Presbrey, Frank. 1929. From symbols in Babylon to painted walls in Rome. In The History and Development of Advertising. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1–13. Text and black and white illustrations reprinted with the permission of Doubleday. For further on-line information please visit http://www.randomhouse.com. Color photo of the Rosetta Stone originally appeared in Parkinson, Richard. 1999. Cracking Codes: the Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, Color Plate 1, EA 24. Reprinted with the permission of the British Museum.
FROM THE SYMBOLS IN BABYLON TO PAINTED WALLS IN ROME
How old is advertising? It depends upon the definition of advertising and whether the writer on the subject wishes to make the art an ancient one.
There are those who will question that anything as modern as we consider advertising to be has a history; yet the facts show that it not only has a history but that it is an interesting chronicle. Advertising as we know it is new in its aspects, but its ideas and its objects are as old as the human race.
Advertising really has two histories. The history of advertising as we know it today dates from yesterday. The history of advertising in all its forms harks back through the ages and into the haze that hides the beginning of humanity.
So far as we know the cave man did no trading. He had nothing to sell and nothing to advertise. He purchased nothing: When mother needed a new dress father took his club in hand and went out and killed a bear.
Even in the early tribal stage, when humans began to gather in communities for better protection, there was little or nothing to trade with. Each family made its own necessities.
But when the tribes grew in size and number bartering was begun. An animal fur, which is still an article of great importance in human wearing apparel, probably was the first item ever bartered. A weapon for hunting, perhaps a stone club, is believed to have been the next sale made. Thus our fur dealers and sporting goods men may lay claim to the greatest antiquity in trade.
Tribal men particularly skilled in weapon making found their weapons in demand by others and gave more and more time to that in which they excelled, getting what they needed for their families by trading weapons for food and clothing. The more expert hunters had a surplus of meat and skins and traded it for something of which another had more than he needed for his own use.
As men discovered that they could get food and clothing by trading their own specialties for these necessities, the arts began to develop. Skill in making things grew, and each craftsman’s output increased. When a man found rivals in his line it became necessary to do some “Selling,” to persuade, and he evolved a selling talk. This, incidentally, gave a decided impetus to language.
Early selling, however, was oral, face-to-face, and cannot properly be called advertising. The excuse for tracing advertising back to the tribal state of man is, of course, that oral salesmanship was the progenitor of advertising.
One of the earliest arts was the making of objects out of clay bricks and pottery — and on bricks that were made by the Babylonians some three thousand years before Christ are found stenciled inscriptions which have been called the first advertisements. The bricks carry the name of the temple in which they were used and the name of the king who built it, just as a modern public building contains a corner stone or tablet with the names of officials in office when the structure was erected. The method was to cut a stencil in a hard stone and with it stamp each brick while the clay was still soft. The kings who did this advertised themselves to such of their subjects as could read hieroglyphics. The modern advertising man would say they ran an institutional campaign for themselves and their dynasties.
We owe our knowledge of the Egyptian hieroglyphics to an advertisement. Until 1799 the scholars of the world had...