New exhibition celebrates advertising’s rich heritage

The Art of Advertising, at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, catapults visitors back to the dawn of advertising, when handbills and posters reigned supreme

1930 poster for the Morris-Oxford Six

Over 200 years of visual heritage is brought together in the show, which serves as a reminder of just how far advertising’s come. Some of the oldest examples date back to the mid-18th century, and come in the form of trade cards – which let stores and tradesmen advertise their wares.

These early ads favoured longform copy, accompanied with some tasteful copper engravings or woodcuts. A 1742 trade card for perfumer William Roberts came with an illustrated civet cat – whose pungent musk evidently made it a good symbol for the fragrance business. At this stage, there seemed to be little play on words, with advertisers instead showing exhaustive lists of what they had for sale – which for William Roberts ranged from all sorts of hair and tooth powder to French chalk and cold cream for the face. 

1742 ad for perfumer William Roberts
1895 advert for Stower’s Lime Juice Cordial
1892 advert for Edward’s Harlene hair products, all images courtesy the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Things get a little more sophisticated as time goes by, with early 19th-century window bills taking advantage of new printing techniques and type. And while these ads look antiquated, their messages aren’t all that different from what we see today.

Take an 1884 Lutticke’s cold water soap ad, which promises to get washing done in a third of the time, and all without heat, steam or chapped hands. They’re also not immune to a bit of creative bombast, with another soap advert promising to ‘arrest all dirt’ and give ‘perfect satisfaction’ with daily use.

Other tropes are apparent. An 1892 advert for Harlene hair products feels depressingly familiar, playing on women’s worries about their appearance.

Aside from realising that advertisers have been relying on the same tricks for literally hundreds of years, are there lessons to be learned here?

While some of these examples feel dated, many of them are as charming and visually satisfying as they must have been in their own era, suggesting that good creativity doesn’t have an expiry date. More than that, it’s fascinating to see how historic advertising responded to and reflected the cultural and social developments of the time.

The Art of Advertising is on at The Bodleian Libraries from March 5 – August 31; visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes