the Blood purges itself of malignant Humours, the Retention of which often occasions melancholy Diseases, and especially the Small Pox.'

The same fears were present at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Rosmarine Manufacturing Company's 'Petal Dust' was apparently used by Her Majesty Queen Alexandra.

All should read this. During the prevalence of Typhoid Fever, Bubonic Plague, Cholera, and Small Pox. Do not fail to have packets of "PETAL DUST," freely distributed in the house, under the bed and in chests of drawers, wardrobes, in the folds of bed linen, and every place where clothes are kept … DECREASE OF THE PLAGUE IN INDIA. Thousands of Packets of "PETAL DUST" are distributed daily in the plague stricken districts.

In 1894, Blackham's Vegetable Tonic had, it was claimed, utterly destroyed 'THE DEATH MICROBE' (fig. 7.5).

Fear was also the main selling point for insurance, safes and even night lamps. In 1839, Rippon & Burton cited the 'frequent robberies of plate' as a catalyst for the manufacture of 'British plate' as a substitute for silver. In 1893, Clarke's were promoting their Pyramid night lamp as 'THE BURGLAR'S HORROR' (fig. 7.6).

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when so many advertisements portrayed the happiness allied to and engendered by the product being promoted, it is easy to overlook the versos (or subsequent pages in the case of leaflets and catalogues), not least because they are so rarely shown in books or on websites. Yet, while the image-dominated front page often closely resembled a poster (indeed, may well have been a reduction of a poster), the textual hinterland is often rich in more negative allusions.

The testimonials on the verso of Clark's patent Hygienic Gas Stoves (fig. 7.2b) refer to the pernicious aspects of ordinary fires and stoves, such as the noise associated with stoking fires, the absorption of moisture in the atmosphere, and smells inducing headaches and lassitude.

The verso of the Jolly's Duchess Pills advertisement (fig. 7.7a, 7.7b and 7.7c) shows that, far from merely eliminating pallor, they were marketed as 'a positive cure for anaemia, bloodlessness, headache, languor, nervousness, skin eruptions, offensive breath, loss of appetite, faintness, backache, pains in the side, disturbed sleep, palpitation, sallowness, nausea and irregularities'.

While the front of Mennen's toilet powder advertisement is devoted to images of celebrities and promises of cash prizes (fig. 7.8), the verso (with no further reference to either) provides information about the properties of common versus finest talcum and evokes the sufferings of a baby subjected to cheap products: 'his sobs tell their piteous tale of a skin burnt up and itching all over under the irritating effects of some cheap, gritty powder that has been rubbed into his tender pink skin by an unthoughtful mother or careless nurse'.

7.3 To the twenty-first-century viewer of this advertisement for Butler's patent bedsteads, the existence in the eighteenth century of sofa beds and chair beds (the latter folding down into a box seven inches deep) is perhaps as surprising as the references to vermin.

7.7a, 7.7b, 7.7c While paleness of complexion was fashionable in the Victorian era, pallor was not, especially when caused by one of the diseases listed on the verso of this otherwise charming flap advertisement for Jolly's Duchess pills.


In 1866 Granville Sharp of Reading's promotion of the crinolines manufactured by Thomson shows just how enslaved women were to the Paris-led fashion industry, even outside London. He quotes extensively from fashion magazines of the day:

'Is the reign of Crinoline over? No – decidedly no; it has only changed its form. More elegant and moderate in its proportions, it is now more than ever indispensable to an elegant toilette.' — La Revue des Modes, Sept., 1866.

The Liverpool Manufacturing Company's 'Royal Worcester "Adjusto" corsets for generous or full figures' revealed the desired, unpitying silhouettes of the 1910s (fig. 7.9).

Those whose bodies did not conform could try Figuroids: 'a scientific obesity cure' (fig.7.10).

As we have seen in Chapter 5, in response to the rise of the middle classes, the clothing trade (as distinct from high fashion) produced a proliferation of advertisements and catalogues for all sorts of attire, from underwear to outer wear. But we can equally well see the evolution of cut, silhouette, colours, accessories and, above all, length, through the slightly idealized women who populate advertisements, for products that have nothing whatsoever to do with dress.

