Early Day Advertising

Malls and shops offer a variety of subjects for collectors

by Ken Weyand

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Discover Mid-America - April 2004

What to look for and where to find it

Malls and shops sell early-day advertising in several categories: paper ephemera, product logos, advertising specialty items, signs, posters, tins, cards, matchbook covers and much more. Reproductions are out there as well, providing eclectic items for decorators. But collectors of old advertising will find plenty of examples of the real thing. There is a “cross-over” factor that bodes well for collectors. Most collectibles were promoted at one time as new products. So the collector of old advertising has the advantage of owning many items that have cross-over value to other collectors, making the items more valuable. For example, a collector of classic cars or automobilia will always be on the lookout for old automotive advertising.

In preparing this article, I visited several shops offering good selections of old advertising. The best in our area, according to Discover Mid-America readers, is W. D. Pickers Antique Mall in Platte City, MO.

Greg Wiley, manager of W. D. Pickers Antique Mall in Platte City, says that collectors of old-time advertising are among his best customers. Photo by Ken Weyand.

Pickers is a large mall, with 120 dealers offering a huge variety of antiques. But the predominant theme is old advertising. Throughout the mall, booths and showcases are filled with examples of products of all kinds, many as old as 100 years. Signs, posters, point- of-purchase displays, labels, tags and other examples are everywhere. Several booths offer large and well-organized selections of old magazine ads, calendars, handbills and other ephemera. Old medicine and “spirits” bottles can be found. There was even a small kite with advertising for a coffee company, sponsored by a local grocer, who obviously offered the kite as a premium.

Greg Wiley, manager of the mall, said that many of the dealers had been with the mall since it opened in 1993. Why does Pickers have such a selection of old advertising? “I guess dealers specializing in old advertising tend to attract other dealers with the same interest. In other words, like attracts like.”

Something else that distinguishes Pickers is the fact that its showcases are used by long-time dealers to highlight small but frequently valuable items. Many of the products have forgotten logos dating back to the early 1900s and earlier. Greg’s father, Willard Wiley, pioneered the use of showcases in the area, and featured them when Pickers opened. Today they are a mainstay of most antique malls.

Beverly Lonski, a book dealer at W. D. Pickers Antique Mall in Platte City, Mo. Photo by Ken Weyand.

Beverly Lonski, a book dealer, has been with Pickers since the beginning. Her booth is filled with price guides and reference books relating to dozens of collecting categories. For anyone interested in collecting early-day advertising, Lonski recommends Huxford’s Collectible Advertising, now in its fourth edition. A large hardback filled with four-color photographs, the book is organized by product categories. Warman’s Advertising, published in 2000, contains nearly 5,000 listings and is organized alphabetically. “Both of these books will pay for themselves if used by a serious collector,” Lonski said. “They’re really a bargain when it comes to the amount of information they contain.”

Both the Huxford and Warman books retail for $24.95. Lonski said that most of the collector-oriented books in her booth range in price from $20 to $30.

Earliest examples of American advertising art

In Colonial days, advertising was divided into three categories: outdoor, indoor and miscellaneous press products. Outdoor ads included signboards, tavern signs and notices on public buildings. Indoors, colonials in the 18th century read weekly “News Letters” and later dailies. Miscellaneous press products included trade cards, handbills, posters, etc.


Old advertising takes many forms, such as this kite, a grocery giveaway found at W. D. Pickers Antique Mall. Photo by Ken Weyand.

In 1726, Benjamin Franklin introduced illustrations in his newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette by inserting cuts of sailing ships into notices of cargo shipments and sailings. Later, border frames and retail logos were used. Franklin is considered to be the patron saint of American advertising and the father of advertising art.

The first newspaper ads appeared in 1704 in the Boston News-Letter. In 1771, John Dunlap began publishing The Pennsylvania Packet and General Advertising and devoted the paper’s premium positions to advertising. Emblems for various trades were used: spinning wheels for dry goods merchants, mortar and pestle for a druggist, spectacles or pocket watch for a jeweler, an open book for a stationer or bookseller, etc.

Scarcities in newsprint led to downsizing — and elimination — of newspapers in the early 1800s. Ads were restricted to legal notices and a minimum of artwork. They were monotonous and hard to read.

Wood engravings were used first to print advertising art. Although copperplate engraving was used for short-run printing, the woodcuts continued through most of the 1800s. Rugged and plain depictions of log cabins, plug hats, stagecoaches, covered wagons, schooners on wild seas, etc. became the standard cuts used by printers to embellish advertising.


Other ad forms were developing, including hand-painted signs on brick walls, boards carried by “sandwich men,” and banners, pennants, etc. on wagons. P. T. Barnum, the famed promoter, used garishly-printed handbills and circulars to advertise the sale of lottery tickets and later museum admissions. Ad styles underwent big changes in the 1840s. Elaborate visual effects were used, including zebra-like stripings, exaggerated shadings creating a three-dimensional effect and bizarre patterns simulating building materials, etc. The excesses of the 1840s are evident in circus posters and other handbills of the period.

