The Art of American Advertising

Harvard Business School's Baker Library is hosting a historical exhibit that examines the advertising industry in a bygone era.
by Carmen Nobel

Harvard Business School's Baker Library is hosting a historical exhibit that examines the advertising industry in a bygone era, when marketers still had to depend on printed materials to capture consumer attention.

The Art of American Advertising, 1865-1910 showcases the types of ads that appeared in the years following the Civil War—when the railroad industry created a new, national network for manufacturing and distributing consumer goods. (These were the days when "posting" referred to hanging posters on the sides of buildings.) The exhibit includes trade cards, trade catalogs, posters, broadsides, circulars, brochures, souvenir publications, and novelty items along with trade journals and other publications. It will be on display in the north lobby of Baker Library | Bloomberg Center at Harvard Business School until April 5.

Sugar Cured Hams. Nelson Morris & Co. Trade Card. Photo: Bates Trade Card Collection, Harvard Business School

"The challenges that marketers faced as the United States grew into a national market because of changes in transportation and communication were similar to those of today," said Benson P. Shapiro, the Malcolm P. McNair Professor of Marketing, Emeritus, and an adviser on the exhibit. "Many firms competed for the attention and affection of customers. And, whole new kinds of media burst on the scene. This meant that marketers needed to be particularly nimble and creative."

While the items may seem quaint compared with modern marketing techniques, the Reconstruction Era actually shared some advertising commonalities with the dot-com boom.

"The rise of the Internet in the 1990s had an enormous impact on global business and industry, setting off an explosion of online advertisements as the American advertising industry experimented with new ways of reaching consumers and established new models of working," said Laura Linard, director of special collections at Baker Library. The late nineteenth century witnessed a comparable dramatic shift. "Booming industrialization and growth in per capita income fueled commercial expansion and the emergence of the American consumer market, spurring on manufacturers and businesses to produce a fantastic variety of printed materials to advertise their products."

In addition to Shapiro, HBS faculty who acted as advisers were Alvin J. Silk, Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus; and Walter A. Friedman, Lecturer of Business Administration, and Director, Business History Initiative.

"The exhibit is a wonderful demonstration of this innovation and creativity," Shapiro said. "One can see all kinds of similarities between the challenges and approaches in that time period and the ones of today. In addition, the advertising material is beautiful, stimulating, and interesting. The wonderful display in Baker Library is an easy and exciting way to learn about the history of marketing communication with strong implications for today's marketers."

View the exhibit

Lee & Shepherd Poster. Photo: Advertising Ephemera Collection, Harvard Business School
A.G. Spalding & Bros. Manufacturers Catalog. Photo: Advertising Ephemera Collection, Harvard Business School


About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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    • Jim Winkelmann
    • Manager, Blue Ocean Portfolios, LLC
    To be effective advertising must draw attention, and resonate with enough of the audience to instill message. More psychology involved than most of us business managers would like to admit. The "RPM" of advertising:
    Resonate - message must resonate with the right target.
    Persistence - is must be persistently presented to the target.
    Monitor - must be able to monitor ROI on spend.
    American business represents almost an endless string of advertising successes; Proctor & Gamble, Coca Cola, Anheuser Busch to name a few and it can make a marginal product or service appear to be superior - "When EF Hutton speaks people listen." It can even cure previously unknown and whimsical diseases; Halitosis was invented by Listerine. I am convinced that erectile dysfunction was created by Pfizer because they had the cure in Viagra. Nobody even knew what ED was before 1998. Advertising remains the most interesting part of American business.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Advertising is a great art and well thought of advertisements hit the target audience. The images displayed in this article show how this art has developed over times.
    The paintings included by the author are a treat for the eye and the intellect.