Why Go Bald (or Grey)?: Advertising, Hair, and the Cult of Youth

The ‘Why Go Bald’ sign on South Great George’s Street in Dublin is one of the city’s most-loved landmarks. One of the few remaining examples of neon advertising, it consists of a man’s head and shoulders, in which as the lights flash on and off he alternates between a full head of hair with a big smile, and total baldness with a frown. Designed in 1962 for the hair restoration clinic which still operates underneath it today, it is an icon of design history and also a reminder that our own era’s obsessions and anxieties about hair as an indicator of youthfulness and vitality are nothing new. In fact, advertisements for hair restorers, hair dyes, hair ‘food’ and even hair removal techniques were among the most frequent and visible examples of modern advertising, from the end of the 19thC.

capsuloids

Hair products were a very distinct sub-group of heavily-branded ‘personal grooming’ products, and the range and frequency with which they were advertised was striking. It is also noticeable that although some products simply claimed to clean, style or perfume hair, far more were focused upon eliminating the twin horrors of baldness and greying. Where baldness was concerned this was where, in an era of almost unregulated advertising, hair products intersected with quack medicine. A range of ‘hair restorers’ promised men (and sometimes women) that their thinning hair would be revived and grow like new. This was often accompanied by pseudo-scientific claims to have discovered the cause of thinning hair, and found a solution to it. Capsuloids, for example, claimed that hair loss was caused by ‘harmful germs’ in the hair roots – their product would not only kill these germs, but ‘…so nourish the hair roots that two hairs will grow from each root where only one hair grew before’. Their adverts often included a diagram of the scalp and hair root drawn at dramatic magnification, in order to demonstrate exactly where the harmful germs were lurking prior to taking Capsuloids. By contrast, their competitor Harlene Hair Drill claimed to have made an ‘Appalling Discovery Which Affects Your Hair. National Danger of Baldness’. Rather than germs, Harlene identified ‘scurf’ as the cause of hair loss, sternly warning that ‘no hair can withstand the insidious attacks of this loathsome scurf’ and illustrating the point with ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings of baldness cured. In other adverts Harlene, obviously keen to let no hair restoration possibilities pass them by, also promised that their product was ‘unequalled for promoting the growth of the Beard and Moustache’, and even ‘Curing Weak and Thin Eyelashes’. Capsuloids and Harlene were advertised with British addresses for the placing of postal orders, but some enterprising Irish firms produced their own products, such as Boyd’s Oriental Hair Restorer, which also claimed that it would prevent baldness by curing dandruff, and could be purchased from their premises in Mary Street, Dublin.

boyds

If hair loss was perhaps the greatest concern to be exploited by the purveyors of patent cures, then going grey came a close second. If the adverts in papers and magazines are any indicator, both the men and women of early 20thC Ireland were routinely dying their hair, presumably with varying degrees of skill and subtlety. In 1911 the front wrapper of an issue of Ireland’s Own contained no fewer than 4 separate advertisements for pharmacies selling hair dye. These included J Leonard & Co on North Earl Street Dublin, who assured readers that ‘There Is No Need to Look Old’ and JJ Fitzgibbon of Kingstown who chose the more imperative ‘Don’t Look Old’. The alarmingly-named Necroceine hair dye made the highly unlikely claim in its advert that it ‘restores colour to the root, making detection impossible’.

necroceine

 

If the loss of hair or hair colour was one age-related anxiety to be addressed through patent cures, then the appearance of hair in the wrong places was another. By the start of the 20thC, there were plenty of electrolysis practitioners advertising their services in Ireland – and here perhaps we might pause to contemplate just how painful and downright dangerous early 20thC electrolysis probably was – to those keen to remove ‘unsightly hair’.

pomeroy

Mrs Pomeroy, who had a beauty salon on Grafton Street and sold her own range of ‘skin foods’, offered it, as did the city’s most upmarket hair salon, Maison Prost on St Stephen’s Green (which sometimes advertised itself as being ‘coiffeur, parfumeur, etc to his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant’, and remained in business until the 1960s). Alternatively Miss Hulbert of Ballsbridge regularly advertised her electrolysis service, and Miss Read of Dawson Street offered electrolysis and facial massage. Most alarmingly of all, in 1907 readers of Irish Society were invited to purchase a ‘Tensfeldt Apparatus’ in order to perform electrolysis on themselves in the privacy of their own homes. Amazingly, no accounts of fatalities appear to have been recorded!

