Tag Archives: advertising

Microhistories used to be about People

The book that convinced/inspired me to be a historian was Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, which teased out the cosmology of a sixteenth-century northern Italian miller named Menocchio through his encounters with the Venetian Inquisition. Ginzburg’s ability to get inside the head of a sixteenth-century, semi-literate person was awe-inspiring to me when I first read this book as an undergraduate, and it still is: I regularly assign it to my own undergraduates. Ginzburg was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most famous pioneer, of a historical methodology called microhistory, in which the scope and scale of inquiry is so narrowed that the impact of historical events and forces is revealed through an almost-intimate perspective. Microhistories have the added benefit of giving agency–and presence– to people who might not otherwise appear in history books:  Menocchio, the peasants of a medieval Pyrenean village who also come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition in Emmanuel de Le Roy’s Montaillou:  the Promised Land of Error, a litigious Italian couple in Gene Brucker’s Giovanni and Lusanna:  Love and Marriage in the Renaissance, a London lathe-worker in Paul Seaver’s Wallington’s World:  a Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-century London, a Maine midwife working just after the American Revolution in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard based on her diary, 1785–1812.

I could go on and on listing classic microhistories, but as I was putting together my syllabi for this semester one macrohistorical trend became blatantly clear to me: while the first examples of this genre were all about people, the latest (and most popular) are all about things. Rather than examining a precise place in time through the prism of one person’s life, we are now invited to partake of the history of the world from the perspective of beverages (Tom Standage’s History of the World in 6 Glasses), sugar (several books, beginning with Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: the place of Sugar in Modern History), salt (Mark Kurlansky, Salt: a World History), pretty much every other spice including NUTMEG (Giles Morton, Nathaniel‘s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History–actually this book focuses on the man as much as the spice), drugs (David Courtwright, Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World), and stuff (Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects). It seems to me that consumerism is definitely defeating humanism in historical studies: we are now what we seek and eat.

World History

Sarah Tyson Rorer, ed., Cereal Foods and How to Cook Them (1899); Duke University Digital Collections

 


Paper Shadows

When I found the hand shadow trade card for Salem furrier T.N. Covell below I thought I had stumbled onto something unique, but it turns out that shadowgraphy, ombromanie, or “Ombres Chinoises” was just another Victorian fad, like phrenology, penny farthings, and mesmerism. It didn’t take long to find other examples, and other “animals”: the seal led to search for other shadow cards made in Boston and elsewhere, and the offerings of John Bufford, who was a very serious lithographer and businessman. So here we have a late nineteenth-century variation on the silhouette: more whimsical than documentary and more commercial than personal. An ephemeral art, as (electric) light was already too bright when it appeared, and very reflective of a much simpler time!

Paper Shadows

Paper Shadows 2

Paper Shadows 3

Paper Shadows 4 Chatterbox

PicMonkey Collage

Victorian hand shadow trade cards and the December 15, 1869 edition of Chatterbox, Library of Congress; Illustrations from the Ombres chinoises, guignol, marionnettes, par Émile Lagarde , 1900, Bibliothèque nationale de France


Ghost Signs

Salem doesn’t have many “ghost signs” of commerce past–I think sandblasting was part of its urban renewal experience–but it does have one of the most famous and most-photographed, marking the former Newmark’s Department Store on Essex Street. As you can see from my photographs from yesterday and the postcard from a century ago, this is actually the second sign (at least) on the side of this building. With the adjacent two-story building below, it’s an urban billboard.

Ghost Signs 2 008-001

Ghost Signs 1907

Ghost Signs 2 009-001

The F.W. Webb plumbing supplies building on Bridge Street, probably Salem’s most prominent “industrial” building, is a billboard on all four sides. When you’re coming into Salem on 114 over the North Street bypass bridge, you can’t help but notice it on the right, mostly because of its retro lettering and its sharp contrast with the nearby Peirce-Nichols house. You can “read” the history of this building through its surviving signage: I particularly like its rear wall where only shadows remain.

