History: Pre-19th Century

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The history of modern advertising begins in the 19th century with the convergence of mass production, new forms of print technology and the advent of the advertising agent. Yet if advertising is loosely defined as any human communication intended to persuade or influence buyers, it can be traced to ancient times.

For thousands of years, tradespeople used trademarks, posters, pictorial signs and hawkers. Farmers branded cattle to mark ownership, while craftsmen imprinted trademarks on goods to identify the maker or the article's origin. In Babylon, barkers enticed buyers with descriptions of wines, spices, rugs and other wares from newly arrived ships. Early Egyptian, Greek and Roman merchants hung carved signs and painted store fronts, using symbols and pictures instead of words so even illiterate passersby could identify the business.

But with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, many early advertising practices ceased in the Western world for nearly 1,000 years.

The medieval period

During the Middle Ages, urban commerce, markets and handicrafts dwindled in Western Europe; increasingly, the population was decentralized into small villages. Piracy on the seas hampered maritime trade, and the Saracens blocked Europe's exchange with the East. With the decline in literacy, painted wall announcements disappeared and street-sign advertising ebbed. Few outside the clergy could read, since to know how to read and write was considered an unmanly accomplishment.

As law and order returned in the 13th century, trade and commerce began to stir again. Cities were revived, craft guilds formed and a middle class, consisting of craftspeople, merchants and other professionals, emerged. At the same time, trade with the East resumed, and with this commerce, entrepreneurship developed.

Merchants paid town criers to advertise their goods and hung signboards to identify their businesses. In medieval England, customers could locate the shoemaker by his boot-shaped sign, the baker by a sign in the form of a sheaf of wheat or the barber by his red-and-white-striped pole. Advertisers also used hand-lettered fliers and posters to attract attention.

It was this enlightened climate that embraced the idea of printing. The Chinese refinement of wood-block printing and movable type provided the technology needed to help spur the development of printing in the West, where literacy was also spreading. The first use of movable type was in 1041, when the Chinese shaped it from clay.

The printed word, 1450-1600

The most important development in the history of advertising was the introduction of the printing press in the mid-1440s. In Germany, Johannes Gutenberg perfected a system of movable type that could be used again and again to produce books and other printed matter. The first book issued by Mr. Gutenberg, the Bible, set a high standard. Within 50 years, presses were in operation all across Europe.

Printing provided a way to record information so that people no longer had to rely on their memories. Many more people learned to read and write, and ideas spread quickly. Also, the new technology enabled the development of the first forms of advertising-printed handbills, posters, trade cards and the first mass medium, newspapers.

In 1477, William Caxton, a London printer, posted the first printed ad in English, a 3-by-5-inch handbill announcing his prayer book for sale. Tradesmen handed out illustrated shop bills to prospective customers, and producers of medicinal remedies began to attach posterlike labels to their bottles, a forerunner of modern packaging.

The first newspapers appeared during the 16th century. Professional writers penned hand-written manuscripts or "newsletters" for sale to nobles or others requiring the latest news. These letters eventually appeared sporadically in mass-produced printed form. News periodicals printed on a regular basis later took the form of a pocket-size publication called a "newsbook."

In 1625, the first newspaper advertisement in English—promoting a book—appeared on the back page of a newsbook. In subsequent editions, ads appeared either on the last page or sandwiched in with the news. To bring the reader's attention to these notices, newsbook publishers headed them with the word "advertisement," which was derived from the Middle English word advertisen, meaning to notify.

Single sheets later replaced the book form, and by the early 17th century "newspapers" appeared in many major European cities. In Italy, the publications became known as gazettas from an old Venetian word for a coin (the price of the pamphlet).

In the 17th century, the art of advertising also developed in the form of illustrated shop bills, called trade cards or tradesmen cards, distributed by tradesmen. These announcements ranged in size from 1 3/4-by-2 3/4 inches to 10-by-16 inches and were handed out over the counter or door to door. The heading of the trade card often bore an engraving of the picture sign hanging outside the shop. Over time, the cards developed from a formal announcement of the nature of the business to persuasive advertisements, listing and illustrating the wares offered.

England, 1600-1800

The first modern medium to carry advertisements was the British newspaper. In England, the London Gazette, the first officially recognized newspaper, initially refused advertising, stating the paid notices of books, medicine and other such items were not the business of a paper of intelligence. The publication eventually carried text-only ads similar to today's want ads on a separate sheet.

Although the founders and theoreticians of early modern advertising were mainly American and British, the inventor of the advertising agency in a primitive form was a Frenchman, Theophraste Renaudot. In 1630, the promoter of the Gazette de France, the ancestor of the modern French newspaper, opened an office in Paris where advertisements could be posted for three sous each. In London, Henry Walker set up a similar business in 1659. Like modern agencies, these offices accepted advertising. But they only placed copy in one medium, their own, and charged buyers and sellers a fee to use it.

