Eight Awesome 19th Century Advertisements

I see a lot of old advertisements in my baseball research.  The ads for baseball equipment are an important part of the research, but most are merely distractions.  Some of them rise above the level of being awesome distractions:

The first example of awesomeness, to the right, is from the summer of 1884.  The nation was locked in the throes of a presidential race.  Who would win?  We can’t tell, what with polling being nonexistent.  We can only hope that the next Commander-in-Chief would have the sterling qualities we have come to expect from Police Plug Tobacco.

I leave it to the political historians to compare the merits of the first Grover Cleveland administration with that of a wad of chewing tobacco.  Spare a moment, in the meantime, to consider the morass of bad jokes I had to wade through in the baseball coverage, about how Cleveland was doing in the race.

Moving on, next we have the obligatory quack medical device:

the_cincinnati_enquirer_sat__dec_30__1882_This is an evergreen of the “wacky old ads” genre, and for good reason.  Here we have Dr. Cheever’s Electric Belt.  Sorry, ladies.  It’s for men only.  Well, not for me, of course.  But for those men who suffer from debility of the generative organs, whether caused by Indiscretion, Incapacity, Lack of Vigor, or Sterility.  I’m not sure, but I think one of those is probably a euphemism for syphilis.  In any case, electricity obviously is the cure for what ails you.  This rather puts modern probiotic antioxidant toxin purges to shame.

But what about the ladies?  Don’t they have generative organs, too?  I wouldn’t know, but I have heard whispered rumors.  While Dr. Cheever can’t help them, we have the good fortune to have Dr. Owen to the rescue, with the greatest invention of the age:

untitledI wondered at first how the same belt could cure both gentlemen and lady parts, but then I noticed that the current is reversible.  That explains it.  And if you can’t trust a medical device recommended by leading electricians, what can you trust?


Speaking of pre-regulatory era free market paradises, I am comforted to read that the Price Baking Powder Company is not poisoning me.  I of course believe them, since no company would run the risk of loss to reputation by poisoning its customers, after saying it wouldn’t.  I do, however, now have dark suspicions about the Price Baking Power Company’s competitors.  What is it they have to hide?

Moving on to personal hygiene, here is a fantastic new invention, the safety razor:





Sadly, I can attest from personal experience that it is indeed possible to cut the face with a safety razor.  The slightly inflated claim is not, however, what captures the attention, but how, well, swishy this guy is.  I am reliably informed that Oscar Wilde was alive back then, so they had gay gayness.  But did they have the stereotypes?  I honestly don’t know.  I am reminded of the 1931 film The Public Enemy.  This was Jimmy Cagney’s breakout film.  He plays a low-life gangster who rises to being a high-life gangster and then slain in a hail of bullets.  During his rise up the ladder, his mentor takes him to a tailor to get a decent suit.  The tailor is played as over-the-top gay, fawning over Cagney.  It is unmistakable.  What I have never figured out is if the audiences were in on it, or if it just went by as a somewhat weird scene with an overly ebullient tailor.  I wonder the same with this guy.  Would they see this as a stereotypical homosexual, or simply as a “dude,” in the original slang sense of a man who dresses with a bit more care than his peers.  It doesn’t seem to have been a general thing with this company. Here is another ad, for the same product, that goes for comedy:

tsn-861106Speaking of dressing well, we next come to my personal favorite:

tsn-860628I cannot overstate how much I want that hat!  And that mustache!  But mostly that hat!

We have seen a lot of ridiculous products that no sensible consumer would want anything to do with.  I leave you now with the most ridiculous of them all:







Eight Awesome 19th Century Advertisements

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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27 thoughts on “Eight Awesome 19th Century Advertisements

  1. From hearing older relatives talk, I am pretty sure gay stereotypes existed in the 1930s and v. likely earlier. After all, the phrase “confirmed bachelor,” said with a wink and a nod, has been around a long time.


    • I’m just speculating here, but I suspect that the invention of the safety razor is the key. Abe Lincoln and all those Civil War guys had beards. And who can blame them? Shaving was a huge pain in the ass. You either take your life in your hands with a straight razor, or put your life in the hands of a barber, while paying him for the privilege. Some percentage of guys are going to decide it isn’t worth the hassle. Once this percentage reaches a tipping point, beards become the fashion, and more guys grow beards because of that. But along comes the safety razor and suddenly shaving, while still a hassle, is much less of one. So some guys go back to shaving, and at some point the tipping point is reached in which beards become unfashionable: something old guys have.

