Minorities in Progressive Era Advertising
Early American advertising played a vital role the development of modern America. Although what is considered “modern advertising” did not start taking shape until the 1920’s, the advertising of the late 1800’s played a key role in the creation of stereotypes and images still portrayed in advertising today. This research focuses primarily on the representation of Native Americans and Blacks in American Advertising.
Native Americans in Advertising
Native Americans became a signal Cigar stores in the 1800’s (O’Barr 2013). The Native American cigar signal transferred over the years to trading cards. The late 1800’s marked the initial distribution of Native American trading cards (O’Barr 2013). These trading cards were typically inserted into cigarette packages (O’Barr 2013). The public soon took on trading card collecting due to the colorful printed images (O’Barr 2013). Series were used to promote repeat purchase (O’Barr 2013).
By the end of the late 1800’s Native Americans became the most popular genre of the time (O’Barr 2013). the end of the 19th century, the image of Native Americans was a commonplace in advertising; however, the representations were not true representations of Native American’s real lives (O’Barr 2013). In nearly every depiction of Native Americans, the subject was a mix of various indigenous groups – headdresses, face paint, bows and arrows, tepees, and totem poles (O’Barr 2013). All of these are features of various tribes nationwide: the feather headdress originates from the Great Plains area of the American Midwest; tomahawk from the Iroquois and other groups in the Northeastern Woodlands states like New York; tepees again originated from the Great Plains; while totem poles were common in the Pacific Northwest, Washington State and British Columbia (O’Barr 2013).
Native Americans soon became the face of many brands and products. Some prominent brands include Land O'Lakes dairy products, Argo cornstarch, Eskimo pies, and Calumet baking powder. Several American airlines use Native American imagery in their names, logos, or tail designs: Mohawk, Alaska, and Hawaiian (O’Barr 2013).
The portrayal of Native Americans became extremely popular during the rise of railroads. As travel to the West opened up, so did the opportunity for Native Americans to be further exploited through Advertising. Southern Pacific advertised travel through “Apacheland” to reach California, the advertisement highlighted a band of Indians riding their horses with rifles in hand (O’Barr 1994). Rock Island railway would travel through the “weirdly beautiful” Apache Trail to California (O’Barr 1994). The Santa Fe line put Native Americans and side show attractions in the same ring. “Gee, we are going to see real, live Indians” one ad said (O’Barr 1994). Both the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific boasted that visitors could safely visit these strange people safely up to five times a day, and even with a guide (O’Barr 1994).
Blacks and Advertising
Blacks first interactions with advertising began with slave advertisements. “During the eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, it was common practice for owners of runaway slaves to place classified advertisements in local and regional newspapers, in much the same way that ads for “lost” articles or items, particularly animals, are placed today” (Kern-Foxworth 1994). A physical description was provided to make these runaway slaves easier to spot (Kern-Foxworth 1994).
Blacks were also subjects of trading cards. This genre took off during the 1870’s and were distributed with the purchase of shoes, thread, and household items (Kern-Foxworth 1994). These cards were popular for the sports figures and racial humor portrayed (Kern-Foxworth 1994). Individuals would collect these cards and paste them into albums (Kern-Foxworth 1994). They have since become collectable items; the more offensive the card is, the greater its value (Kern-Foxworth 1994).
With the end of slavery come the increase of Blacks portrayed in advertising; advertisements enabled the nation to promote stereotypes of the docile and humble servant (Kern-Foxworth 1994). These are only two of many stereotypes portrayed through advertising, others include:
One industry that used these stereotypes to its advantage was the food industry. There are many brands that have thrived from the “happy black face” on its label, including Uncle Ben’s Rice and the most successful, Aunt Jemima’s Pancakes (Kern-Foxworth 1994). After its creation by Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood, their product needed a symbol to make the product recognizable to all households (Kern-Foxworth 1994). While visiting a vaudeville house in St. Joseph Missouri, Rutt saw a blackface group preforming “Aunt Jemima” dressed in aprons and red bandanas channeling the traditional Southern cook. Rutt used both the song and the group’s look to create Aunt Jemima, the first living person to personify a brand trademark (Kern-Foxworth 1994). Since her creation, Aunt Jemima has helped reaffirm Black stereotypes in advertising. She acts as the happy slave, devout servant, and natural born cook (Kern-Foxworth 1994). This character furthers these by speaking in the broken and irregular English known as “slave speak” (Kern-Foxworth 1994).