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  • Introduction: Advertising in American Periodicals before Madison Avenue
  • Carl Robert Keyes (bio)

Advertising is ubiquitous in twenty-first-century America. New and rapidly advancing technologies and the new media they enable have contributed to a significant proliferation of advertising and increased creativity in delivering advertising to potential consumers as they change their reading, viewing, and other habits of everyday life. Americans are bombarded with thousands of marketing messages daily, such a multitude and in such a variety of formats that many escape conscious notice or may not be recognized easily as advertisements. In comparison, advertising from eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century America may be easy to dismiss or overlook. Indeed, most histories of advertising in early America take this approach: they date the birth of advertising to the nineteenth-century industrial revolution and the emergence of advertising agencies staffed by professionals who specialized in sales, writing copy, or producing art in the twentieth century. Often, histories of advertising in America offer, at most, brief chapters on what they term the “pre-history” of advertising, chapters that tend to focus on patent medicines and other quack remedies or feature anecdotes about advertisements placed by George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other prominent men without investigating the relationship between Americans—men and women, elite and common, producers and consumers—and advertising. Notable exceptions exist, but, traditionally, the study of early American advertising has been overshadowed by examinations of more recent and (some would argue) flashier marketing efforts. The introduction to a three-volume anthology of essays on advertising in America published earlier this year, for example, opens with an advertisement placed by a grocer in Richmond, Virginia, in 1809. That advertisement, the editor stressed, “had almost none of the frills or visuals we associate with advertising today. . . . The only glimmers of ‘advertising’ in the sense we understand the term in the contemporary world is in the use of capitalization and font styles used to emphasize certain parts of the ad.”1 [End Page 105]

Despite innovations in advertising forms and appeals in the 1920s, despite the glamour of the advertising industry in the 1960s as depicted in the popular cable drama Mad Men, despite product placements that currently saturate popular culture, advertising was not invented in the twentieth century. In addition to scholars working in a variety of fields—especially American studies, art history, literature, and history—who consult advertising to advance their research on almost every aspect of early American life and culture, an increasing number have made advertising their central focus of inquiry. In recognition of this vibrant work on American advertising prior to the Civil War, the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) and the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture at the American Antiquarian Society organized a conference, “Before Madison Avenue: Advertising in Early America,” held in Worcester, Massachusetts in November 2011.2 The Visual Culture Program at the Library Company of Philadelphia and CHAViC co-sponsored a companion conference in Philadelphia in March 2012, an event made possible in part by the high number of impressive proposals garnered by the original call for papers.3

Many of the participants examined newspaper and magazine advertising, the eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century forms most familiar to authors who nominally comment on early American advertising as a preface to works on modern advertising, though the methodology, analysis, and interpretations of advertising in and about periodicals presented at these conferences deviated significantly from the cursory treatment sometimes undertaken elsewhere. Other participants delved into a variety of marketing efforts not grounded primarily in periodical publications. Marina Moskowitz, for example, analyzed the relationship between text and images in nineteenth-century seed catalogs, arguing that illustrations did not represent the actual object being sold—the seeds—but, rather, an idealized depiction of what those seeds might produce. Richard W. Flint and Brett Mizelle each explored the aesthetics and conventions of circus and menagerie notices on handbills and oversized posters. Flint emphasized advances in technology that proprietors of traveling shows eagerly embraced as they sought to attract potential audiences by distributing greater numbers of handbills as well as displaying posters that steadily expanded to increasingly impressive sizes in the...


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pp. 105-109
Launched on MUSE
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