7.9 The corsets for 'generous or full' figures advertised in the Liverpool Manufacturing Company's catalogue Corsets for 1910 must have been draconian, despite the promise of 'luxurious freedom and comfort'. Coutil, designed specifically for corset-making, is very strong.


From the eighteenth century onwards the testimonial was de rigueur. It contributed greatly to the overall verbosity of early advertising, sometimes accounting for three of the four pages of a leaflet, and it continued throughout the nineteenth century. In time, testimonials were relegated to the verso of an advertisement, as in figure 7.2b. Some were, ostensibly, unsolicited appreciations from happy consumers, many of them women, especially those claiming to have been cured by the advertised remedy. Others give the opinion of experts and professionals, such as doctors, dentists, scientists, chemists, clergymen and members of the army and navy. Patronage by royalty was, of course, the greatest accolade of all and will be discussed in Chapter 8.

Once portraits could easily be incorporated into advertising, manufacturers such as Pears, Mennen and Koko Maricopas Ltd (fig. 7.11) seized on the potential of actresses and singers to endorse their products, enhancing the culture of celebrity already established through theatrical prints and sheet-music covers. This was paralleled by the depiction of military and naval heroes, often long dead, such as Nelson and Wellington, after whom products were named (Wellington hosiery and Wellington knife powder for example). The Craven "A" aviator (see fig. 2.6 [see original text]) is a more generic model. The concept of using celebrities in advertising to shape public taste was born.


It is important to bear in mind that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the imagination of the artist came into play. Illustrations were no longer mere representations. However, the exigencies of the class system and the necessity to pay ready money for goods meant that the artist was scarcely selling a dream, let alone a fantasy.

The overriding impression, particularly in colour advertising of the period, is one of prosperity and happiness. If we browse the seemingly endless depictions of smiling women and bonny children, we could be forgiven for forgetting that any other way of life existed.

Advertisements targeting the lower classes are rarely illustrated and certainly not in colour, on either posters or inserts in magazines. Where the working classes are portrayed, the effect is sometimes shocking. This is doubly so in F. Allen & Son's stark contrast between poverty and temperance (see fig. 2.10 [see original text]), which seems to imply that the transformation (effected by drinking cocoa rather than liquor) is within the control of the family itself.

Interestingly, Pears' soap made a point of depicting the unwashed, if only for picturesque effect. Their earliest venture into the use of art in advertising was Focardi's sculpture You Dirty Boy (see Chapter 3). Pears returned to this theme several times, portraying urchins in 'Their only want, Pears' Soap' and in 'The scramble for it!' 9 Their mildly humorous approach to those in most need of their soap led to clever twists to two of their most successful slogans. 'Good morning! Have you used Pears' Soap?' (usually associated with a beautiful woman greeting the morning through an open window 10)was adapted to accompany an image of a chimney sweep,11 while a cartoon for Punch by Henry Furniss, a grubby-looking self-portrait, was captioned: 'I used your soap two years ago since when I have used no other'12 (a wilful misinterpretation of Lillie Langtry's famous testimonial: 'Since using Pears' soap I have discarded all others' 13).

The predominance of women in advertisements reflects not only their power to attract the eye, but also their power to purchase. These are advertisements of and for women –the administrators of the household budget. However, if men are absent from most advertisements, we should not forget that it was men who produced the merchandise, ranthe companies, set the ideals of beauty and of fashion and created the images. But theabsence of men in much advertising is also due to the prevalence of domestic consumables(such as cleaning and beauty products, soap, toothpaste, food and soft drinks) in high‑profile advertising on the billboards. Many of Chéret's iconic belle époque posters are for banal products such as Saxoléine lamp oil (see fig. 3.10 [see original text]), cigarettes, throat pastilles and alcoholic drinks. Major household purchases and luxury products, necessitating significant household expenditure or serious wealth (from carriages to motor cars and from furniture to jewellery), would be the province of men or of the master and mistress ofthe household together. Advertising for these was not, as for the mass market, associatedwith billboard posters and handbills, but might take the form of insertions in targeted journals or newspapers, or even sumptuous dedicated catalogues.