 

prost

As was discussed here in an earlier post, the development of branded products (of which hair restorers and dyes were examples) led not only to an increase in the quantity of advertising in order to embed the brand in customers’ memories, but also to a more important shift in tone of that advertising. The move was from an ‘informative’ tone which emphasised the availability and nature of products customers were already looking for, towards an ‘emotive’ tone which sought to create markets for products customers did not yet know they wanted by highlighting a need or problem which only that brand could solve. Inevitably this change of tone meant that advertising increasingly played upon people’s fears and anxieties (‘psychoanalysis in reverse’, as Leo Lowenthal would famously describe the profession in the mid-20thC). It was therefore no coincidence that products promising to make people look younger and better-looking were those suited to this new style of advertising, and upon which the modern advertising industry was built. Aggressively branded, with wildly imaginative names and logos, their advertisements developed some of the first uses of an appeal to emotions, aspirations and fears in order to convince customers that their product – and only their product – could make them happier, healthier and more successful. This had an obvious logic to it – it is not particularly difficult to invoke fear and anxiety in most people regarding their health, youthfulness and physical attractiveness, and this is why products such as soaps, quack medicines and beauty products were those which pioneered this approach to marketing. Soap advertising is often credited with effectively pioneering the principles and techniques of modern advertising, and with good reason. A product easily mass-manufactured cheaply and on an industrial scale, and also one which was small, simple to package, transport and sell cheaply, it was an obvious vehicle for mass advertising and in Ireland as elsewhere the pages of every newspaper and magazine were dominated by soap adverts by the end of the 19thC. Not only were these often lavish, full-colour illustrations such as the famous use by Pears Soap of Millais’ painting ‘Bubbles’, but they were also pioneers of brand-names, advertising slogans and images which sought to play on the emotional possibilities of their product – promising sunshine (‘Sunlight’ soap), brightness and health versus grime and disease without them. In a world which still had high levels of infant mortality, medical care of limited effectiveness, and few of the labour-saving devices we consider necessary to clean our homes, our clothes or ourselves, people had good reason to fear dirt and disease and advertisers rapidly learned to prey upon those anxieties. While the international brands such as Sunlight and Lux were the dominant advertisers, an Irish brand called McClinton’s soap (manufactured in Donaghmore, Co Tyrone) achieved considerable success as a luxury brand which was heavily (and inventively) advertised using a fake Irish village called Ballymaclinton, and images of Irish ‘colleens’ whose soft complexion was attributed to their use of McClinton’s soap.

colleensdancing

Then as now advertisements were often a revealing indicator of the anxieties of a particular cultural moment. The frequency of advertisements for hair restorers and dyes – and the fact that they appeared across an enormous range of Irish publications – suggested that what all of these potions, tablets and treatments had in common was their ability to prey upon the anxieties of a population keen to appear young and vigorous. The prices, style of adverts and range of publications they appeared in demonstrate that this quest for youthfulness crossed class, gender and other demographic lines. While electrolysis was only advertised in the upmarket publications (and offered at upmarket salons such as Maison Prost) and was presumably an expensive treatment, most of these brands were cheap, a shilling or less per bottle, so apparently fears about personal appearance (and aging) were pretty much universal across otherwise significant divides of class, gender and location. The cult of youth we often associate with post-World War One (with its flappers, jazz babies and dramatically more adolescent-looking beauty ideals for women) had actually begun to manifest itself much earlier. The ‘new woman’ who became the subject of so much discussion and agonising from 1890 onwards took various forms, but perhaps most frequently was a very young woman who challenged social conventions about work, dress and relationships as she first reached adulthood. In America this emphasis upon female youthfulness was particularly evident in the early 20thC fascination with that beguiling creature the college ‘co-ed’, often depicted in the style of the famously vigorous ‘Gibson girls’. While Ireland did not share the ‘co-ed’ phenomenon, its leading women’s magazine, Lady of the House, did make reference to changing conventions of female beauty in 1907 by citing the ‘Gibson ideal’, suggesting that it was an internationally-understood concept by that point. Less light-heartedly, a widely-pervading sense of anxiety about being ‘left behind’ was clearly evident in the wider culture of the early 20thC, in a society increasingly framed by a sense of competition. For women, this took the form of concerns about being left ‘on the shelf’, as the popular press frequently stoked fears about the declining marriage rate, alternatively blaming ‘new women’ for being poor wife material, or blaming men for not wanting to take on the responsibilities of marriage – at one point the Irish Packet even discussed a proposal (made in all seriousness) for a ‘bachelor tax’ to resolve this problem. Either way, in a world in which marriage was still the primary ambition for most women for both cultural and pragmatic reasons, the fear of being an ‘old maid’ overtaken by younger competitors on the marriage market was real. For men, the fear was of being thrown ‘on the scrap heap’, especially for working-class or lower-middle-class men at the mercy of employers who could almost always find a younger and cheaper replacement. Those doing manual labour had an obvious incentive to wish to appear young and strong, but the rapidly-expanding army of clerks and other low-ranking office workers also had reasons for anxiety about being seen as over-the-hill and expendable. The combined effects of these all of these cultural currents then, was a market of both men and women apprehensive about visible signs of aging – and therefore receptive to the promise that their youthfulness could be regained for the price of a shilling bottle of hair restorer.

