Advertising: The Story of Us

It's hardly just Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and their favorable advertising that have left such big footprints on today's collectible scene. Old advertising memorabilia of all kinds is the stuff of countless collections. The same collector's psychology that draws some people to collecting Coca-Cola and others to collecting Pepsi, draws still others to collecting Cracker Jack items and Mr. Softee ice cream memorabilia. The principle reason why so many products succeed beyond all expectations, while others quickly fall by the wayside, is directly attributed to the advertising done on their behalf. Very often, a product's advertising campaign is more important than the product itself. Of course, even a genius promotional campaign couldn't successfully market chicken feathers as chicken soup.

Vintage metal advertising sign

Vintage advertising collectibles are intertwined with other collectible categories. A beer stein issued by Budweiser finds itself in the “Stein/Drinkware” classification one minute, and in “Advertising” the next. A Chevrolet pin-back button goes both ways. It can be listed as a “button” or a piece of “Automobilia.” It's both. The point here is that advertising collectibles are by their very nature multifaceted. While there are obvious advertising memorabilia like magazine ads and promotional signs from stores and dealerships, there are also tons of giveaways and related premium items from a long list of companies that find themselves clustered under the advertising banner.

If we use eBay sellers as a representative reflection of the kinds of old advertising materials that are in the collector's marketplace, then here's what we are talking about. These are the categories that advertising collectors find themselves in:

  • Agriculture

  • Banking, Insurance

  • Breweriana

  • Candy & Nuts

  • Cars

  • Clothing, Fashion

  • Coffee, Tea

  • Communication & Utilities

  • Distillery

  • Food & Restaurant

  • Gas & Oil

  • Government

  • Household

  • Retail Establishments

  • Soda

  • Tires

  • Tobacciana

Advertising has been around in various forms for centuries now. Newspapers and advertising have been ink brothers since day one. In colonial America, there were retail shop signs and billboards. Early American newspapers ran ads advertising land and a variety of merchandise for sale. It was mainly local merchants advertising in local papers in hopes of connecting with the local citizenry. Times have sure changed.

Gas pump metal sign affixed to pumps in the 1950s and 1960s

As far as most of today's collectors' interests go, the advertising they are seeking dates to the mid-nineteenth century and afterwards. As a matter of fact, most collectors of old advertising memorabilia collect twentieth-century materials. With dramatic technological breakthroughs and perpetual product innovations occurring throughout the century, both the advertising and the products appear old in a hurry. Even 1980s advertisements are dated, already far removed from the twenty-first century's approach to selling products.

Collecting old advertisements is not only a great hobby, but a learning experience, too. Courtesy of a 1918 advertisement, you can discover the five things it can do for you: It will “steady nerves, allay thirst, aid appetite, help digestion, and keep your teeth clean.” And you thought it was just a stick of gum.

Why Collect Advertising?

People collect old advertising for many reasons. The following sections list some of the main ones.

Nostalgia

Collecting old advertising materials is at the top of the list of nostalgia-inspired collections, because it covers a vast array of materials that bring back the best memories from days gone by. A surefire way to start a conversation with a reticent soul is to talk about the past. This might entail chatting about Moxie soda or the Ford Edsel. And, better still, if you're a collector with a piece of the past to exhibit, you'll find you can squeeze words, and maybe even a smile, out of the most bashful of souls.

“First Aid” cardboard advertising sign (early 1900s)

Many people collect antique tins, the containers of many products from the country stores of the past. The best book on the subject for ascertaining values is Antique Tins: Identification & Values by Fred Dodge, which offers market prices, useful information on the companies that manufactured the tins, and advice on places to locate these interesting pieces of the past.

History

What we collect is a reflection of who we are. Past advertising is a reflection of what we've been as a society and as a culture.

Beauty

Advertising memorabilia—particularly colorful magazine ads and porcelain and tin signs—is generally quite attractive and ideal for displaying. So it's no surprise people collect it simply because they like the way it looks.

Humor

By today's standards, the old advertising campaigns of the past are often very amusing. Looking at old ads, from the illustrations and pictures to the headlines and text, it's easy to discern how much times have changed, and not always for the better.

In Stephen Whitman's candy store in Philadelphia in 1842, the chocolates' mixture box was born. Whitman conceived the idea of putting a varied selection of the most popular chocolates in one box and selling them as a sampler. Years later, the Whitman Company scored yet another first, when it placed a four-color ad in the Saturday Evening Post. The color and graphics were so sophisticated and attractive for 1925 advertising, that readers cut out the ads and framed them. Today, the same vintage Whitman's Chocolates ads are framed, but this time by collectors.

Valuable

Old advertising memorabilia is often very rare, particularly store signs in excellent or better condition. Some of these items are very valuable. The serious collectors in the specific advertising collectible fields (for example, 7Up, Nabisco, McDonald's, Sunbeam Bread, Lucky Strike, and so on) are very willing to pay top dollar for a needed piece to round out their collections. Don't let the smaller collectible fields fool you into thinking value is not there. It often is. A rare 1900 Campbell's Soup embossed tin sign sold for $93,500.

Country store product (early twentieth century)

In 1936, Schick Shavers ran an advertisement headlined, “The survivors were shaved with Schick Shavers.” Pictured in the ad was the Hindenburg as it crashed to Earth in flames. The ad read, in part, “Many of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated Hindenburg whose faces were burned were shaved with Schick Shavers during their stay in the hospital… . It was quite impossible to use a blade to shave them. But the Schick Shaver glided gently and painlessly over the injured skin, removing the scarred surface.”

Shopping at the Country Store

Remember Sam Drucker, Hooterville's town grocer on television's Petticoat Junction and Green Acres? Sam Drucker ran a country store stocked with country store products. In the days before supermarkets, all Americans shopped in these kinds of general stores. That's all there was to choose from. The stores, by necessity, stocked everything, sometimes even including the kitchen sink.

Country store product (early 1900s)

“Drefs Gout and Rheumatism Pills” canister, country store product (early 1900s)

Country store products, as they are often referred to, are the natural by-products of vintage advertising. They are the products themselves that were advertised and sold in those bygone days. Old grocery items from the store shelves of yesteryear find themselves in many collections today.

Are country store products intrinsically valuable? An unopened tin can of Faust instant coffee from 1919, for example, is not usable. Sure, you can try mixing a cup if you like. But it's not recommended. Fortunately, though, collecting is not about intrinsic worth; it's about what people want. And that old, unopened can of coffee is worth something to someone who desires it, not as his or her morning brew, but as an addition to a collection. Here are several factors to keep in mind when collecting country store products—old items sold in the stores of yesteryear, ranging far and wide, from tea to toothpaste:

“Chippewa Evaporated Milk” country store product (early 1900s)

  • Rarity: Is the item hard to come by?

  • Condition: Is the item in top-notch condition?

  • Demand: Is the product more in demand than other items?

  • Eye appeal: Is the product visually appealing?

Check out Mike's General Store at www.mikesgeneralstore.com for numerous old advertising signs and antique bottles for sale. Another place to stop by is www.nostalgiaville.com. You can take a virtual tour of the Museum of Beverage Containers Advertising or, if you're in the area, visit it at 1055 Ridgecrest Drive in Millersville, Tennessee. Contact them at 800-826-4929.

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