Overview of Racism in Nineteenth-Century Advertising
Since the colonization by Europeans of the geopolitical area that became the United States, advertising was used by the ruling elite (those with political, economic, and cultural power) to disseminate images that upheld their hegemony while demeaning the political, social, economic, and cultural positions of the powerless segments of society. In the headlines and illustrations of colonial newspapers, images of blacks and American Indians, and later Chinese and Irish, in product advertisements used blatant derogatory caricatures and idealized views of characteristics, such as noble savagery, that benefited whites. Runaway slave advertisements in newspapers and handbills showed that slaveholders regarded blacks, whether free or enslaved, as subhuman. Obviously there were no roles for
African Americans to play in the advertising industry from the period of enslavement to the mid-twentieth century. The exclusion of African Americans in the industry was biased, because it was based primarily on entrenched institutional racism and bigotry, as well as attempts by the ruling elite to economically dis- empowered blacks. By implementing such an agenda, the elite unscrupulously reinforced their racial superiority over Africans and other ethnic minorities in the United States.
Created by Franklin Green, in 1869. Courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Charles L. Blockson
As property, enslaved Africans had no agency and therefore could not affect the depictions of blacks in advertising. Free blacks who acquired land and wealth were too few to affect how blacks were portrayed in media advertisements. As resistance to slavery and lack of fundamental rights for blacks gained momentum, both black and white abolitionists and political leaders fought for accurate portrayal of Africans in American society. But the dehumanization of blacks and other minorities remained characteristic of advertising in newspapers and other media in the United States and persisted into the twentieth century.
No date. Courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Charles L. Blockson Afro- American Collection.
A review of advertisements involving blacks showed that the word “boy” or “girl” was customarily used to describe the person or persons, no matter their age. Some differences in content are discernible by geographical locale that relate to the identity of blacks and other minorities. Refusing to accord blacks the status of adulthood, the derogatory “boy” or “girl” terminology persisted into the twentieth century. Physical descriptions included the terms mulatto, quadroon, octoroon, etc., a 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.
Images of African Americans were popularly used as logos for products, such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and others. Before 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:
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 ... 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 (33—34).