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Harvard Business School Sponsors Exhibit on Nineteenth Century Advertising

Thursday we had a warm sunny day here in New England.

That morning I drove over to the Harvard Business School in Cambridge to see the Baker Library exhibit called “The Art of American Advertising 1865-1910.”

The exhibit, which runs until this Friday, April 4, is filled with examples of ads for the many mass-produced and mass-distributed goods that appeared on the market after the Civil War.

The ads, most of them in beautiful chromolithograph colors, illustrate the extension to which companies went in order to familiarize the consumer with their products.  What amazed me were the many different kinds of ads including trade cards, slogans, pop-ups, posters, and trade catalogs.

19th century ads from the Harvard exhibit at the Baker Library, Cambridge, Mass.
Nineteenth century ads that appear in the current exhibit at Harvard’s Baker Library, Cambridge, Mass.

Noted copywriter and author Nathaniel C. Fowler wrote in 1899, “Advertising is a distinct art, as much as the art of coal mining or of engine building.”

The admen of the day were serious about advertising, and even began to call it a modern science.

Though there were no seed company or nursery examples in the Harvard exhibit, the garden industry also took part in this colorful advertising, especially in the catalogs that appeared in the 1890s.

One of the earliest chromolithographs in a seed catalog appeared in the autumn 1867 catalog of B. K. Bliss. The illustration showed popular garden bulbs, like the hyacinth, the tulip, and the lily. At the same time Henry Dreer also included a chromo of bulbs in his 1867-68 catalog.

The garden industry was one of the many businesses that early on used chromos in  advertising.

In the process American gardeners could enjoy the chromolithograph catalogs and illustrations that the companies sent them through the mail.

Hats off to the Baker Library at Harvard for a fascinating look at the history of the art of American advertising.


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