Others, like onetime apothecary and general dealer John Houghton, saw a greater future for advertising. In 1692, he launched a publication, A Collection for Improvement of Husbandry & Trade, primarily for ads. At first he listed products and prices and offered to tell callers where they could be obtained. After experimenting with blind ads, Mr. Houghton began to give the names and addresses of those who could supply lumber, lodgings, brimstone, wigs, servants, a wet nurse or a suitable school for children.

During the early 18th century, the British government curbed the press by imposing a stamp duty and an ad tax. As English publishers faced increasing costs and government taxation, many ceased publication while others flourished with the support of advertising revenues. The London Country Gentleman's Courant was the first paper to establish a "line rate" instead of a flat rate for ads, which usually ran eight or 10 lines. Next, the literary periodical The Tatler (1709-11) introduced the "frequency rate," a reduced charge for an ad that ran a certain number of times within a given period. In 1710, Joseph Addison agreed to write an advertiser's copy on the condition that he be given exclusive rights to do so and that he place all the advertising he wrote in one medium.

For a century, ads were directed to a limited market, mainly the frequenters of coffeehouses where the newspapers were read. There was little or no advertising of household goods. Instead, notices offered the wealthy coffee, tea, books, wines, wigs, cosmetics and medicines; notified them of plays and concerts; sold lottery tickets; and offered servants and slaves. About the state of advertising, Samuel Johnson wrote in The Idler in 1759: "The trade of advertising is so near to perfection that it is not so easy to propose any improvement."

The New World, 1600-1800

It could be argued that America began with efforts by English entrepreneurs to attract settlers to the new land in one of the first sustained ad campaigns in the modern world. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, enterprising promoters printed a variety of books, brochures and posters to promote America to their countrymen.

European colonists brought the idea of advertising with them to America, but the concept was slow to take hold. Colonists simply had little need, and virtually no media, to advertise their goods for sale over a wide area, and printing equipment and supplies were scarce and expensive.

In 1704, Boston News-Letter, the first regularly printed newspaper in America, carried ads. But it was Benjamin Franklin who capitalized on advertising there as John Houghton did in Britain. In 1728, Mr. Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Gazette, and circulation quickly increased. The large readership attracted more advertising than any other colonial newspaper, including a new class of advertisers, particularly in the retail field.

Mr. Franklin's General Magazine & Historical Chronicle, appearing Feb. 16, 1741, was the first magazine to be conceived in the colonies, but Andrew Bradford issued his American Magazine three days earlier. Although both periodicals were short-lived, the first magazine ad appeared in the May 1741 issue of Mr. Franklin's publication. Magazines did not succeed as vehicles for advertising for another century.

Well before 1800, most American newspapers were not only supported by advertising, they were primarily vehicles for the dissemination of advertising. The front and back pages of almost all the four-page Boston, New York and Philadelphia newspapers were generally solid advertising, often with two or three columns of additional ads on Page 3.

The majority of advertising centered on real estate, runaway apprentices and slaves, and transportation; lost items, books and merchants' lists of goods accounted for the rest. Notices of slaves for sale constituted a high percentage of these advertisements.

By 1765, an estimated 2 million people lived in the colonies. The literate part of this audience noticed almost anything in print, since cheap reading matter was still a rarity. A mere 25 publishers printed approximately 15,000 four-page weekly newspapers that had an even greater secondhand circulation.

The demand for news about the American Revolution boosted newspaper circulation, and publishers' chronic paper shortage became even more acute. At the time, paper consisted of 100% rag. Yet the shortage of rags for papermaking made paper scarce. People frugally used the same fabric over and over, since home production of cotton and linen involved laborious spinning and weaving. Despite editorial pleas for people to save their rags to make newsprint, the paper shortage often limited many major city newspapers to a mere 300 to 400 copies per day. Others were forced to suspend publishing.

To solve the problem, publishers crammed more type into less space and restricted advertising for the next 70 years. Seven or eight columns crowded a page, where before there had been three to five. Publishers also dropped rules between columns and shrank type size from the standard 12-point to an almost illegible six-point in both news and ads.

Many advertisers responded by moving their announcements to posters called "broadsides" as well as handbills and trade cards. The broadsides typically were twice the size of a newspaper page, providing plenty of space to make the message interesting. Broadsides also proved a popular news medium. Selling for a penny, the notice might contain official declarations, political propaganda, dying confessions of convicted criminals or even poetic verses.

By the end of the 18th century, advertising was thoroughly established in both Great Britain and the U.S., and the newspaper had established itself as an ad medium.

Through this period, businesses had little need to create new demand or to advertise to attract customers, and most people had little money to spend. People made a living from their farms, growing and making nearly everything they needed. Because employers often provided room and board in exchange for labor, with perhaps a very small amount of money thrown in, most workers earned little cash. Small family operations produced items in modest amounts and found buyers in the village marketplace. Nearly anything they could make could be sold—wagons, shoes, flour, houses.

The problem was rarely to find a market for the goods, which were very much in demand. The problem was finding someone with money to pay for them. When this condition changed, advertising, as it is known today, began in earnest.

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