The History of Race in Advertising

In a historical retrospective, Frank Presbrey states that advertising, just like the white inhabitants of the United States, evolved in Europe, and that “there is no record that it arrived on the Mayflower except as we may assume that the uses of the signboard and the printed pamphlet were familiar to men who had lived in England or the Netherlands during the first quarter of the seventeenth century” (Presbrey 1929: 113). Presbrey explains further the historical development of advertising in America,

America’s original settlers came with no knowledge of such a thing as a newspaper, though they may have seen the printed news pamphlets of irregular issue that began to appear in Europe in the sixteenth century. John Smith’s party left England fifteen years before the earliest regularly issued newsbook was published there. The Dutch had been in New Amsterdam five years before the Amsterdam Courant was born at home and twenty-six years before the friends they left behind saw the Harlem Courant. The Mayflower sailed nearly two years before the initial issue of London’s Weekly News, and the Pilgrim fathers knew nothing of a newsbook unless those who had been in Holland had seen the Amsterdam Courant, first published in 1619.The first of the old English shopbills date from about 1630, and they were not common until many years later. Accordingly the signboard and the pamphlet probably were the only forms of business announcement other than oral of which the earliest colonists had any knowledge. It was of course years before the settlements in the American colonies had progressed to a point where even that primitive kind of advertising, the signboard, began to appear. Hence from the 17th century onward, advertising in different forms (i.e. outdoor signs, figures of leading colonial personalities, pictorial signs) which permeated the colonial America until it disappeared in 1884, when other forms of advertising were developed (113—17).

By the late eighteenth century the printing industry was established in the colonies:

The first printing press in Pennsylvania was established in 1685, and the Philadelphia printing industry dominated eighteenth-century publishing. The limitations of the American market meant that colonial American printing was not technically advanced by European standards. Anglo-Americans seeking the services of fine printers and bookmak- ers—for example cartographers looking for printers for their maps—continued to turn to London (Burns 2005: 90).

Thus, the development of African American identity as it relates to media and multicultural marketing evolved in two geopolitical regions: Europe and colonial America.

When Benjamin Franklin and his friend Hugh Meredith became owners of the Pennsylvania Gazette, formerly the Universal Instructor in All the Arts and Sci?ences and Pennsylvania Gazette, they embarked on advertising first by shortening the paper’s long name. This is the basis of the familiar editorial page portrait of Franklin and the words “Founded A.D. 1728” in the Saturday Evening Post. The advertising giant of the age is a lineal descendant of Benjamin Franklin’s periodical of news and essays (Presbrey 1929: 132). African American identity in advertising became an integral part of advertising industries in the colonies. For example, “In the Pennsylvania Gazette, as elsewhere, however, runaway slaves were the subjects of many advertisements. In the first years of American journalism the runaway slave appears to have been the mainstay of the business office” (133). Franklin, who developed displays and new classes of advertisements of a variety of products also bought bond servants’ “indentures and advertised them as well as negro slaves, though later in life he learned to dislike and distrust the institution of slavery” (137).

A review of advertisements involving blacks showed that the word “boy” or “girl” was customarily used to describe a person, no matter what age. This derogatory terminology, refusing to accord blacks the status of adulthood, persisted into the twentieth century. Physical descriptions included the terminology “mulatto,” “quadroon,” “octoroon,” etc., part of the nascent skin color prejudice that also plagued African American identity. Due to the need of accuracy in the attempt to recover a runaway slave, the advertisements described attributes pertaining to work and artistic skills that reveal accomplishments of Africans in mastering a trade or other professions.

By the late eighteenth century the Industrial Revolution introduced lithography to American printing, a technological advance that allowed publishers to improve their technical work, print sophisticated images in black and later color, and print more cheaply by use of machines rather than manual labor. Arrays of products were available that were manufactured for use by all socioeconomic classes, not just the wealthy. Advertisers devised ingenious slogans, images, and logos to persuade people (consumers) into buying products. Presbrey writes that in the first sixty years of the nineteenth century advertising flourished, with “the first American advertising agents” including “Volney B. Palmer, with offices in Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and John L. Hooper, who had his office in New York” (Presbrey 1929: 261). These two advertising pioneers started their enterprises in the 1840s with “only a year or two difference in their starting dates. Palmer’s three offices passed to as many different owners in the early 1950s. Hooper remained in business for thirty years” (261).

According to Presbrey, when the Civil War began about twenty advertising agents, including “Peaslee & Co.,” a name under which L. F Shattuck operated, were operating in New York and half as many elsewhere in the United States. From the era of the Civil War to the dawn of the twentieth century, advertising became national in scope and began to cater to government and corporations as well as individuals. For example, Shattuck aroused the envy of other agents by obtaining the business of advertising the government’s war loan. Another agent had been selected by Jay Cooke, whose success in marketing the government’s loans forms a brilliant chapter in America’s financial history, but Shattuck’s agency was given the business on the recommendation of Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury. The bond-issue advertising was placed in every American newspaper Shattuck or the Treasury Department found—newspapers not covered in the first mailing quickly identified themselves by writing to government officials—and the copy must have appeared in some four or five thousand papers, at card rates. When the war ended, “the bonds of the first Pacific railroads were widely advertised and sold to the general public by Shattuck, also” (Presbrey 1929: 264).

