Early Advertising
efesAd directing clients to house of prostitution in ancient Efes, Turkey. gazette 2 column mortised

The Beginning of Advertising

People have always posted notices or used visual devices to sell their services or products. Excavations at Pompeii have revealed signs and evidence that merchants advertised their goods at the time Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.

Newspaper Ads
The advent of regularly published newspapers in the 16th century provided the perfect vehicle for displaying a collection of advertisements.

In 1729 Benjamin Franklin published the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia with pages of "new advertisements." By 1784 The Pennsylvania Packet & Daily Advertiser, America's first successful daily newspaper, starts in Philadelphia. Many publications banned advertising while others limited the space to one column width. However by 1870 there were over 5,000 newspapers in circulation which carried advertising and the demand for advertising services was rapidly growing.


Newspaper Ads

At the outset ads were simply lines of text. They became so numerous that the ads had to be "classified," into categories such as houses for sale, help wanted, personals, etc.
Above right: In 1729 Benjamin Franklin published the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia with pages of "new advertisements.


Ad from London's Charivari,1880's.

Visual Devices for Selling

As products became plentiful through means of mass production, retailers moved from the plain copy ads to more sophisticated methods, including decorative type styles, reversed type on black backgrounds.

Engraved images were customized for each client or selections were made from stock images (in the letterpress world are called cuts). Theses black and white with tone areas was the main means of illustration on relief presses before photography and offset printing.

Each image was priced and inserted into the ad copy.





Many examples of these early devices are available for free or low fees at Briar Press.

Shown above
Border or mortised ads
Ubiquitous pointing finger gets you every time!


The Birth of US Advertising Agencies
garter palmer2 ayer manual

Expanding Product Virtues

The strategy of early advertising was to convince the buyer of the quality of the product. A flattering illustration of the product, numerous descriptions extolling its virtues or testimonials from prominent citizens were commonly used. Later product claims gave way to elaborate stories of purchases that rewarded the buyer with success, popularity or romance.

Image from The Duke Library
From The Gilded Age, Joel Shrock
Greenwood Publishing 2004

The first advertising agents were essentially resellers of newspaper space. The field had a shady reputation from the unscrupulous practice of buying large blocks of newspaper space at a discount and reselling tiny bits at highly inflated prices.

Advertising Agents

Volney Palmer opened the first advertising agency in Philadelphia in 1841 and is possibly the first person to use the term "advertising agency." As early as 1842, Palmer had a firmly established list of clients, representing newspapers all across Pennsylvania and into Maryland, and extending as far as New Jersey, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and even Alabama... According to Holland, by 1849 "The American Newspaper Subscription and Advertising Agency of Volney B. Palmer, Esq., claimed to be the sole representative of 1,300 of the estimated 2,000 newspapers published" at that time.

Palmer's extensive list of followers was unheard of at the time, as were the systematic methods he used to operate his agency. Not only did Palmer provide potential advertisers with space rates for each available publication, but he also presented them with a full production that organized each publication according to target market and population.

When necessary, Palmer advised advertisers on appropriate advertising copy, sculpting efficient works at no cost to the client. In serving as a knowledgeable liaison between publishers and advertisers, Palmer was able to charge publishers a commission (widely believed to be on a 25 per cent basis) while maintaining repeat business from satisfied advertisers. Overall, Palmer possessed a thorough understanding of the advantages of his service, and "set out to show his clients how they might use this tool 'to advertise judiciously, effectively and safely.'"1


N. W. Ayers & Son

In 1869, 21 year old Francis Wayland Ayer (1848-1923) opened a firm using the name of his elder and established father, N. W. Ayer. Despite rejecting alcoholic beverage and patent medicine accounts, the firm was so successful that by 1877 it acquired the remains of the original Volney Palmer agency and therefore laid claim to the claim oldest advertising firm in the US.