References

Stephanie Rains, ‘“Do You Ring? Or Are you Rung for?”: Mass Media, Class, and Social Aspiration in Edwardian Ireland’, in New Hibernia Review, 18/4 Winter, 2014.

Stephanie Rains, ‘The Ideal Home (Rule) Exhibition: Ballymaclinton and the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition’, in Field Day Review 7, 2011.

Juliann Sivulka, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875-1940, Prometheus Books: New York, 2001.

Questions and Answers:Advice and Information Columns

If the term ‘information society’ has any useful meaning as a way to describe 21stC life (and of course it generally doesn’t, especially in the way most politicians use it), then it is in the way it captures the extraordinary availability of apparently limitless factual information. Only a generation ago, a person finding themselves in need of a particular date, definition or explanation was entirely reliant upon reference books of some kind or another – most likely the print editions of encyclopaedias which have now largely been replaced by Wikipedia and its more sophisticated but pay walled competitors. Even the condensed single-volume editions of publications such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica were expensive, and a full set of encyclopaedias was so costly that companies sold them via long-term hire-purchase schemes. This was such an embedded feature of aspirational working-class life in many countries until the later 20thC that door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen frequently occur as stock characters in movies, novels and comedy sketches. The fact that so many families could be persuaded to make a significant financial investment in these rarely-used and rapidly dating books was a testament to the value – economically and culturally – of the information they contained. The queries we check on our phones while waiting for a train, or the information we receive in daily Google alerts as we sit at our desks, were until very recently expensive and scarce commodities, with entire industries and professions constructed around their gathering, publication and distribution. Because reference books were so expensive, most ordinary people would have relied upon libraries in order to consult them, and for many working-class readers whose formal education had ended early by necessity, Carnegie Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes opened up a world of auto-didacticism which was often life-changing.

But even these resources were not available to many people – libraries can be intimidating spaces for those without much formal education, and throughout much of the 19th and earlier 20th centuries many people did not live within easy reach of a well-stocked library anyway. While there was a flurry of library construction within Dublin during the first decade of the 20thC, rural Ireland was a very different story, and in 1911 it was estimated that only 28% of the population had access to a library. Even where they were built, lack of funding (and civic enthusiasm) often meant that they had few books. Mary Casteleyn has argued that, “in many areas the Carnegie building was used for everything except library purposes. Village bands practised there, temperance meetings were held in them, and they were vandalised. In one library the enterprising caretaker had resorted to burning the books to save himself from being bothered by persistent would-be readers!”. This meant that many people had no practical access at all to reliable or detailed factual information. What they did have increasing levels of access to however was the mass media, and it is therefore not surprising that many publications aimed at a popular readership recognised that providing the various forms of factual information requested by their readers would help them to build and maintain their market share. Indeed, one of the most powerful media empires in Britain was originally founded upon providing exactly this service to readers. Alfred Harmsworth – who established the Daily Mail in 1896 and would go on to be one of the most powerful press barons of the early 20th C – began his publishing career in 1888 by producing Answers to Correspondents (which soon became known simply as Answers). The paper, which became the only serious rival to George Newnes’ Tit-bits magazine in terms of circulation, was based upon the most simple of ideas – readers could write in with their questions, and the papers’ staff would respond with answers. The more interesting of these would be published, and although the paper did contain other material, this provision of answers to queries was the simple but effective basis of its success. That simplicity – and the extent of its success – is in itself an indication of just how difficult it was for many ordinary people to find basic factual information. By contrast, journalists, especially those working in major publishing centres such as London or Dublin, had access to major libraries as well as networks of experts for advice and information.

