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Friday, October 25, 2013

Proto-Surrealism and Fantasy in Early Advertising Art

Advertising card for Soapine, manufactured by Kendall Manufacturing Co.
From the Soap series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana
Among the sources, progenitors, and inspirations for the Surrealist movement in twentieth-century art and literature were the art of children and the paintings and drawings of "naive" artists who lacked formal training. Their visual and verbal fantasies appealed to the creators of Surrealist theory, who sought to demonstrate the prevalence of dream imagery and its connection to the subconscious in our everyday lives in the "real" world. While viewing examples of advertising illustration from the 19th century and early 20th century, as found in the Warshaw Collection of Business American in the NMAH Archives Center, I have often been struck by the proto-surrealist sensibility of commercial advertisers and their illustrators from this period. Frequently based on simple verbal and visual puns calculated to capture the attention and amusement of the average unsophisticated American consumer, this imagery utilized fantasy and humor to help imbed product names in consumers' brains, and mental associations with bizarre illustrations and texts helped make products memorable to the shopper. Nowadays many television commercials seem to recall elements from early print advertising in their sheer wackiness. At times early advertisements also relied on popular racial, ethnic, and even occupational prejudices, represented in bizarre forms, to attract the attention of consumers.

Advertising card for American Soap Co.
From the Soap series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana

Soap advertising was particularly rich with fantastic imagery, thanks to the implicit notion that a successful soap should be able to clean and "whiten" anything, including surfaces which weren't actually dirty: think spots on a leopard, for example, and beyond. Some of these ads were cruelly explicit in utilizing racist humor, while others were cleverly disguised. Here are a few examples of more benign soap advertisements from the Warshaw Collection to intrigue you: these clearly equate cleanliness with beauty and innocence. While social and cultural historians have studied such materials avidly for decades, I hope more art historians explore them as well.

Advertising card for American Soap Co.
From the Soap series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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