Ghost Signs 2 015-001

Ghost Signs 2 020-001

My last ghost sign is on Peabody Street in Salem, a street of  brick multi-story residential buildings built just after the great fire of 1914. There’s very little room between them, so this is not a great streetscape for signage, but one has managed to survive:  for Beeman’s Pepsin Gum, a nationally-sold product marketed primarily as an aid to digestion. Few people probably notice this sign today, but for decades it was right on one of the major pedestrian paths to Salem’s largest employer, Pequot Mills.

Ghost Signs 2 013-001


War Games

It’s not just contemporary video games that engage our children (boys) in virtual warfare: their paper predecessors had the very same focus. The majestic monarchs and large professional armies and navies of the eighteenth century inspired the transformation of traditional games of the goose into more strategic games of fortifications and war, and nineteenth-century manufacturing and marketing techniques intensified this shift, along with contemporary ideas about nationalism and education. Four things inspired me to dig into this topic:  André Hellé’s Alphabet de la Grande Guerre, which I featured in my last post, the discovery of a board game dating from and “playing” the Crimean War of 1853-56 (too topical), a recent New York Times “Opinionator” column about “The Myriopticon”, a Civil-War parlor game which was “immensely popular with boys”, and an advertisement for Salem’s own Parker Brothers’ Spanish-American War games, The War in Cuba and The Battle of Manila. And then I discovered the Victoria & Albert’s Museum of Childhood “War Games” exhibit, which is closing at the end of the week.

ABC Great War Games

War Games Crimea V and A

War Games

War Games Parker Brothers

I find these games a little disarming. I understand that the ABC was intended for “the children of our soldiers”, but do these children really need to see pictures of trenches and tanks (no gas masks, thankfully)? I’m just nervous about the Crimea. And Milton Bradley produced the Myriopticon during the Civil War (or Great Rebellion), a tactic that was followed by Parker Brothers at the end of the century. Both World War I and World War II challenged the glorification of war in many ways, but they did not put an end to war games; if anything, the intensifying competitive nationalism and focus on propaganda made them even more popular. The latter are of the bombs away variety, but games of the Great War seem particularly and personally destructive: German children targeted Britain with their toy u-boats, while the object of British children was to get rid of the Huns.

War Games U Boat

War Games Sink the Huns

Get Rid of Huns Maze Puzzle, c. 1916, Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood.


Trading Tokens

I’m not sure when I last posted on trade cards, but it was definitely a while ago. This blog is getting to the point where it needs an index, I fear. I’m always on a rather random hunt for interesting examples of advertising ephemera: I like Salem-related items, but they have to be special in some way. There are just too many stock items out there–plump children, scary clowns, kittens, flowers. So many cards were produced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century (before they gave way to magazine illustrations) that millions survive, preserved as tokens of trade and little windows into the contemporary commercial landscape. Harder to find are cards with interesting shapes, and metamorphic cards, examples of Victorian special effects achieved by holding the card in question to the light, or folding it a certain way. The latter are getting pricey; one (a very rare example of cross-dressers)  recently sold on ebay for $150. Here are a few of my recent purchases, and cards which caught my eye: corsets and Frank Cousins, one of my favorite Salem entrepreneurs, are an impossible combination for me to resist, as are horseshoes, Kate Greenaway-esque little girls (an exception to my no children rule) and anything apothecary-related. The amazing die-cut trade cards of a butterfly and what looks like a cracker or biscuit to me but is supposed to be a cake of soap manufactured by Enoch Morgan & Sons, are from Harvard Business School’s Baker Library (which is currently featuring an exhibition entitled The Art of American Advertising, 1865-1910) and the metamorphic card of Uncle Sam drinking coffee is from the Miami University Library’s Victorian Trade Card Collection.