Ireland did not produce – and probably could not have supported – an entire paper dedicated to answering readers’ queries. But many Irish publications did, over the years, run successful columns answering wide-ranging questions from their readers, or dedicated to providing an advice and information service on particular topics. Tips and advice for everyday activities – especially for domestic tasks – were also prevalent, and constituted a particularly significant feature of the women’s columns run by many papers. In an era without many labour-saving devices, many of these questions and answers revolved around advice on cleaning. How to remove stains from various fabrics without damaging them, how to maintain kitchen ranges, and how to clean household objects ranging from Venetian blinds to ostrich feathers, were all discussed on a more-or-less weekly basis, not only in women’s magazines such as Lady of the House, but also in more general magazines such as Ireland’s Own or the Shamrock, most of which ran household columns (which were of course always targeted at the ‘lady readers’ who were presumed to be naturally interested in such matters). Generalised advice columns giving information on health, beauty, cooking and household management were quick and easy to produce – indeed, in many cases they were one of the easiest types of copy to syndicate, and there are numerous examples of Irish publications printing advice and information columns of this kind which show signs of having been bought in – occasionally even their typeface differed slightly from the rest of the paper, suggesting that such syndicated pieces may even have arrived fully-typeset.

The prevalence of columns giving both factual information and advice in so many publications is also what allowed the boundaries between editorial and advertising to be so blurred, however. With no regulations to control this, there was nothing to prevent publications from using their information and advice columns to endorse specific products, without acknowledging that in many cases they were being paid to do so. For example, Irish Society ran a column entitled ‘Beauty and the Toilet’ which answered readers’ pseudonymous queries on these topics. In 1902, one such reply, to a reader using the name ‘Ideal’, assured her that ‘…it is satisfactory, therefore, to know that fresh air, cleanliness and good food are the best beautifiers, and that the knowledge of how to make the best of oneself can be obtained free from Mrs Pomeroy, of Grafton Street, and that when actual blemishes have to be removed she will do this in the best manner possible, and at moderate charges’. A few pages further on in the paper, a paid advertisement appeared for Mrs Pomeroy’s salon, offering electrolysis for 10/6 per sitting – and in fact the salon was one of Irish Society’s most frequent advertisers. Other readers’ queries were answered with recommendations for products which were also regularly advertised in the paper. Obviously in such cases, it is most likely that the queries themselves were also written by the paper – a possibility never to be discounted in any advice column. However, although faking the questions allowed publications to push products they were being paid to advertise, by definition it didn’t involve real interaction with readers, and from the publications’ perspective, this was the main purpose of such columns, as Harmsworth had so profitably understood when he established Answers.