Another influence that started to make advertising history in the 1860s was the “patent inside,” an idea said to have been used ten years earlier in England. Several editors of small weeklies published near Milwaukee, deprived by the Civil War of their printing assistants, appealed to the job office of the Milwaukee Evening Wisconsin for aid in getting out their papers. The Evening Wisconsin filled two pages with reading matter from its column, printed these pages on one side of the sheet, and shipped them to the country town, where the editor managed to set enough local items and advertisements to fill the outside pages. It occurred to A. J. Aikens, part owner of the Evening Wisconsin, that if two county papers had applied for this kind of help there must be others in need of it, and he circularized an effort to papers in nearby counties. Some twenty accepted with alacrity, paying for paper and printing, and something for the general news matter lifted from the Evening Wisconsin’s forms (Presbrey 1929: 272, 274). Since all the papers were located near Milwaukee, Aikens encouraged the city’s merchants to advertise in them.

Equally important, A. N. Kellogg of Baraboo, Wisconsin, went to Chicago and set up there in this new business. He also started a plant in Chicago, where better railroad facilities in more directions gave a wider field for the enterprise. This was the origin of the “Kellogg Lists” and the Newspaper Unions, which eventually established printing plants at the larger railroad centers over the country; the end-of-the-century advertiser could send copy to one of them and have it appear in about 10,000 country papers. One of Kellogg’s solicitors beginning in 1872 was W. W. Hallock, to whom is due no small measure of credit for development of “patent inside” advertising. “Mr. Hallock in 1878 became Eastern representative of the Kellogg Lists, and in 1928 is still actively at work, with the extraordinary record of fifty-six years of service, during which the country weeklies and smalltown dailies have received through him untold millions of advertising” (Presbrey 1929: 274). By the 1930s, the foundation was established with large-scale adver?tising for such enterprises as “the Eastman Kodak Company, Sears, Roebuck & Co., the Quaker Oats Company, the Shredded Wheat Company, Postum Cereal Company, H. L. Heinz, Gold Dust, the National Biscuit Company and others of similar size and prestige in 1928” (360).

Images of African Americans were popularly used as logos for products— such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and others. Prior to and after the Civil War, racist overtones in advertising were the norm. When the war ended, “blacks were free to begin their own communities, own their own homes, open businesses, and become members of the buying public—a viable consumer market. Their status in society changed, but this was not reflected in the advertising prevalent during the period. Most advertisers created campaigns targeted toward white audiences; they used blacks in their advertising, but in demeaning and stereotypical postures that appeal to the white society” (Kern-Foxworth 1994: 29).

Marilyn Kern-Foxworth offers an historical account of African Americans in advertising with the advent of lithography:

African Americans began appearing regularly in advertising during the 1870s when color lithography was originally used to print trade cards. The cards varied greatly in size and color contrast, as well as subject matter, although sports figures and ethnic humor were the two most popular motifs. The cards were given to the purchasers of articles such as shoes, thread, and other household items, especially during the Victorian era. The cards became valuable collectibles and sometimes family members would paste them into albums like photos. The subjects varied, with sports figures and black humor being two of the most popular topics. The first large-scale use of blacks in advertising actually came with the introduction of trade cards. Ranging from wallet size to post card size and larger, trade cards featuring blacks surfaced in early 1800s as lithographers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore began printing cards for nearly every product manufactured. Enjoying their greatest popularity between 1870 and 1900, some of the cards depicted blacks in a positive manner, but others were blatantly racist (1994: 33, 34).

In her discussion of advertising from 1900 to the mid-1960s, Kern-Foxworth found that negative advertising images of blacks remained prevalent in American society. The logos of the late nineteenth century had become permanent icons in most American homes.

It was difficult to prepare a meal without using food products featuring a stereotypical images of pickaninny, black mammy, or black Sambo. In other words, the use of blacks in pejorative and stereotypical advertising kept them emotionally bound to the idiosyncratic whims of their former masters. With advertising, former slave owners became masters over different objects. They made them subservient. They made them docile. They made them act stupid. They made them appeared ignorant. They made them ugly. They made them grotesque. They made them want to be white. These symbols not only continued but proliferated around the turn of the century with the overwhelming success of Uncle Ben, The Gold Dust Twins, Rastus and Aunt Jemima (Kern-Foxworth 1994: 40-41).

Kern-Foxworth also asserts that the value of black collectibles, items like trade cards and household products, grew considerably over the years. Value was related to how insulting the image and accompanying text were to blacks; the greater the insult the higher the value. The most prized images depicted blacks in compromising positions, and the visages were extremely exaggerated: large heads, thick lips, pop eyes, and huge teeth (34).

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