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When America learned to advertise

Posted by Kevin Hartnett July 16, 2014 02:48 PM

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When you look at bygone advertisements, it’s hard not to chuckle and think: You silly people, you got taken in by that? The Baker Library at the Harvard Business School is running an exhibition called “The Art of American Advertising” through August 1. It features posters and trade cards (collectible cards given as product premiums) from 1865-1910—the long dawn of modern advertising when advances in manufacturing, transportation, and communication created the first mass-markets for goods like cigarettes, candy, and soda.

The exhibition includes a trade card for Nelson Morris & Co. sugar-cured hams that features a plump pig and the humorous tagline, “Pull my tail and hear me squeal.” A trade card for Singer sewing machines boasts, “Over two million in use,” and cites the hundreds of awards the machines has won at trade fairs.

“[Advertisers used] celebrities, women, children, animals depicted in humorous situations,” said Christine Riggle, a special collections librarian at the business school, noting that Jumbo the Elephant was an especially popular celebrity endorser. “Essentially the marketing gimmicks are not that different from today.” If that’s true—which it seems to be—then maybe the joke isn’t so much on those 19th century simpletons, as it is on us.

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Images courtesy of the Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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