A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

C is for Consumerism

Not only what we buy, but how we buy, significantly changed in the late nineteenth century. Alongside the increase in convenience goods and new technology to purchase, consumers could shop at rapidly expanding department stores or order through catalogues. In a crowded marketplace of mass produced goods, advertising was more important than ever with attention paid to slogans, brand names, packaging, billboards and advertorials. In the United States, the dollars spent on advertising nearly tripled between 1880 to 1900  (Juliann Sivulka, 2011). When billboards were first erected in the 1870s they significantly altered citizens’ experience of the city – everyone was now a potential consumer who could be persuaded to purchase the product advertised. In New York there was increasing public outcry against billboards encroaching on the natural and communal spaces within the city, until in 1896 they were banned from public parks (Christopher Gray, 2001).

The cartoon ‘Why Stop With Niagara?’ in 20 April 1905 issue of Life fears that legislation against outdoor advertising is futile. In an illustration of Yosemite National Park in 1910, adverts have been painted onto the side of El Capitan for more mundane accoutrements such as ‘self raising suspenders’, collar buttons, cigars and soap. Two weeks earlier, in a special issue satirically looking forward to 1950, Niagara Falls appears with similar painted signs for mattresses and pants (Life, 6 April 1905). Since the 1870s companies had crudely advertised on natural landmarks, to the extent that The New York Tribune complained that ‘scenery had become “obscenery”’ due to the paint (Michael Shudson, 2013). With half of its pages covered in adverts for alcohol, shoes, corsets, chocolate, typewriters, cars, the publishers of Life had no problem with advertising both aspirational and everyday goods to a middle class readership encouraged to display their purchasing power. However, outdoor advertising was a step too far as it transgressed the boundaries between the ‘natural’ world (albeit a constructed one) and the consumerist world of the city and its billboards. On the other side of the Yosemite cartoon, Dart bemoans the increasing industrialisation of the national parks – Niagara in 1910 is overrun with factories and overhead cables, obscuring the views, while Yellowstone is home to geothermal laundries, and Mammoth Cave Kentucky houses a busy subway station (Life, 20 April 1905). 

This expansive spread of advertising encroaches beyond American natural spaces. In ‘The North Pole when the United States has Annexed it’, a group of indigenous men and women look on as a sign painter completes work on a signpost—not displaying distance markers but rather adverts for whale oil to treat dyspepsia and hair restorer (Men, Women and Mirth, 1909). The cartoonist demonstrates a prescient awareness of USA’s globalised consumerist reach as the century develops.

Harry Grant Dart, ‘Why Stop With Niagara?’, Life, 20 April 1905, Haithi Trust.