Your history books will tell you that the advertising industry as we know it in was born in the 1920s. Your television will tell you that it really took shape in the 1960s. The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives own several scrapbooks which show that some aspects of our modern advertising industry were born much earlier. The current Library display exhibition at the Museum Library includes one of these scrapbooks, a number of loose tradecards advertising various businesses, many of them in Brooklyn, as well as books and postcards.
The items on display are a small selection of many items that have been digitized as a part of the CHART project. This project (Cultural Heritage, Access, Research and Technology) is a collaboration with The Pratt Institute, The Brooklyn Historical Society, and The Brooklyn Public Library with funding from The Institute of Museum and Library Sciences. The CHART project is intended to provide online access to images relating to the history of Brooklyn, such as a collection of tradecards advertising Brooklyn businesses.
"Trade Card. Lang and Nau. 292 and 294 Fulton Street. Brooklyn. Recto." Printed material, 4.5 x 5.9in (11.5 x 15cm). Brooklyn Museum, CHART_2012. (Photo: Sackett, Wilhelms and Betzig, HF5841_C59_v4_p19a_tradecard_Lang_Nau_recto.jpg)
These cards show many of the same trends seen in advertising today: idealized images of beautiful homes and women, cute ones of children and animals, and tempting ones of exotic places. Advertisements like that for Lang and Nau, shown above, show beautiful homes to advertise their furniture. The idealized nature of the scene with a woman glancing back at the viewer while she glides up the stairs is intended to inspire you to outfit your home with the same furniture. During the 19th century, there was a movement in the United States and England called The Cult of Domesticity. This movement emphasized piety, purity, submission, and domesticity as the ideals of womanhood. The movement was popular in middle and upper class white households (the target audience for a card such as this one) and encompassed the belief that the woman’s place was in the home and that it was her duty to make that home a haven. This card from Lang and Nau uses this popular movement to its advantage by representing the perfect home and woman.
But, like today, images of the ideal cultural norm were balanced by images of ideal desire. While we would hardly call a glimpse of ankle risqué today (as is shown in the Cowperthwait Furniture and Carpets tradecard below), it was the late nineteenth century’s equivalent to a skimpy bikini.
"Tradecard. Coperthwait & Carpets. Brooklyn, NY. Recto." Printed material, 3.25 x 5.5 in (8.1 x 14 cm). Brooklyn Museum, CHART_2012 (HF5841_C59_v1_p43_tradecard04_recto.jpg)
Like many advertisements today, the image also has very little relation to what it is advertising. There is what appears to be a piece of furniture at the lower left, but otherwise there is nothing to associate the image with furniture and carpets. Instead of showing examples of their wares as was done in the Lang and Nau tradecard, Cowperthwait has taken up the adage ‘sex sells.’ But sex is not the only thing that sells. Cuteness has also demonstrated an enduring appeal.
"Tradecard. Henry Bullwinkel, Grocer. Cor Gates and Summer Avenues. Brooklyn, NY. Recto." Printed material, 4.45 x 3 in (11.2 x 7.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, CHART_2012. (HF5841_C59_v1_p15_tradecard01_recto.jpg)
This tradecard for Henry Bullwinkel, like the previous card, depicts a scene with no relation to what is being advertised. An advertisement for a Grocer, the image is of a cat and four kittens with some household items. While not something that prompts you to think of food, like many advertisements today it is selling the store through a depiction of something people like rather than one of what is being sold.
Scenes of children are especially popular in this collection. The time period was one that emphasized the importance of home life and domesticity. The associated interest in children and their place in the home manifested itself in idealized images full of innocence.
"Tradecard. Henry Bristow. 296 Fulton St. Brooklyn, NY. Verso." Printed material, 4 x 6.25 in (10.1 x 16 cm). Brooklyn Museum, CHART_2011. (HF5841_Ad9_p06_tradecard04_recto.jpg)
This card shows four sweet scenes of children using the scissors, and even incorporates a cat and a puppy. The card also incorporates another popular sales campaign: the guarantee. The back reads:
IT PAYS TO BUY THE BEST. Especially is this the case when purchasing a pair of Scissors. We give each customer the following warranty: We hearby warrant every pair of Terry's Scissors or Shears for six months. If not as represented, return them with this warrant and your money will be refunded. Henry Bristow, 294 Fulton Street, Brooklyn.
The scenes are meant to attract the eye with their charming nature and sweet depictions of children using the scissors (perhaps not always as they should) and the unlimited warranty is then meant to seal the deal. This advertisement entices the viewer by showing the product as part of everyday life and then tells them there is no risk in the purchase.
In contrast to this, some advertisements sell the appeal of the exotic and unknown.
"Trade card. Kevork G.H. Sinnan. 223 1/2 Fulton Street. Brooklyn" Printed material, 3.5 x 4.6in (8.89 x 11.68cm). Brooklyn Museum, CHART_2012. (HF5841_C59_v3_p39b_tradecard_Kevork_GH_Sinnan.jpg)
Some cards, like this one for Kevork G.H. Sinnan, incorporate exotic images for logical reasons; the card advertises a bazaar selling Chinese and Japanese items with a Japanese image. However, similar to the images of animals and children, sometimes the allure of the exotic is used without any connection to the store or product being advertised. China and Egypt make frequent appearances in the scrapbook, demonstrating the power of the allure of the Far East. Some cards use foreign images to show the universal appeal of their product. The second volume includes a group of tradecards advertising Singer sewing machines, each of which shows people in traditional costumes with their sewing machine. The cards do not advertise the Singer Company overtly, the only text on the cards is a label of the place whose people are being shown. Instead, the cards draw you in with thoughts of the place and foreign travel; only a closer examination of the image will show that the machine depicted is a Singer.
This wonderful collection of tradecards demonstrates that some aspects of human nature, and how those characteristics can be used to sell, have been around for over a hundred years.
Katy Christensen, Guest Blogger, The Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives
Katy is a lifelong Brooklynite with a masters in Library and Information Science from The Pratt Institute. She is currently employed as a tutor for The Brooklyn Learning Center and has been volunteering as a guest blogger for The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives since July 2011.