Pioneers of Promotion: How Press Agents for Buffalo Bill, P. T. Barnum, and the World's Columbian Exposition Created Modern Marketing by Joe Dobrow
By Joe Dobrow. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. vii + 382 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $32.95, cloth.
Every spectacle has an aging star or two and, behind the scenes, the stagehands who help make the stars shine anew. For Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, we immediately remember the iconic William Cody. Joe Dobrow takes us backstage and reminds us to remember John Burke, the show's manager and marketer. Do-brow also examines the advertising achievements of Richard Francis "Tody" Hamilton, who made Jumbo famous in the Barnum & Bailey Circus (which performed its last show in 2017), and newspaper man and 1893 World's Fair promoter Moses P. Handy. William Gilpin and other western boosters also get a chapter. As part of the William F. Cody Series on the History and Culture of the American West, [End Page 109] Pioneers of Promotion unsurprisingly gives most attention to Burke, whom Dobrow calls a "founding father of the marketing industry" (10).
If William Cody was the hero, John Burke was the mythmaker. Yet the latter is buried in an unmarked grave and all but forgotten. Cody's legend and legacy as Buffalo Bill, the western scout and Indian fighter, "would never have come to pass without the trailblazing promotional efforts" of Burke, which began in the early 1870s. Techniques Burke helped develop during his forty-five-year connection with Cody include "celebrity endorsements, press junkets and press kits, publicity stunts, op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, mobile billboards, custom publishing, product licensing deals" (334). Stretching scant biographical sources on Burke—chiefly newspaper editorials—Dobrow breathes life into his character. More significant is that Dobrow gives Burke agency where other scholars have overlooked him. For example, historians routinely acknowledge the marketable significance of Mark Twain's 1884 "open letter" lauding the Wild West. However, this letter appeared in multiple newspapers only because of a "truly novel" act by Burke. He "realized what a goldmine Twain's testimonial represented" and forwarded the celebrity endorsement to his friends and contacts in the press (146–52).
Pioneers of Promotion is long and probably two books in one with its sprawling subject matter. But it is written with a wide audience in mind, and readers will be educated and entertained. People interested in marketing history will appreciate its attention to late nineteenth-century publicity innovations—and the inclusion of several color plates—while those familiar with postcolonial scholarship on nineteenth-century entertainment will be disappointed with Dobrow's uncritical treatment of John Burke and other men who promoted colonialism on stage. Burke advertised the Wild West as educational, imitating life in the Great Plains and transforming audience members into witnesses of the frontier experience, a stance Dobrow takes at face value. Still, Dobrow's book helps demystify the popularity and enduring memory of the Wild West, World Columbian Exposition, and the Greatest Show on Earth. Dobrow demonstrates that asking novel questions about seemingly well-worn topics nuances our historical understanding and makes these topics shine anew.