January 14, 2009

Ads from yesteryear strike familiar chords

As published in The Erin Advocate

The ad seemed somehow familiar, promising to mail out a sample box that would make me a lot of money. “Live at home and work in spare time, or all the time. Capital not required. We will start you. Immense pay sure for those who start at once.”

Tempted though I was, it was too late to respond, since I was reading the front page of an 1885 Erin Advocate. The offer sounded just like various modern email spam messages, except that the price was 10 cents in postage stamps.

On the same page was another ad that reminded me of email scams: “Lecture to Young Men on the Loss of Manhood…the radical and permanent cure of Nervous Disability, Medical and Physical Incapacity, Impediments to Marriage, etc., resulting from excesses. Price, in a sealed envelope, only 6 cents, or two postage stamps.”

Looking down the page, there were ads for “medicines” like Burdock Blood Bitters, Hagyard’s Yellow Oil, Freeman’s Worm Powders and Dr. Chase’s Mandrake Dandelion Liver Cure. Catchy names, but what was inside? Fortunately, there have been major advances both in medicine and advertising standards. Perhaps certain types of ads are inevitable when a medium has few regulations.

According to a book called Friendly Persuasion – Canadian Advertising of Yesteryear, by Nick and Helma Mika, early ads were called “notices”, set in ordinary type to make them look like “news”.

“In those days, the very fact that the cures were advertised was sufficient for many to believe in their value; the printed word was the gospel for many persons, usually of limited education,” they said. The suspicious ads usually had American addresses.

Canada’s first newspaper ads appeared in 1752 in the Halifax Gazette, an official government publication. Those first ads were for legal services, private teachers and “Choice Butter, by the Firkin” (a firkin being a nine-gallon cask, one quarter of a barrel).

Like most local ads both now and then, they were for legitimate goods and services that people need. Claims of high quality were of course crucial to their success. The Erin drug store run in 1885 by R. & J. Wood, for example, sold eye glasses made in England that have “given in every instance unbounded satisfaction – they are the best in the world.”

Now that we live in an age of highly sophisticated advertising, it is fascinating to look back on older styles, in an era when people in small villages like Erin were relatively isolated.

Ads also reveal the nature of a village economy. In the 1877 historical atlas of Wellington, printed ads show Erin as a small-scale industrial centre. John S. Walker operated an iron foundry, making ploughs, harrows, cultivators and iron and brass castings to order, with repairs “at short notice”. At Main and Church, the Rott Brothers ran the Ontario Foundry & Carriage Works, making buggies, lumber wagons and sleighs.

William Cornock, who represented Erin Township on Wellington County council in 1868, owned a mill that paid cash for any type of grain from local farmers.

W.R. Chisholm was the proprietor of the Globe Hotel on Main Street, advertising stagecoach transportation to Guelph three times per week. That is better public transit than the town has today.

Everything from parlour stoves to Swiss watches could be bought on Main Street, long before Erin village was incorporated in 1879. Thomas Carberry, who sold groceries next to the Queen’s Hotel, made a little extra income as an issuer of marriage licenses.

It is just a small glimpse of a community that was growing very rapidly, with hard-working farmers, skilled trades people and ambitious merchants. By December of 1880, they finally had a weekly newspaper in which to advertise – the one you are reading now.