Among Irish publications, the closest equivalent to this form was in columns such as the Shamrock’s regular ‘A Conversazione’ column. Like many others of its type, it did not print the original queries, merely addressing the answers to correspondents’ pseudonyms (which in some cases leaves the reader intrigued about the context or details of the question asked, an effect which was no doubt deliberate). So in April 1900 for example, just one column included factual information on the history and manufacture of screws, the history and use of siphons, and detailed geographical information about Lake Superior. More intriguingly, it also advised a reader known only as ‘Mona’ that ‘a young lady possessing true dignity of character will never take further notice of a gentleman who has once openly slighted her, much less seek or endeavour to court his society…we would advise you to leave the letter unanswered’, which presents a number of tantalising possibilities as to the slight Mona had suffered. A few years later, the Shamrock’s rival the Irish Emerald introduced a slightly different format into their own advice column, by enlisting readers to assist in answering queries. This was done by printing numbered questions in one part of the column, and then adding numbered answers (always a week or two behind the questions) in another. The magazine explained that, ‘the object of the Correspondence Page is to enable our Readers to keep in touch with, and be of use to, one another, by giving information of questions of general interest and by helping others to procure articles etc which they may require.’ Operating like a (very) nascent social media platform, this column allowed readers to answer each other’s queries as well as arrange exchanges of items such as sheet music and books. The advantage for readers was, obviously, that they could use these columns to seek information which was genuinely difficult to find for most ordinary people without easy access to expensive reference books. The advantage for magazines such as the Irish Emerald was that it was another way of encouraging readers to write back to the publication, the early 20thC version of interactivity upon with ‘new journalism’ depended. In this way, advice and information columns functioned for publications in the same way as letters columns and the wildly popular competitions most of them ran regularly – by providing a channel for readers to correspond with their paper, feel a sense of ownership of it, and thus deepen their brand loyalty, ensuring future sales. To this end, magazines were eager to provide platforms for whatever kind of interaction readers were likely to respond to most enthusiastically and consistently, even if this meant supporting wildly varied requests. So where in March 1907 ‘Clogheen Reader’ wrote to the Irish Emerald that he ‘would be much obliged if some reader would or could tell him if Mr WB Yeats is a Nationalist’ (sadly I never spotted any response to that tricky question), in September of the same year a query about the size of the human head received the following reply from another reader:

“the average adult head has a circumference of fully 22 inches. The average adult hat is fully six and three-quarters size…and the professors of colleges generally wear seven and one-eight to seven and three-eights sizes….and according to an authority, ‘no lady should think of marrying a man with a head less than 20 inches in circumference’. People with heads under 19 inches are mentally deficient, and with heads under 18 inches invariably idiotic”.

As well as encouraging readers to measure their heads (and admit it, you’re thinking about it), both the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald also provided more practical advice for young readers keen to make use of their intellect. From the last quarter of the 19thC, all branches of the United Kingdom Civil Service (including central government departments as well as organisations such as the Post Office and Police Service) introduced entrance examinations open to anyone who paid the relatively modest fee to sit them. While these examinations – covering grammar, composition, mathematics, languages and accountancy, depending upon the posts being recruited for – obviously favoured those who’d had the opportunity of a proper secondary education, they were nevertheless the single most dramatic mechanism of social mobility ever introduced into British or Irish society, and they loomed very large in the lives of ambitious school-leavers, especially perhaps those for whom a clerical job of any kind was a significant economic and social aspiration compared to the work available to their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. And those were precisely the young readers appealed to by the popular penny papers, so it is not surprising that some of the information and advice most consistently offered by these publications related to entrance examinations – not just announcements of their timing and location, but assistance with the quite intense academic preparation required for them. Well before the end of the 19thC, both the Shamrock and the Irish Emerald ran weekly columns (usually entitled ‘Our Students’) providing an astonishing level of information and even one-to-one support for readers planning on sitting examinations for jobs as various as Post Office Sorters, Third Division Clerkships in the Indian Civil Service, Dublin Police Court Clerkships or Girl Typists. A full account of each posts’ requirements and their pay and progression was given – for example in 1901, Police Court Clerkships in Dublin were open to entrants aged 17-25, with Second-class clerks receiving £80pa rising by £5 a year to £150, while First-class clerks got £180, rising by £10 a year to £300 (an enormous sum for those from a lower-middle class background, and probably unachievable for most). As well as this information, the columns – which were often ‘managed’ by the owners of correspondence colleges specialising in preparing candidates for entrance examinations – advised readers where to buy text books for exam preparation, set practice essay titles and mathematical problems based on past papers for each level of examination, and even invited readers to post in their practice efforts to be individually ‘marked’, the feedback and suggested mark being printed in subsequent weeks. These columns, whose longevity suggests they were very popular with readers, were obviously regarded by the owners of correspondence colleges as useful advertising for their businesses, but their usefulness for the Shamrock and Irish Emerald was even greater – the columns occasionally even described readers who had been successful in examinations with their support as ‘Shamrock boys’. This phrase managed to fuse the concept of ‘school spirit’, which was so central to the wildly popular school stories of the era, to the relationship between a penny paper and its readers.

