Approximately 100 years ago, when full-color lithography came into its own, the producers of products used this new technology to full advantage. From patent medicines, farm machinery or the new wonder elixir, “Coca Cola,” the businesses hawking products boggled the public’s imagination with bright, colorful posters, brilliantly-adorned trade cards and unique signs.
By today’s standards, some of the early advertising was downright ridiculous, but it was thought that wild claims attracted attention and encouraged purchase. During the late 1800s, it was not unusual to walk into a general store and see dozens of window hangers, wall posters, flyers and displays. The advertising “noise” level was primarily sight-related, and the more colorful pieces got the most positive response.
Just as Madison Avenue today develops hard-hitting ad campaigns, manufacturers of the late 1800s did likewise. The earliest advertising generally illustrated only the product, later the product in use and, even later, the product, its uses and benefits. When it became apparent that a picture of a baby or young child attracted enormous attention, the trend swept America. The high mortality rate of the late 1800s caused the health of children to become a paramount concern, and advertisements leveraged the claim that their products made youngsters healthy! Examples of this are Mellin’s Foods and Gail Bordon’s Eagle Brand milk.
Advertisers swarmed noted illustrators for appealing art of babies and young children. Hood’s Sarsaparilla from Lowell, Massachusetts, produced calendars featuring pictures of children every year. Maude Humphrey, notable illustrator of the period, was in high demand, and her pieces today still command a premium price. Metropolitan Life Insurance was another advertiser that produced thousands of calendars and posters featuring children, which were especially poignant in light of the fact that the company sold a product which protected futures. Their calendars were daily reminders that the family was solidly protected by Metropolitan Life Insurance.
During the early 1900s, many new symbolic children appeared: the Fisk Tire Boy, Wool Soap Kids, Gold Dust Twins and the Swift Pig-Tail Girl, were all readily recognizable in their day. Several of these early children are still utilized today, for instance, Campbell Kids, the Morton Salt Girl, the Ceresota (Heckers) Flour Boy and Dutch Boy Paint. Even the Uneeda Boy still appears on millions of packages of Uneeda Biscuits!
In recent years, many major campaigns still used kids as a central theme. Oscar Meyer rose to prominence when the little boy sitting on the porch spelling B-O-L-O-G-N-A caught our eye. Northern Tissue fought for market share by creating an advertisement featuring a little girl taking the product into the bathroom and winking as she shut the door. Messages like these create a sweet memory in the public’s mind.
Effective advertising is said to “create an image or impression that encourages recall at point of purchase.” But during the late 1800s there was no radio or TV, only periodic printed pieces. The collective advertising wisdom of that era demanded wildly colorful graphics for maximum impact.
Included in this article are a few examples of several styles of children in advertising. It is interesting to study them and attempt to place yourself in the late 1800s or early 1900s and try to determine the message being communicated. Also, you might ask, how could anyone refuse to try the products these adorable children are selling?
You’ll probably notice three different approaches in these examples: kids with products, kids using products and kids as charming enhancements. If you pay particular attention to the Empire Soap poster showing well-dressed, African-American children on their way home from school, you may notice that the poster is an example of inspirational advertising and dates from 1884, just 18 years after the Civil War. A free poster was offered to those who sent in 50 labels from the advertised product. Empire Soap was already targeting a specific demographic!
Collecting posters and other advertising print mediums featuring children is not only interesting, but quite profitable. The high demand for quality examples of vintage advertising featuring children proves that kids in advertising continues to enchant and charm a wide audience.
Written by Audrey & Jerry Glenn, owners of Reminisce; reprinted with permission from Collectors’ Showcase (Jan./Feb. 1984). Audrey and Jerry Glenn are from New Jersey, and were collector dealers. Their mutual love of historical promotional graphics comes naturally. Audrey, a former teacher and history major (Wheaton), and Jerry, past Director of Sales Promotion and Planning for a major corporation, have collected graphics for 42 years.