I’m always on the lookout for unusual Salem-related ephemera, but this roofing advertisement from 1920 really stopped me in my tracks. I think I was looking for something specific, but when I came across this, my search ended. It’s beyond bizarre.
Six years after the Great Salem Fire, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of asbestos roofing shingles released this advertisement in national publications. Let’s leave asbestos off the table, as its danger was unknown at the time. The rest of the ad seems outrageous to me on a number of levels, including the metaphorical connection between Salem witches and roofs (isn’t this a stretch?), the fact that Salem’s falsely-accused “witches” were hanged, not burned, and the sheer egregiousness of exploiting Salem’s TWO greatest tragedies for commercial gain. I think it’s the only text that I’ve ever seen that links these two disastrous, iconic events together.
Other contemporary examples of Johns-Manville’s advertising seem pretty mundane in comparison. There is always a safety theme, which is understandable given the rash of urban fires in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Asbestos was the cutting-edge technology that promised security from this threat but ultimately introduced another. Aesthetics is the other appeal (as opposed to fear), as is evident in these other two advertisements from 1920:
Pretty storybook cottages with red roofs! A far cry from that Salem hag-witch. To reinforce its safety image, Johns-Manville (now a division of Berkshire Hathaway) was compelled to include the fire threat in its advertising so we see the spectre of fire, like the fire next door in a 1922 advertisement, but not a specific fire. Ironically, 30 years later the Company produced a special “Salem” shingle, (with a ship slogan rather than a witch!) pictured below.