Calkins, Earnest Elmo (1868-1964)

Published on .

Reprints Reprints

Earnest Elmo Calkins was born in Genesco, Ill., on March 15, 1868. A childhood bout of measles left him with progressively worsening deafness. As a result, Mr. Calkins's early fascination with letters, words and print grew, and he became a voracious reader, which later gave him material for his career.

After graduating from Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., Mr. Calkins became an apprentice in a local print shop, where he launched his advertising career quietly with a few small local advertisements. In a move that was unheard of at the time, he began using artwork in his ads. He also changed his ads more frequently than once a month.

Mr. Calkins began to think seriously of moving his advertising career to New York when he won an ad contest with a piece he created for a small Galesburg hardware dealer, the G.B. Churchill Co. One of the contest's judges was Charles Austin Bates, a New York agency founder and owner and an important early copywriter.

Mr. Calkins sent samples of his work to Mr. Bates, who hired him as a copywriter. He was successful at the agency, but eventually began to have creative differences with the artists at Bates.

In 1902, he joined Ralph Holden, who was in charge of new accounts for Bates, and the two formed Calkins & Holden, now credited as the first modern advertising agency. Mr. Holden, businesslike and meticulous, took care of the sales that Mr. Calkins, by now totally deaf, believed to be beyond his sphere; Mr. Calkins produced the advertising copy.

Calkins & Holden grew into a vital company, with clients including Beech-Nut, Thomas A. Edison Industries, H.J. Heinz, Pierce-Arrow, E.R. Squibb and Ingersoll Watch as well as McCall's, McClure's, The Saturday Evening Post and Woman's Home Companion. The success of the agency stemmed largely from its emphasis on design.

When the agency first opened, Mr. Calkins had to sell the concept of advertising itself. He presented a series of ads to various manufacturers depicting advertising as the key to capitalizing on the changing climate of business. In addition, advertisers at the time commonly bought large blocks of advertising for the cheapest rates possible and used a method of announcement, rather than promotion. Calkins & Holden changed this by convincing advertisers that it was the quality of the ad rather than the size of the space that mattered.

Mr. Calkins was a visionary regarding the role of art in advertising. He believed that business held great opportunities for artists; in time, he predicted, the great artists of the day would create artwork for advertising, and ads would be a venue for defining and displaying great art. Advertising, in turn, would have an impact on the artistry of the products, as packaging had to be changed to meet the demands of this new type of ad.

In reality, most artists stayed away from commercial art entirely, viewing it with distrust. Still, Calkins & Holden built an art department that became the standard for the advertising industry.

Mr. Calkins also set the standards for copy. He firmly believed in the power of truth and integrity in advertising. He was outspoken in his criticism of paid testimonials as diminishing public confidence and thus diluting the effectiveness of all advertising.

Notable earlier campaigns by Mr. Calkins included the "Phoebe Snow" verses for the Lackawanna Railroad and the "Sunny Jim" jingles for Force breakfast cereal. Each of these appeared as serial stories, eagerly followed by their audiences. Sunny Jim took on a life of his own, as songs, musical comedies and vaudeville skits were written about him. Both campaigns relied on trade characters; they did not actually present the products' specific merits, but did keep them before the public.

In later years, Mr. Calkins pointed out that this was not necessarily the best type of product advertising—for instance, people knew Sunny Jim but did not necessarily buy Force cereal. Yet these campaigns were considered to be cutting-edge work at the time.

Mr. Calkins pioneered the concept of impressionistic advertising, or the "soft sell," wherein an ad establishes an atmosphere and makes sales pitches by association. This approach was used for products ranging from shirt collars to cars.

In 1931, five years after the death of Mr. Holden, Mr. Calkins retired. His deafness had finally become too great a handicap as the advertising industry began turning to radio campaigns.

In 1925, Mr. Calkins became the first person to receive Harvard University's Bok medal for distinguished personal service in advertising. Calkins & Holden merged with Fletcher Richards in 1959 to become Fletcher Richards, Calkins & Holden.

Mr. Calkins died Oct. 4, 1964. In 1964, the year Mr. Calkins died, the agency was merged into the Interpublic Group of Cos.


Born in Genesco, Ill., March 25, 1868; co-founded Calkins & Holden, 1902; first recipient of Harvard University's Bok medal, 1925; retired from Calkins & Holden, 1931; died Oct. 4, 1964.

In this article:
Most Popular