References

Mary Casteleyn, A History of Literacy and Libraries in Ireland: the long traced pedigree (1984: Gower Publishing, Aldershot).

Stephanie Rains, ‘Going in for Competitions Active readers and magazine culture, 1900–1910’, Media History, 21 (2015) :138-149

Paying the Bills: Irish mass media and the advertising industry

Long before the start of the 20thC, advertising was financially essential for mass media in Ireland as elsewhere. As competition for readers grew more and more ruthless, and the target demographic for many publications stretched down the socio-economic ladder, fewer and fewer publications could afford to support themselves principally by their cover price. The penny and even halfpenny weeklies (as well as halfpenny daily newspapers like the Irish Independent), which appealed to a broad readership, could not cover their costs at that price and so were increasingly dependent upon advertising just to survive. At the same time, advertising itself changed dramatically during the late 19thC, as branded goods became the norm for many kinds of commodity, especially relatively cheap household products. The development of branding meant that goods such as tea and soap, once bought from a trusted retailer who measured them out by weight and wrapped them in his own packaging, were instead now asked for by product name. This required the invention of modern packaging, brand names and logos, but above all else it required advertising in order to establish the brand sufficiently for customers to remember it, recognise it and ask for it in shops. The effect of this was to shift advertising conventions away from mainly informational announcements by retailers of new stock or improved premises, and towards the promotion of individual brands by their manufacturers. Along with this the style of advertising changed too – it became less wordy, and more focused on the brand name and logo of the product in order to embed it in customers’ imaginations. This kind of advertising also needed to be more frequent, in order to maintain brand recognition, and as time went on the adverts themselves became even less informational and more focused on the impact the product would have on customers’ lives, promising abstracted effects such as happiness, confidence and self-fulfilment, rather than just the practical qualities of the products themselves.

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All of this combined to create a symbiotic relationship between the popular press and advertisers. The press needed advertising revenue to survive, and advertisers needed access to their readerships, all the more so as different publications appealed to different demographics, who could then be targeted by advertisers keen to reach specific potential markets for their products. The result of this was that the number of advertisements in all kinds of publications had increased dramatically by the start of the 20thC, as did the size and visual impact of those ads, as they began to use more white space and illustrations, larger and more elaborate typefaces, colour and (eventually) photographs in order to draw the reader’s eye. The other important change was behind the scenes, to the business of advertising itself. Until the very late 19thC, advertising ‘agencies’ as we understand them, did not exist. Instead ‘placing agents’ bought space in newspapers and magazines and then sold it on to companies looking to advertise – this was a much more limited service, and did not include the planning of campaigns nor (usually) the provision of design services or any kind of market research. This gradually changed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as some placing agents expanded their firms and the services they provided. The most famous (if fictional) representative of Irish advertising, Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, was an advertising ‘canvasser’ for the Freeman’s Journal, and as has been pointed out by several critics, was by 1904 a very marginal kind of figure in the rapidly-developing landscape of ‘full service’ agencies.

 

In Ireland, one of the first advertising companies to begin that change was Wilson, Hartnell and Co., established in 1879 by Crawford Hartnell. As discussed in a previous post here, Wilson, Hartnell and Co. developed an innovative business model during the 1890s, when they established an entire publication, Lady of the House, on behalf of their clients, the upmarket grocery chain Findlater and Co. A women’s magazine aimed primarily at the suburban middle-classes who might well have a monthly account with Findlater’s, it published stories, fashion columns and household tips, as well as discussing a surprising range of social and economic issues for a publication of its type. Distributed free to those who did have a Findlater’s account (and costing a shilling per month for other readers), it also included the grocery chain’s full monthly price list in its back pages and was, despite appearances, primarily a platform for their advertising. Wilson, Hartnell and Co. had other accounts as well however, and with an impressive circularity, used Lady of the House to place advertisements for those too. They held the Irish advertising accounts of several big English household brands, most notably Mazawattee tea (then one of the most widely-recognised brands), for whom advertisements appeared in almost every issue of Lady of the House. If the magazine itself operated as an extended advertisement for Findlaters and Co., it also provided a useful platform for Hartnell to place advertisements for other products likely to appeal to a middle-class Irish readership.