"N.W. Ayer bought Palmer's agency and its reputation...and greatly enhanced it. With such an innovative and unrivaled idea, it is not surprising that Palmer's advertising agency grew rapidly. Furthermore, the advancements in transportation brought on by the expanding use of steam engines expedited Palmer's business processes and encouraged the physical expansion of his practice. In 1845, Palmer opened a second branch of his agency in Boston before opening two more offices in New York and Baltimore shortly thereafter.

Just as Palmer's business grew, so did his competition. Yet, despite a growing presence of advertising agencies in the 1850s, it was widely expressed that none could compare to Palmer's agency. Holland provides a testimonial written in the New York Daily Tribune, "Our agent for the city of New York is Mr. V. B. Palmer.... A dozen different could not do half so good that this one may, if generally supported." Palmer was the best advertising agent of his time, and he remained so well into his fifties." 1

N.W. Ayer & Son introduced the open contract, a practice which would alter the history of advertising forever. The open contract guaranteed clients the lowest possible rates the agency could negotiate with publications. Commission was later added and ranged from 8.5% to 15%. By 1909, the open contract became known as "O.C. + 15" by the agency, and the 15% commission later became an industry standard.

By 1884 the firm started to offer advertising but it was wasn't until 1892 that writers and artists worked together in creative teams."In 1898 N. W. Wyer became the first large advertising agency to hire an art director and establish a separate department devoted to the composition and design of advertisements."6 N. W. Ayer moved to New York City in 1973 and closed when acquired by the Publicis Groupe (based in Paris, France) in 2002.

N.W. Ayer and Son expanded its influence over the advertising world by introducing its own new advertising publications, Ayer & Son's Manual for Advertisers. This magazine publication listed the information about the newspapers they advertised for, including information about the rates and circulation of each individual paper. In 1876, N.W. Ayer and Son introduced another publication, The Advertiser's Guide, which unlike the Manual, included business news, funny stories, and advertising articles.

Note: Another mega agency, J. Walter Thompson (Link) was started in New York in 1878 and has remained in operation into the 21st century.

Why Graphic Designers Should Acknowledge Advertising

Excerpts from Stephen Heller's Essay "Advertising, The Mother of Graphic Design" Graphic Design History, 2001. An argument for acknowledging advertising as the root of graphic design.


"Though graphic design as we know it today originated in the late 19th century as a tool for advertising, any association with marketing, advertising or capitalism deeply undermines the graphic designer's self image. Graphic Design History is an integral part of advertising history, yet in most accounts of graphic design's origins advertising is virtually denied, or hidden behind more benign words such as "publicity" or "promotion." This omission not only limits the discourse but misrepresents the facts. It is time for graphic design historians, and designers generally, to remove the elitist prejudices that had perpetuated a biased history." Heller, p.294 Heller points out that in 1922 William Addison Dwiggins first used the term "Graphic Designer" while describing his diverse practice of book, type and advertising design. Heller also notes that Jan Tschichold's books Die Neue Typographie (1928) and Typographische Gestaltung (1935) were intended to present "dynamic new possibilities for advertising compositions in archaic and cluttered printed environment—not some "idealistic notion of visual communication in an aesthetic vacuum."4

Shown Right, William Addison Dwiggins

Business Revolution: The Ad Agency By Megan Corinn Crouse, Fall 2010

Holland, Donald R. Volney B. Palmer, 1799-1864: The Nation's First Advertising Agency Man. Lexington, KY: Association for Education in Journalism, 1976.

The History of Advertising Agency, Ralph M. Howe

Image Source, Yesterday's Clues

Michael Bierut, Looking Closer 2: Critical Writings on Graphic Design, Skyhorse Publishing Inc., Apr 1, 1997.

Image Source
Abbe, Dorothy, "Dwiggins & the Puppeteers: 1942."Abrams 1970.

Mazur Thomson, Ellen, The Origins of Graphic Design in America, Yale University, 1997.

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