In our modern age we need only look around us to see the huge role advertising plays in our society. We usually ignore it, having become inured to it thanks to its overwhelming presence in public spaces. In response, advertising companies deploy a range of sophisticated techniques used to grab our attention. This escalating battle for attention has left us partly numb, unable to realize that this ubiquity is a relatively new phenomenon. Imagine dumping someone from the past into the middle of Times Square in New York. The assault on the audio and visual senses would be overwhelming, and many present day visitors stand in stunned silence at the mélange of lights and images. Of course, native New Yorkers are less impressed, and even less impressed by the people standing on the sidewalks, blocking them, gawking at the moving billboards and hundred-foot images assaulting their visual senses.
Having survived living in New York myself I believed I possessed a moderately sophisticated ability to ignore ads, especially when compared to the primitive newspapers adverts in the nineteenth century. At that time advertising took up most of the room on the pages. An eight page newspaper, for example the Scranton Republican, only contained three pages of written articles; two pages detailing national (usually syndicated) news and one on local news. At this time we start to see a change, from ads that are plain, matter-of-fact pieces of text, into more subtle or aggressive forms of advertising like the shock ad.
I was browsing local news in some nineteenth century newspapers when I came across two clever examples. Printed alongside the local news column appeared the phrase “The Chinese Must Go,” in bold large print. It almost jumped off the page at me. At first, I thought it might have been a report of a Nativist rally or a speaking tour of some kind. Reading on I realized I had been duped; “The Chinese Must Go. And so must neuralgia and rheumatism when Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil attacks them.” The advert had succeeded in grabbing my attention even after all this time. The quaint name of the potion made me laugh, and I wasn’t sure whether eclectric was an invention for the piece, some hybridization of electric and electic. It turned out to be nothing more exciting than a misprint.
You won’t find Dr. Thomas’ Eclectic Oil in the pharmacy if you ask for it, but as a product it’s not that different many other items we see on our chemist’s shelves. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has a bottle of the stuff on display. The side of the bottle lists the maladies this oil is supposed to cure. “For external and internal use. For coughs due to colds and common sore throat; for lameness and soreness of the muscles; to relieve the pains of simple neuralgia, earache and toothache; to allay inflammation in superficial bruises, cuts, burns and scalds, minor sprains, nonvenomous insect bites, frostbites, chapped hands, corns, bunions, and warts.”” What possible concoction could cure such a vast array of illnesses? The combination of spirits of turpentine, camphor, oil of tar, red thyme, and fish oil apparently. Unsurprisingly it was the camphor that makes it an effective medicine and it remained a popular ingredients well into the twentieth century.
“Shall the Women Vote,” the provocative advert questions the reader, imitating the start of a news article. It continues “This is a question which has been of late earnestly discussed. Strong minded women and weak minded men have ventilated their ideas on this subject but so far to no avail,” allows us to detect a mocking tone towards those who support extending the vote. This changes suddenly in the next line, “And yet after all why should not the ladies vote? They have quick perceptions; they possess noble impulses…” We still seem to be reading an editorial piece on the positives and negatives of universal suffrage point suffrage until our eyes scan the rest of the line, “…and they fully appreciate the medicinal qualities of HUBBELS GOLDEN BITTERS. These Bitters have really no superior in the market.”
Not all were as clever as these and many advertisements used a simple large graphic to get their point across. Transportation companies used images of trains or boats, jewelers used watches or clocks, and pesticide manufacturers used a giant image of a rat with their company logo emblazoned on the side of the creature. I’m not sure if the rat is meant to be dead in the image or not, but the giant rat tells you all you need to know without reading anything else about the company. It is also one of those advertisements that manages to reach out to the reader regardless of their literacy, or possible illiteracy.
Rounding out this overview of advertisements from nineteenth century newspapers was a rather strange combination of the two types described above.
The section in the newspaper given over to “Cherokee Cure, The Great Indian Medicine” has two separate images of Native American figures preparing this “unfailing cure” made from “roots, barks and leaves,” and these in turn are duplicated to attract the viewers attention. There are several hints that this is a advert for a snake oil. For one it proposed to cure a range of unconnected ailments and diseases. In particular the rather arbitrary “Premature Old Age” and “weak nerves,” the latter is such a broad term in this period it would be useless to define it. The ad stated the concoction has “not failed in a single instance,” an impossible claim. It also preys on those for whom medical intervention has failed “beyond the reach of moral aid,” and those who do not trust or cannot afford medical treatment, “After all quack doctors have failed.” Lastly it has only one distributor, a sole proprietor in New York at 63 Liberty St. The enterprise must have been relatively successful scam to afford such a large amount of space in the newspaper.
An important part of the advert for Cherokee Cure is the branding for the item. It obviously exacted native remedies, pitting “traditional” or “primitive” cures versus the emerging field of pharmacology. Unsurprisingly, in the unregulated market on 1860s medicine, this advert uses much of the same language as the advert for the Eclectic Oil, a move that surely helped it fool many unsuspecting customers.