 

An enormous range of products were advertised in Irish newspapers and magazines by the early 20thC, but some categories of goods were especially dominant in advertising – for example almost no publication ever appeared without advertisements for soap, or for some of the apparently infinite range of patent medicines. Soap was one of the products which first became branded and heavily advertised, and with its connotations of cleanliness, health and freshness – all especially powerful in a world without either antibiotics or many labour-saving devices, and when dirt was a constant and dangerous presence in people’s lives. Soap was heavily promoted in campaigns which helped to invent the modern form of advertising itself, with its reliance upon connotation and associative qualities. Sunlight Soap, Wright’s Coal Tar Soap, Pears Soap and Lifebuoy Soap (‘makes health infectious’) all took regular illustrated whole page advertisements in publications as varied as Lady of the House, Ireland’s Own and Irish Society, and they were the pioneers of lavish illustrations (including some of the earliest full-colour advertisements) which were intended to associate their products with sturdy children, rosy-cheeked young women and cheerful, bright homes. Indeed, these large weekly soap advertisements may have been the principal financial support of penny papers such as Ireland’s Own by the start of World War One.

 

Far less respectable (and often less lavish), but at least as numerous, were the many ‘patent medicines’ being sold in an unregulated market in which it was perfectly legal to advertise pills or potions which claimed to simultaneously cure impotence and migraines, despite the fact that they often consisted mainly of entirely inactive ingredients (for which customers should perhaps have been grateful). Some of these products barely skirted the 1889 Indecent Advertisements Act, others simply traded upon people’s health problems or personal insecurities. Pills claiming to cure haemorrhoids, restore thinning hair or cause dramatic weight loss proliferated across all kinds of publications. While many (especially those offering barely legal products) were small and relatively discreet, their sheer quantity and frequency provided valuable income for newspapers and magazines. And some of the more successful used full-page illustrated advertisements every bit as eye-catching as the ads for Sunlight Soap. Holloway’s Pills (which promised to cure ‘indigestion, feverishness, dizziness, loss of appetite and energy’) and Beecham’s Pills advertisements were especially lavish – and in Beecham’s case were the medically-dubious but very profitable foundation of the pharmaceutical giant which still uses the Beecham name today to market cold and flu medications. The recurring themes, styles and promises of these advertisements tell us a great deal about the culture and preoccupations of the era, and some of them will be the subject of more detailed blog posts here in the future. In broader economic terms, however, the important point is that more frequent and more lavish advertisements became the financial underpinning of the entire mass media industry, from daily newspapers to monthly magazines, allowing them to sell copies below cost-price, and thus expand (and maintain) their readership.

 

As advertising grew and became more sophisticated, more and more agencies opened in Dublin. By the start of the 20thC, Wilson, Hartnell and Co. had competition from the Parker agency established in 1888 on Dame Street (just down the road from the Hartnell offices), and in 1892 they were joined by Kevin J Kenny’s agency which opened on Amiens Street and initially traded under the truly wonderful name of ‘Multum in Parvo’. Others would soon follow, including the legendary McConnell’s agency which was founded (with timing its founder was very proud of) during Easter Week 1916. Some of these agencies would go on to be among the dominant forces of 20thC advertising in Ireland, at least one of them lasting into the 21stC. For all the enormous changes their industry continued to see during that time – including the ascendancy of new media platforms such as radio, television and the internet – it was the late 19thC and early 20thC era which established the structures of modern advertising, its shift from an informational to an emotive form of address to consumers, and its absolutely inextricable economic links to mass media.

 

References

Matthew Hayward, ‘Bloom’s Job: the Role of the Advertisement Canvasser in Joyce’s Dublin’, Modernism/modernity, Vol.22, No.4 (2015), pp. 651-666.

 

Hugh Oram, The Advertising Book: the History of Advertising in Ireland, MO Books: Dublin, 1986.

 

Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian England: Advertising and Spectacle, 1851-1914, Stanford University Press: Stanford CA, 1991.

 

Juliann Sivulka, Stronger Than Dirt: A Cultural History of Advertising Personal Hygiene in America, 1875-1940, Prometheus Books: New York, 2001.