The assumption that the class system would endure is perhaps most strikingly conveyed through images of children. In the Harlene advertisements (fig. 7.12a, 7.12b), for example, the little girl's question 'Mama, shall I have beautiful long hair like you when I grow up?' elicits the unquestioning response: 'Certainly, my dear, if you use "Edwards' Harlene".' An advertisement for B.T.H. Edison neatly charts the development of domestic lighting, while also conveying the little girl's class assumptions about, and sense of entitlement to, the latest in technology (fig. 7.13). Huntley & Palmers' The Children's Party shows children in training for a cosseted adulthood waited on by servants (fig. 7.14).

The implication of all this is unambiguous. Most advertisers addressed themselves to those with spending power, to the highest common denominator – the rich and the aspiring middle classes – even when the product itself was (relatively) inexpensive. To address themselves to the poor would be perverse, as would be the representation of anything other than an ideal lifestyle, to which all (it was assumed) aspired.

One of the status symbols of the well-to-do was having servants. These are usually portrayed 'above stairs' using cleaning or washing products or caring for children. However, whether wittingly or unwittingly, the determination of the advertiser to portray the maid's happiness with her lot, or with the promise of reduced labour in using a new product, has the effect of attributing to her better health than her (often) wan and languid mistress with her fashionably corseted figure (fig. 7.15).

The gradual disappearance of servants from advertising after the First World War is striking, although even in the 1930s, the Gas and Light Coke Company were marketing their 'gas equipped kitchen' in terms of economizing expenditure on servants: 'one servant can do the work that needed three servants in an old fashioned house of the same size' (fig. 7.16).

The context of some working women is not immediately obvious to the modern viewer: one such is the 'cookery assistant', who at first sight might appear to be a servant. Often accompanying a chef, these pert, provocatively dressed assistants drew the crowds to demonstrations of new cookers. It is no coincidence that, in the hands of Dudley Hardy (see fig. 3.14a [see original text]), the cookery assistant is reminiscent of his 'Gaiety Girl'.

7.12a, 7.12b Through these contrasting Harlene advertisements we gain rare admittance to a lady's dressing room. Unusually, these two advertisements show different decors, perhaps to reflect the seasons. The immutability of life as a woman in the Victorian and Edwardian eras is suggested by the little girl's assumption that she will follow in the footsteps of her mother in aspiring to a good head of long hair.


In representing the domestic environment, commercial artists trod a delicate line between reality and aspiration. What they created are rare images, in colour, of the homes of our predecessors that afford tantalizing glimpses of contemporary interiors with details of furniture, colour schemes, ornaments, lighting, fireplaces, etc. It is unlikely that these are falsified. It is the environment immediately affected by the product that is enhanced (spotless floors, sparkling silverware, happy babies and so on): the surrounding decor is intended to reflect the natural habitat of the intended customer.

It is rare that rooms as intimate as ladies' dressing rooms are shown and, unusually, the two Harlene advertisements (fig. 7.12a, 7.12b) depict different soft furnishings, perhaps to reflect the seasons since the advertisements are contemporary. Even the contextual details of the Fred. Watts & Co.'s catalogue in figure 5.10 show pillars, high-class solid furniture and, somewhat quirkily, a tortoise – a novelty at the time. The contrast with the 1930s Hall's Distemper advertisement (fig. 7.17) could not be greater: the heavy Victoriana and Edwardiana have gone, to be replaced by bright colours and a complete lack of clutter.

Exteriors of houses were rarely shown, partly because the marketed products were for use inside the home but also perhaps because to show the size of a house was to target the product too precisely to a particular echelon of society at a time when markets were expanding to the upper and lower middle classes. The motor-car brochure, however, lent itself ideally to this treatment: many luxury cars are shown outside manor houses, while cheaper models might be driven in the more status-neutral town or countryside.

