Saturday, March 24, 2012

P&PC in the Oxford History of Popular Print Culture

Between 1860 and 1920, advertising strategies for two products almost singlehandedly changed the face of consumer culture in the United States—or so Cary Nelson and P&PC claim in "American Advertising: A Poem for Every Product," which is Chapter 7 in the newly-released, 700-page tome U.S. Popular Print Culture 1860-1920 (Volume 6 of Oxford's History of Popular Print Culture series). At $160, the book's no cheapie (maybe Oxford needs a jingle or two to help advertise it?), but Nelson and P&PC offer ten images from their private collections and lots of great verse to show how poetry—a genre that many people associate with anticapitalist endeavors—fueled the development of the advertising industry and paved the way for a myriad of advertising techniques we're familiar with today.

In "A Poem for Every Product," Nelson and P&PC argue that, while poems were used to pitch everything from galoshes to carriages, two consumer items in particular—patent medicines and soap—deserve special credit (or blame) in powering the development and expansion of the American advertising industry and its poetry, as U.S. poets found at that conjunction the possibility for regular incomes and audiences appreciative of their skills. In the writing of this essay, Nelson took on the subject of patent medicines while P&PC picked up on the issue of soap (a topic we've addressed on this blog before), and we found the two products to be intimately related, as soap assumed the dominant place in advertising that patent medicines occupied prior to the Progressive Era's truth-in-advertising movements that culminated, in part, in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The shift from snake oil to soap—two items with simple recipes that needed advertising to differentiate one brand of similar material from another—was complicated and not accomplished overnight, but one of the poets helping it along was the phenomenally successful Canadian writer and artist Palmer Cox. Thus, Cox serves as a sort of fulcrum in "A Poem for Every Product," a moment halfway through the essay when Nelson's argument about patent medicines transitions to P&PC's thoughts about soap. Here, in the way of a preview of that essay, follows an excerpt from the moment in "A Poem for Every Product" when the shady business of advertising starts relying on soap to help, uh, clean up its act:

"In 1890, five years after writing 'Wisdom in Fable' for Pond's Extract, Palmer Cox [pictured here] produced 'A Friendly Turn' to advertise Ivory Soap for Cincinnati's Procter and Gamble Company. There, in four pages of his trademark tetrameter couplets and whimsical pen and ink illustrations, Cox called on his 'Brownies' to spin a tale of Ivory's elfin origin, purity, and medicinal qualities. While not as universal in its application as Pond's—which in 1885 had purported to resolve a range of skin ailments in addition to 'Sore Throat, Rheumatism, Wounds, Catarrh, Hemorrhages, Nose Bleed, Sprains, [and] Swellings'—Ivory is nonetheless credited with the ability to treat people's 'scabby heads,' 'unsightly pimples,' 'scaly crust,' and 'body sore.' Like a miracle cure, the 'pure and perfect' Brownie concoction works its transformative magic almost overnight:
No more were seen the scabby heads,
Or finest garments all in shreds,
No more unsightly pimples rose,
To mar the chaps, or scaly crust,
Made people wish themselves in dust.
For, from the infant on the breast,
To those who neared their final rest,—
For rich and poor, the great and small,
Found Ivory Soap had cleansed them all.
For people suffering, Cox writes, as if pitching the merits of a patent medicine, 'Their sole relief and only hope / Is found in using Ivory Soap.'

"The apparent ease with which Cox moves—or has been moved—between patent medicine advertising and soap advertising is in part an indication of his poetry's general marketability and public appeal, but it's also emblematic of a larger, conceptual shift that took place in American advertising in the last decade of the nineteenth century. That shift—which occurred as the age of patent medicine advertising was coming to an end—saw advertisers seize on and redeploy the curative rhetoric of nostrum advertising in order to market other consumer goods as well. In promoting a transformative power inherent to the commodity item, this new strategy not only contributed to the further fetishization of goods in the new 'modern' consumer economy by further obscuring the labour relations of their production. It also publicized the notion that the commodity item was itself a cure for people's many and varied ills—promising to be not just a physical good with a specific use, but a shortcut to social status, sex appeal, or lifestyle—and that the corresponding act of buying and consuming was a medicinal activity in its own right. That is, in the expansion of patent medicine advertising strategies more broadly at this time, we can see the birth of what we now call 'retail therapy.'

"That expansion didn't happen all at once, nor did it happen equally from product to product. Indeed, restructuring the logic of consumption and Americans' relationship to commodity items in this way required a tangible form of what Fredric Jameson would call a 'vanishing mediator'—that entity which 'serves as a bearer of change and social transformation, only to be forgotten once that change has ratified the reality of the institutions.' In the case of American consumer capitalism, that signal mediating product was soap, partly because soap had been included in the patent-medicine industry for a long time [it was oftentimes an ingredient in nostrums], and partly because it provided an outward performance—taking something dirty and making it clean—of the transformative character that advertisers hoped would eventually become linked in the American psyche to every other product....So twinned were the discourses of patent medicine and soap at the end of the nineteenth century that at least one nineteenth-century producer of nostrums—Palmer Cox's patron, Pond's Healing and Pond's Extract—was able to respond to the Pure Food and Drug act by transforming itself almost immediately into a skin-care cleansing specialist, Pond's Cold Cream, which is still on the market today."

For the rest of this essay—including the performance of Dreydoppel's Borax Soap in "The Great Contest!!"—check out Chapter 7 of U.S. Popular Print Culture 1860-1920 from Oxford University Press.