One of my favorite things about working in the Archives of Michigan is the opportunity to look through the wide range of primary sources that our staff or visitors pull for research. I’ve seen some really interesting court cases, great mug shots and evidence that legislators’ attendance has always been pretty spotty, but my all time favorite things to read are the advertisements from the past.
While scanning an almanac from 1885 (It will be featured in our weather exhibit, debuting in September 2013.), I found some great examples of the types of advertisements that were common before regulation. You will find some similarities between these ads from the past and the commercials we see on television and in print today. Even in the 1800s, advertisements often utilized testimonials from other customers and sometimes even allowed payment in installments!
Medicines and various “remedies” were readily available through mail order, and it was common to see advertisements for opium derivatives like laudanum, or calming syrups for teething or restless children containing morphine.
This ad features a “soothing syrup” containing morphine
It was also common to find ads for various panaceas or elixirs that claim to cure everything from bad skin to kidney trouble, containing elaborate poems and illustrations. Like advertisers today, these companies knew how to target their audience. The ads for items like dyes or fabric were made to appeal to women, and even the kidney wort ad in the almanac features a section on “diseases peculiar to women”.
The poem in this photo continues for three pages of the almanac, and tells the story of a wise girl named Mary who used “Wells, Richardson & Co.’s Butter Color” to save her marriage.
In the Michigan Historical Museum, you will find numerous examples of advertisements from different time periods. The gallery devoted to the industrialization of Michigan has numerous examples of advertisements for products that were new and exciting at the time but seem like antiques to us now. The car dealership in the 1920s gallery has many examples of the way different companies advertised their cars – emphasizing fashion, utility or luxury. It is fascinating to compare these print ads with the car commercials we see today, to see what has changed drastically but also what is much the same. Fast forward to the 1950s gallery, and you will see more print ads on display – for appliances like the ones you see in the life size kitchen in the Michigan Historical Museum exhibit.
Come on in and see history through a different lens!
1950s Kitchen Gallery, Michigan Historical Museum (A binder of contemporary advertisements appears in the foreground.).