This post was contributed by Nicole Horowitz a graduate student in the OSU School of Writing, Literature, and Film, who recently completed an internship with curator Anne Bahde. Nicole examined women’s periodicals from the modernist period to look at the intersections between literature and material culture during the era.
A venture over to any special collections or archival research center housed in a university worth its salt will boast a wide array of periodicals, likely ranging from the mid-19th century to the modern-day. But, while most archival material is more likely spotted in the pages of a history book than on the shelves of the local supermarket, we’d like to bring your attention to a notable exception to that rule: the world of periodical advertisements.
And while OSU’s own Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) boasts a wide an array of ad-type holdings, one doesn’t need a Mad Men level appreciation of the history of adverts to appreciate them. In fact, many of the brands featured in popular periodicals of the Modernist Era, for example (roughly the 1890s to the 1930s), are as familiar to the modern consumer as they were to their 20th century counterparts. A Women’s Home Companion, for example, contains ads for everything from Listerine to Sunkist Oranges to Valspar Paint, none of which would seem out of place in our modern marketplace. And a further look at these ads might reveal not only popular trends in art, fashion, and food of the era, but also the lasting power of these powerhouse brands, and how that might help us understand the American consumer as both ever-changing and ever-staying-the-same.
Take for example, two advertisements for Heinz products, one from 1918, the other from 1925. The 1918 spread is set in scene around a dinner table on a summer afternoon, and shows off the very epitome of post-World War I elegance, including a maid rushing to the table with signature Heinz Ketchup. It is printed in bright water-color-esque tones, with ornate floral embellishments. The 1925 advertisement, by contrast, is simpler; a clean white background with a single bottle of Heinz Ketchup centered, loving held, cleanly labeled. While the font is consistent (and indeed, consistent today), this bolder color palette and copy betrays the 1920s sensibilities that put less of an emphasis on family, and more on the food itself, as the increasing migration to cities brought an enthusiasm for dining out, and by extension, the perennial Ketchup-topped hamburger, front and center.
This example is one of countless advertisements in this publication and many more which not only trace the evolution and durability of any number of American products, but also speak to the beauty, stylishness and era-reflecting elegance of the print work itself, through copy and image alike. In this way, the Modernist period can be seen not only as a period of great literary and cultural growth, but aesthetic growth as well, through the beauty of these ads and others, some of which feature logos that still show up in shopping carts and refrigerators the country over, today.
“Why does this matter?” you might ask. Well, if you’ve ever coaxed ketchup from a glass bottle at your own local greasy spoon, you are a part of the American legacy of Heinz. Products and the advertisements that sell them are an undeniable part of American identity, and to understand one’s place as part of this heritage is the best way to support it, or actively change it, as one sees fit. In other words, knowledge is power, even if that knowledge revolves around condiments.