What Was Life Like Back Then? A Look at Vintage Ads

Although few New Jersey historical newspapers have been digitized, I’ve had some luck tracking collateral branches of the family through online newspapers in other states. While trolling through the old papers, I am frequently distracted by the BSO’s – the bright shiny objects – the vintage advertising.

Advertising has been around forever, but the products and services, of course, change with the times. As our family story tellers, we need to be able to understand not only the history that took place during their lifetimes, but the cultural norms that were in place at the same time.

Here is a sampling of advertisements found in Chronicling America from the 1840’s through the 1920’s. One thing I noticed about all of them is that not a single price was mentioned in any of the ads, not even the more modern ones.

In 1844, the Green Mountain Freeman newspaper in Vermont ran an ad for those with liver ailments or consumption (today called tuberculosis). Not to worry if you were afflicted as “lungwort,” also called “pulmonaria” (as in “pulmonary” or lungs) was just the product you needed. I had never heard of this plant, but a Google search turned up the following definition: “a bristly herbaceous European plant of the borage family, typically having white-spotted leaves and pink flowers that turn blue as they age”.

Apparently, lungwort is still considered a natural remedy and used in Europe for lung diseases, including tuberculosis, asthma and coughs. I learned something new here!

I noticed that most early ads had no images with them, likely due to the difficulty in reproducing them on paper and many time, ads were grouped together on one page, giving them the appearance of a page of our “want ads” today instead of product and services ads.

PageofAdsHannibalMO1851
Western Union, Hannibal, MO ads from 1851

In the issue pictured above, the ad at the top of the fourth column is for the Greffenberg Company:

WesternUnionMO1851PharmacyAd
1851, MO

The Greffenberg Company apparently was a pharmaceutical service company, offering products such as vegetable pills, dysentery syrup and “Green Mountain” ointment. Only the finest current products were offered for sale!

In the post-Civil War era, the Bristol News, covering Tennessee and Virginia ran an ad in 1868:

BristolTNTobacco1864
“Yacht Club” Tobacco

I wonder if “Yacht Club” tobacco was really nicotine-free? This ad certainly points to the fact that someone thought smoking regular tobacco was not a healthy habit.

In 1882, the Canton Advocate in Dakota Territory offered $50,000 of item for sale:

CantonDakotaTerrAd
Largest Store in Dakota!

Note that the ad included 500 fur coats. While fur might not be politically correct today, I imagine with the winter weather in Dakota Territory, there might have been quite a line to purchase a nice warm buffalo, wildcat or wolf coat.

The strangest ad I found was for baking powder.

YellowstoneJournal1885
Yellowstone Journal, Montana, 1885

If you could prove that Snowflake Baking Powder was not 100% pure, you could earn a $1000 reward. How in the world one would prove that back then, I don’t know! Was there a rash of fake baking powder on the market? The ad noted that it was only sold in cans – there must have been a benefit to that.

Well-to-do companies must have had advertising budgets very early on.

AZRepublicanAd1891
Ad advertising a future ad!

There were multiple issues of the Arizona Republican published in 1891 with space reserved for the “Churchill+Addition” to the town of Phoenix. I was curious enough to dig a bit, but I never did find an actual ad explaining what the Churchill+Addition actually was.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that I found ads with what I would call pictures in them. The Butler Weekly Times from Butler, MO advertised fashionable items for the ladies:

ButlerMOAds1908
Walter-McKibbens Sale

Not only does this ad have hand-drawn images, it is advertising a sale through the month of May 1908. Prices were even included. I love the “Figured Organdie” for 8 1/3 cents! Organdy is fabric that has been stiffened to use for clothing. 8 1/3 cents was probably the cost per yard. Ladies’ oxfords with cap toes were available for 98 cents and rugs or curtains could be bought, your choice for either for only $15. That was quite a hefty price for 1908. They likely sold a lot of fabric, but not much in the way of curtains or rugs.

It wasn’t until a 1913 newspaper that I found a brand-name product that I recognized.

Honolulu1913CriscoAd
1913 Advertisement

If I tried to guess which state had an ad for Crisco in 1913, probably the last one I would have chosen is Hawaii. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin ran this ad, letting women know how effective the “new vegetable oil cooking compound” was when used to fry foods. I know Crisco has been around a long time, but I would probably have guessed it was created in the 1920’s. I wonder how much it cost?

These early newspaper advertisements help round out pictures of our ancestors’ lives. I wonder how many discerning shoppers questioned information provided in the ads and I really wish the ads had included prices for all of their wares!

Chronicling America historical newspapers end with 1922. I will have to find some more recent newspapers from the 1950’s and 1960’s to find some ads for products I grew up with.

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