7.17 Hall's advertisement for distemper shows the new vogue for clean lines, simple furniture and the lack of clutter of the early 1930s. The console radio in the corner, with its large but light wooden case, adds a technological dimension to the modern look.


New modes of transport symbolized modernity and liberation. The railway not only enabled people and goods to be transported efficiently, but ultimately represented escape. Travelling for pleasure opened up new vistas for the affluent classes in the second half of the nineteenth century and created new markets for the supply of luggage, books, portable refreshments and appropriate travelling attire (especially in the early days of motoring). The history of W.H. Smith (fig. 7.18) is inextricably linked to the heyday of the railway. Their first railway bookstalls opened in 1848 and the venture flourished, selling newspapers and popular fiction, notably yellowbacks (cheap reprints of out-of-copyright works) to a captive travelling public.

The idea of independent travel conjured up by Fry's advertisement for cocoa and 'Five Boys' chocolate (fig. 7.19) is somewhat compromised by the entourage of the older lady, who has a bevy of porters attending on her as well as her own travelling companions or servants. This advertisement, refreshingly set outside the home environment, shows travelling fashions and leather luggage as well as the uniforms of the staff. The qualities of light, especially the luminosity of the woman's garments, are beautifully rendered in chromolithography.

The bicycle came to symbolize the 'new' woman in the 1890s, enabling her to enjoy unaccompanied travel in the fresh air. If the raising of hemlines to allow women to ride bicycles (fig. 7.4) and to undertake practical work in the First World War did not liberate women from the dictates of fashion, it did herald a new freedom of body and spirit, epitomized by the suffrage-inspired 'Vote for Nixey's' image (fig. 7.20). Such advertisements gave a strong message to society that some women at least were no longer prepared to be confined to the house and a life of dependence and inactivity.

The changing role of women is captured in many advertisements of the 1890s onwards, including the promotion of Ladies cigarettes (challenging the prerogative of men to smoke, fig. 7.21), the revolutionary short hairstyles of the 1920s (fig. 7.22) and images of independent working women of the 1930s with their symbolic typewriters (fig. 7.23).

By the 1930s a more equal, or at least companionable, relationship between men and women is reflected in images of recreational rides into the countryside, jaunts in the newly affordable (and reliable) motor car or visits to 'Wonderland' at the electricity showroom (fig. 7.24) or the Pavilion of Light at the Ideal Home exhibition (fig. 7.25)

7.18 The station in this advertisement is probably Charing Cross, which was the main London terminus for Continental travel by boat train. The atmospheric illustration highlights the prominence W.H. Smith could secure for posters in railway stations.


That advertisements are redolent of their age is indisputable, but there is often a problem in dating them precisely. The very immediacy of their message, the fact that their only context was 'now' and the sense that they were not meant to survive mean that dates rarely appear on them. In the early twentieth century, there might be a printer's code. Otherwise, a date may be added in manuscript by a helpful collector (see fig. 7.5) or there may be a similar advertisement in a dated journal. Some advertisements have an obvious historic context, such as a war, coronation or jubilee (see Chapter 8) or the gold rush to the Klondyke [sic] (see fig. 2.17 [see original text]) but very often there is nothing at all to date them. It can take specialist knowledge of the date of an invention or detailed knowledge of fashion accessories to reveal the significance of an advertisement to the study of that field.

Typography, layout, paper, text and illustration can also help. Some images are so strong in period feel that they positively shout from the page, such as the Dudley Hardy To-Day poster (see fig. 3.13 [see original text]), or the jazz age poster for the New Morris Oxford Six (see fig. 3.21 [see original text]).

Others reveal their capacity to encapsulate their age only when viewed alongside advertisements showing similar situations but from another period. There is a world of difference, for example, between the mother in the Harlene advertisements who assumes that life for her daughter will be a replica of her own (fig. 7.12a, 7.12b) and 'Miss Remington' with her independent means of income (fig. 7.23).

We can only speculate what future historians will deduce from the advertisements of our own era.

* * *

Julie Anne Lambert is Librarian of the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

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