Trade Card Salem Corset

Trade Card Salem Corset back

Salem Trade Card Bates Publisher

Salem Trade Card Bates Publisher 2

PicMonkey Collage

Trade Card Stickneyp

Trade Card Sewing Maching Butterfly

Trade Card Biscuit

Trade Card Soap

Trade Card Uncle Sam


Emulating Salem

I’ve been trying for quite some time, in several posts, to place Salem squarely in the center of the Colonial Revival design movement of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries–and not just the artistic and academic movement, but also its more popular expressions. This is a continuing exploration, and as I am trained not as an art historian, or even an American historian, but a plain old English historian, I’m not sure that I’m searching in the right places or looking at the right sources. Right now I’m particularly interested in the broader impact of the period rooms installed in several major American museums after George Sheldon (at Deerfield in the 1880s) and George Francis Dow (at Salem’s Essex Institute in 1907) created the first period-room displays. By the 1920s and 1930s period rooms seem to have been assembled in most of the major American art museums, among them distinct Salem rooms such as that established by architectural historian Fiske Kimball at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1923 and the South Bedroom/later “McIntire Room” at Winterthur.

Salem Room Philadelphia MA

Salem Room Winterthur McIntire Room

The Salem and McIntire Rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Winterthur Museum.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that you see advertisements for reproductions and adaptations of “Salem” furniture from this very same era, though the inspiration could be traced to many sources. Several major American furniture manufacturers, including Karpen Furniture and the Erskine-Danforth Corporation, produced entire lines of “Early American” reproductions. The latter’s Danersk line, advertised with accompanying Salem ships, seems like the very epitome of the popular Colonial Revival.

Salem Room

Salem Room 1928

The “Salem Room”: 1928 vignette by Edgar W. Jenney, who specialized in the depiction and reproduction of historical interiors and worked to preserved them–most notably on Nantucket.

Salem Room 1926p

Salem bed with border

1926 advertisements for Danersk Early American furniture, Erskine-Danforth Corporation.

It’s not really Salem-specific, but I can’t resist referencing the great 1948 Cary Grant/Myrna Loy film Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House here, because it both exemplifies and mocks the longstanding influence of the Colonial Revival in America. After an interior decorator (named Bunny Funkhouser!) sketches an over-the-top “Colonial” living-room redesign for the Blandings’ NYC apartment featuring a cobbler’s bench, pie safe, and spinning wheel, they decide to decamp for the real thing in Connecticut. When their authentic colonial is deemed unsound, they level it and build a neo-Colonial, a bit more refined than Funkhouser’s sketch certainly, but most definitely Colonial in inspiration and design. I can’t find a still of the Funkhouser room, but you’ve got to see it to believe it.

Blandings


The Redcoat Next Door

There is always something interesting going on in Salem. Yesterday my over-the-fence neighbor, a museum interpreter turned screenwriter turned romance novelist, was shooting some six-second Vine videos next door at Hamilton Hall to publicize her forthcoming book, The Rebel Pirate (2nd in the Renegades of the Revolution series).  She graciously allowed me to pop over and see the action. As one of the central characters in the novel is a British naval commander, the redcoats are in the picture and it was fun to see one running around the Hall–especially in sneakers (the floor was a little slippery for swordplay). The conceit of the scenes was a romance reader sitting amidst the characters of the novel come to life, and so they were played out, again and again–including a last bit where the characters creep in and turn the pages for her! (Really cute but hard to photograph from afar–look at the Vine). Observing how much effort goes into a six-second film certainly gives one an appreciation for how long it must take to produce a full-length feature! Despite some ongoing window restoration (inside and out), the Hall looked great and provided the perfect romantic setting.

Redcoat First

Redcoat Second

Redcoat Third

Redcoat Fourth

Redcoat Fifth

Redcoat Sixth

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P.S. This was not the only Salem “set” I visited this past year: now that it is beginning to get accolades, I do want to remind everyone that several scenes of American Hustle were filmed in Salem last spring—see my post Filming on Federal.


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