      Back when I shaved, I never had great luck with electric razors. I could get a ‘good enough’ shave with one for a few days in a row, but once or twice a week I would have to use a real blade. I grew my beard because I decided it isn’t worth the hassle. I have my barber whack it down every couple of months, and do spot trimming as needed. Beards are not unusual within my socio-economic class, so I don’t get push-back. Back when I was doing job interviews, I would be clean-shaven for them, but I have been working for the same guy for seven years now.


      • Well, for hundreds of years, shaving had a military implication… to the point where (eventually, anyway) *NOT* having a mustache was a “statement”. (The Amish, for example, do not have mustaches because military people have mustaches.)

        Now I can’t tell the difference between signalling facial hair, counter-signalling facial hair, ironic facial hair…


        • Only enlisted folks have moustaches. Beads aren’t great for hygiene in the field and you can’t wear a gas mask with one. Only the SF wear beards so they can fit in with the locals in the mid east as most men have beards.


      • On the other hand shaving was a huge pain in the ass from the Stone Age until the late 19th century and there were plenty of clean-shaving epochs in the West like the time period between Charles II’s restoration to the Throne and the mid-19th century. I don’t think that the popularity of beards has anything to do with how easy it is to shave but other factors.

        It seems that beards started growing more popular in the mid-19th century because they were seen as manly and fitting into the spirit of exploration and boldness in the age. I remember that people in 1850s Britain were told not to gawk with men with beards because they were likely to be Crimean War veterans. Beards were popular during the Counter Culture because they were seen as non-conformist, etc.


      • Note also that these aren’t just mustaches. They’re clipped, waxed, shaped, and styled. Effort and time and care and some kind of product went in to making them look this way. Veblen would have understood: these mustaches are a claim to higher social status.


        • There are some young hipster men that wear mustaches in these styles, complete with the requisite level of care. Mustaches were the first form of facial hair to reappear in the 19th century after centuries of absence and generally remained acceptable after beards grew out of fashion. 19th century dandies started to spout them to show that they took care of their appearance. Military men wore them to show their power. British officers in India and latter throughout the Empire were required to adopt them because it was believed that Indian men would not respect a clean shaving man. Police in Western Pennsylvania adopted them because they thought that the Eastern European immigrants in the mines, oil fields, and steel factories would defer to their authority more than if they were clean shaving.


    • I remember reading about a presidential election in the late 1800’s, the one where Hayes was elected, I believe. The Big Steal before Bush-Gore.
      Anyway, of the eight Republican contenders, six had beards, one a moustache, and one was clean-shaven.
      Of the six Democratic contenders, two had moustaches, and six were clean-shaven.

      Hence, beards are clearly a late-19th century Republican thing.


  2. I love this post SO MUCH.

    In the straight-razor-versus-safety-razor comparison ad, is the guy using the straight razor black? Definitely has darker skin than the depicted-as-handsome white guy with that astonishing mustache using the safety razor. In sympathy for the straight razor guy, I know how uncomfortable it us to pull one’s own nose to one side so as to tauten the cheek.

    And Dr. Cheever can keep his electric belt very far away from my man-junk, thanks anyway, Doc.


  3. This is a wonderful post!

    Apparently Anheuser Busch’s beer used to be not entirely flavorless – they’ve always been insufficiently bitter, but the hops used to be at least marginally detectable. The recipe has changed over the years to reach the current homeopathic hopping levels.


    • The Atlantic had a good article about why mass market American beers ended being so tasteless a few years ago. Prohibition is part but not all of the story. Another issue was that even before prohibition, American employers were less tolerant about their employees drinking beer during lunch than European employers. Employees would still drink a beer at lunch but the beer had to be much lower in ABV because of that. This caused American beer manufacturers to specialize in low ABV lagers rather than higher ABV ales, stouts, and borders.

      Prohibition obviously hurt but in a different way than imagined. Europe had a temperance movement to. The European temperance movements were mainly aimed at spirits and liquors though. They decided that beer and wine were something that they could live with. The American temperance movement was much more puritanical and hated all alcoholic beverages. When prohibition was repealed, states still needed to be given a lot of leeway in how they regulate alcohol and this generally favored low ABV beers.


    • Also, “bland” was equated with the qualities of being pure and safe to eat. Lots of spices, salt, and other strong flavor elements were thought to be there to mask some sort of contamination or impurity. So, generations of Americans grew up believing that the more flavor food had, the less you should be eating it. This carried over to beer.


  4. Camp in early mass media entertainment: I always imagined that these were in jokes for people in the know and that they went over the top of everybody else’s heads. On the other hand, getting called a sissy was a fighting word back than.


  5. So dudes were the hipsters of the 1880s and 1890s I guess if we go by the original meaning and before we had dudes and hipsters, we had dandies. Interestingly enough, dandies were the social group that started to bring facial hair back in style during the early 19th century by growing mustaches.


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