A Kellogg cereal ad on display at the River Market Antique Mall in KansasCity, Mo.

City directories were popular, combining residential listings with display ads for merchants. Samuel Clemons, working with his brother, published a directory in Keokuk, Iowa, before pursuing his writing career under the penname of Mark Twain.

About the same time, a series of “literary annuals,” gaudily gold stamped books covered in Moroccan leather or brocade, became popular in the mid-1800s. They contained many elaborate display ads for a variety of retail stores, usually in full-page formats. Often the size and heft of family Bibles, the annuals could be found in many libraries and sitting rooms.

During the Civil War, demand for war news caused newspapers to expand and proliferate. Advertising became an accepted means of stimulating business. Many ads would employ nationalistic themes, represented by eagles, banners and other patriotic motifs.

After the Civil War, the development of the cylinder press revolutionized printing and made possible colorful, high quality pictorials. Best examples are Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s Weekly, which can sometimes be found in malls and shops. Magazines began gaining prominence, including Peterson’s, which boasted a circulation of 140,000 in 1869.

Other advertising was accomplished by high quality posters, often produced by stone lithography.

One collector’s theater posters

For more than 30 years, a janitor and handy-man at the Grand Opera House in Keokuk, Iowa, collected and stored advertisements of the acts that played there. The eight-color, stone lithographed posters measured about 28 x 35 inches on average. Printed in New York, Boston, Baltimore and other eastern cities, they would be shipped to the theaters prior to the performances. Subjects of the posters were musicians, drama groups and German “karl” (comedy) companies — many of them one-nighters. A smaller “tag” announcing the dates of the production would be pasted on the larger poster, which would be displayed in the theater lobby.

From the early 1880s until the early 1900s, the janitor (whose name is lost to history) took down the posters, bundled them together in large rolls and stored them in a back room. His friend, a captain of a Mississippi River excursion boat, eventually inherited the posters and stored them in his garage. In his later years the captain was treated by his friend and physician, Dr. B. C. Kappmeyer, who became the posters’ new owner when the captain died. The physican was my father-in-law and passed them on to me in the late 1960s.

The years had not treated the pulp paper kindly. Fragile and brittle with age, the posters were literally falling apart. Mice had nibbled and dirtied them, and mildew had left stains of its own. Of the original 50 to 60 posters, only 35 or so could be salvaged. Of these, I had ten dry-mounted on foamcore. Half of these were matted and framed.

My sporadic attempts at researching the subjects of the posters were futile until the 1990s, when Fred Lee, writer for Explore Kansas City, wrote an article about the Grand Opera House in Kansas City. One of the performers, described as “Dainty Patti Rosa,” starred in “Dolly Varden,” a musical which offered “a liberal interpretation of songs, dances and musical specialties.” The musical was advertised in the Kansas City Journal in 1891.

Patti Rosa was one of the performers featured in my theater poster collection. Chubby and topped with a large mop of red hair, Patti looked young — probably a teenager. The billing at the top of the poster, printed by Central Lithograph Company in New York, called Patti the “Queen of Comedy.”

Other companies represented in the posters include “Mr. Chas. Arnold as Hans the Boatman,” “Harry Webber in Nip & Tuck, Detectives,” “M. B. Curtis in His New Play, Spotcash,” and Miss Lizzie Hollywood, with the Hollywood Opera Company.” All are charming and reflect the innocence and sweetness of the Victorian era.

Other advertising reflects changes in America’s lifestyle

As advertising entered the 1900s it left behind the world of quack medicine sellers and took on more respectability as a necessary tool of modern business. Marketplace competition drove advertisers to create display ads that would capture the attention of readers and sell the product. As the 1900s moved ahead, ads in trade publications, newspapers and magazines revealed the changing lifestyles of a nation that was moving from a rural to an urban economy.

A page from The Delineator magazine, circa 1891, from the personal collection of Ken Weyand.

Looking back at some of the early ads can be instructive as to how far our society has come in dealing with its diversity. A full page ad in the February 1920 Ladies Home Journal would be shocking and unbelievably insensitive if printed today. Sponsored by the “Fashion Publicity Company,” in conjunction with Amalgamated Leather Companies, Inc., based in New York City, the ad promoted women’s boots made with colored kid, or goatskin. The headline informed readers that “COLORED KIDS make a costume vastly more attractive.” To make its point, the clever ad writers showed a smartly dressed lady pulling up her skirt in horror to reveal her stylish boots as a mechanical mouse darted by. It was pulled on a long string by two highly stereotyped African American children, crouching in the background.

Ads for beer and other alcoholic beverages went through a metamorphosis in the 1900s, as did cigarette ads. Beer advertising at the turn of the century touted the beverage as a food product, practically essential to a balanced diet. Cigarette advertising, in addition to depicting smokers as paragons of style and nonchalance, extolled the virtues of each brand’s taste and qualities for promoting relaxation.

Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at kweyand@gbronline.com.

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