On the Go with Phoebe Snow: Origins of an Advertising Icon
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On the Go with Phoebe Snow
Origins of an Advertising Icon
Abstract

Scholars often claim that image advertising is a phenomenon unique to the postmodern period, and marketing “how to” books have touted “integrated marketing” as an innovation of the post-network television age. Yet the most popular advertising campaigns of turn-of-the-twentieth century America were full of fanciful characters, drawn in stylish modes and elaborated by rhyme, slogan, and story. This article takes a look at Earnest Elmo Calkins iconic creation of the Lackawanna Rail Road’s Phoebe Snow. As an icon, she sold a clean ride and a new cultural image for the American Girl on the go—an image that lasted nearly 70 years.

The Campbell cherubs were selling soup with a song. A lanky Sunny Jim was hawking a robust cereal with rhyme, and pairs of nymphs pushed perfumed soap in couplets. Leading the cast of Gilded Age trade characters was a young woman dressed in white, who challenged the norms of the times by “riding the rails” on her own. Phoebe Snow, the “maid in white” who promoted the smoke-free anthracite coal used on the Lackawanna Railroad, was the brainchild of one of advertising’s earliest creative geniuses, Earnest Elmo Calkins.

Scholars often claim that image advertising is a phenomenon unique to the postmodern period, and marketing “how to” books have touted “integrated marketing” as an innovation of the post-network-television age. Yet the most popular advertising campaigns of turn-of-the-twentieth century America were full of fanciful characters, drawn in stylish modes and elaborated by rhyme, slogan, and story. By 1890, advertising was fully awake to the idea of marketing a product by combining personality and storyline to promote its use.1 Many were supported by what we now call “unconventional” marketing efforts—publicity, events, tours, and special “teaching materials” for schools. Some of these faces and slogans were as fully integrated into the culture as “Where’s the Beef?” was 100 years later—and often engaged with politics in a manner as topical as Bennetton, only to be parodied in the media just like Letterman or The Daily Show do today.

Over the course of the 20th century, such tactics were taken by many of advertising’s “greats” and found reflection in the popular imagination in a variety of ways. At the turn of the era, the citizens of Kenneth Fraser’s “Spotless Town” hawked Sapolio in verse, while Charles Snyder’s “See that Hump” campaign for DeLong Hook and Eye became a fixture for mimicry and jokes. In the 1910s and 1920s, Helen Lansdowne Resor captured the mystique of movie stars and high society for housewives by tying glamour to toilet soap. At mid-century, Leo Burnett’s grasp of “cuddle power” resulted in a collection of animated spokespersons, from Tony the Tiger to the Pillsbury Doughboy to the Jolly Green Giant, with songs and sounds to match. The image campaigns of today, therefore, stand on the shoulders of 100 years of popular advertising that, far from being simple lists of ingredients, announcements of price, or outlines of arguments, were full of fun and fancy.2

It is therefore important to document, trace, and attempt to understand the power of the great image campaigns of the past. Such ads nearly always have more than a surface meaning to the consumer, reaching deep into history, fantasies, and the collective psyche. Yet to meet with long-term success such campaigns must also reflect the qualities inherent in the product.3 In this article, I will look at Phoebe Snow’s subtle yet tenacious grip on the public imagination over the course of nearly 70 years, in order to show how the influence of an image can make inroads into the design of a culture.

Tracing the genealogy of the “First Lady of the Rails” is a precarious venture. Just as in tracing a genuine family history, most of the progenitors are dead. All that is left in Phoebe’s case is a family photo album in the ads themselves, along with a number of teasingly short paragraphs in a variety of advertising history and how-to...