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Getting the Word Out
by Bob Brooke


In ancient towns and cities most citizens were illiterate, so town-criers got the word out by calling out official announcements and general news. At the same time, itinerant hawkers walked the streets, crying out to passersby about their goods and services.

The first written advertisement dates back to a papyrus from 3,000 BCE in Thebes, Egypt. A slaveholder, trying to find his runaway slave, also promoted his weaving shop. While the form may have changed over the centuries, the intent has not.

Sellers in ancient times verbally advertised their products in the marketplace. Later, they found carved signs worked better and sales increased. Today, advertising takes many forms, from print to display to promotional items.

The Printing Press Changed Things
Newspapers and magazines began printing advertisements in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first weekly gazettes appeared in Venice in the early 16th-century. From there, the concept of a weekly publication spread to Italy, Germany and Holland. In Britain, the first weeklies appeared in the 1620s, and that country's first daily newspaper, The Daily Courant ran from 1702 to 1735. The ads that ran in these papers were usually for quack medicines but the variety of products promoted soon grew.

On this side of the Atlantic, the first newspaper advertisement appeared in 1704. Then in the early 1800s, billboards came into existence and brands began to use them to promote the value of their products.

Advances in printing allowed retailers and manufacturers to print handbills and trade cards. The earliest trade cards weren’t cards at all, Instead, printers produced them on paper and didn’t include illustrations. By the 18th century, however, printers began cranking them out on more substantial card stock which typically bore the tradesman's name and address. Before street numbering came into common use, trade cards often included long-winded sets of directions on how to locate the store or premises. With the advent of commercial engraving and lithography, illustrations became a standard feature of even the most humble trade card. Eventually, trade cards evolved into business cards, which businesses still use today.

Business owners in the 19th century considered direct advertising, which reached out directly to potential customers, but it was expensive. Many businesses instead preferred indirect advertising because it was more affordable. It dealt more with promoting a product or service rather than the business, itself— for example, a large poster in the window of a shop.

Sears became the first company to focus more on direct advertising when they launched their first direct mail campaign in 1892. The company posted more than 8,000 postcards that generated 2,000 new orders. This encouraged other organizations to increase their advertising budgets.

But advertising took a whole new turn when radio stations and television appeared on the scene. By the beginning of the 20th century, more than 30 percent of people around the world used them. At this time, ads began to feel more personalized, as communication now occurred directly between the customer and the brand.

In 1922, the first radio ads hit the airwaves. But it wasn’t until 1941 that 4,000 consumers first viewed a 10-second ad for the Bullova Watch Company on television. That sparked the Golden Age of Advertising in which businesses invested heavily in advertisements to promote their brand’s uniqueness while engaging their target audience.

  In the 1950s, brands started introducing characters just so advertisements would resonate with their audiences. For example, Kellogg's introduced cartoon mascot Tony the Tiger to promote Frosted Flakes breakfast cereal. Many brands started focusing more on increasing their brand awareness with advertising instead of being strictly focused on sales.

But there’s always been a major difference between advertising and promotion. Advertising has always been a one-way communication whose purpose has been to inform potential customers about products and services and how to obtain them. Promotion, on the other hand, has always involved distributing information about a product, brand, or company. Promotions usually last for a specific time period while advertising generally lasts longer.

Promotional items have long held a premier place in the advertising realm in America. The first promotional item in U.S. history was a commemorative button made for George Washington in the election of 1789. Due to the success of his campaign, promotional items like almanacs, calendars, rules, and wood specialties slowly became available.

Historians credit Jasper Meek as the father of the promotional products industry. In the late 1800s, Meeks was a newspaperman who wanted to keep his presses running during slow times. He then started printing burlap bags with advertising messages. A local shoe store then gave them to school children to promote his business.

Promotional products have come a long way since Washington’s election button. Over the last 100 years or so, items like funeral fans, pens, beverage serving trays, coffee mugs, and matchbook covers have carried messages about one product or another out to the public.

The Allure of Advertiques
“Advertiques,” or objects with some sort of advertising, are popular with collectors. It’s not unusual for collectors to pay big bucks for some of the larger and rarer items. And the variety of objects available is great, enabling collectors of every financial level to assemble a fine collection.

Manufacturers in the 19th century couldn’t resist employing useful items to promote their products, for at the time, promoting products was the key, unlike today where promoting the benefits to consumer is more the style. String holders, ashtrays, fans—all served as a promotional medium.

Advertising wasn’t limited to just trade cards, posters, and signs, originally used to advertise a business. Objects, like coffee mills, flour and coffee bins, and gum and candy machines, on the other hand, promoted a product. All were necessary to the functioning grocery or dry goods store of the late-19th and early 20th centuries.

One reason collectors like these “advertiques” is that advertising is a vital part of doing business today. With other types of antiques, both the object and its function are now obsolete. But the advertising techniques used by business have changed very little since the late 19th century. Posters, free samples, and mass advertising are still in as much use today as they were over 125 years ago.

One of the most widely collected form of promotion was the advertising poster. These first appeared in the late 18th century as black-and-white woodcuts. But the introduction of lithography in the 1850s led to a proliferation of brightly colored tin and paper posters.

While most people probably couldn’t recall any 19th-century advertising poster, there’s one that older people still remember from their childhood—the circus poster. Color lithography helped to spread the news of upcoming shows across the country.

Trade cards were miniature versions of advertising posters. Business owners paid small boys a few pennies to hand these out to passersby. These cards urged to recipient to a product, such as a cologne, or a patent medicine, or directed him or her to a specific store that sold the product.

Every grocery store had a least one coffee mill in which to ground roasted beans. Some of these cast-iron behemoths stood as tall as four feet, were handpainted in bright colors, and often bore the name of a particular brand of coffee. Today, the Coca Cola, vending machine, with the name “Coca Cola” emblazoned on its facade, does much the same sort of promotion.

Wholesalers provided store owners with bins to hold flour, tea, and coffee—all featuring the brand name of a the product. One of the most popular with collectors were the sturdy oak cabinets that displayed Diamond Dyes and Coates Spool Thread. Coffee and tin bins, usually made of tin, featured colorful lithographed decoration, featuring everything from exotic locales to American warships. There were other dispensers, also. Wooden boxes with colorful lithographed labels held biscuits.

All of these objects bore an advertiser’s message. The blackboard that displayed the daily prices for eggs and butter came from a wholesaler, as did the string dispenser used to wrap meats at the meat counter. There were also match safes, calendars, and even thermometers—all with bearing an advertiser’s name.

Some items had practical uses, such as serving and tip trays. Most brewers had metal trays made to serve beverages in taverns and soda fountains. Collectors today seek them out for their colorful graphics and sentimental renditions of popular scenes.

To promote hair and beauty care products, manufacturers gave away tiny tin-and-glass mirrors, each bearing an advertiser’s message. They often featured the likenesses of famous stage actors and later movie stars.

While not as common as tin or paper promotional items, pottery advertising memorabilia, such as stoneware jugs were also popular. Jugs bearing the name of a distiller or brewery or a soda like Hires Root Beer are favorites with collectors. Cereal bowls promoting Cream of Wheat feature images of the famous 20th-Century Limited train while sets of dishes promoted Buster Brown Shoes.

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