Advertisements. We think of them as a way to find out about products and services, but they can also be useful for learning about companies themselves.
I frequently use advertisements to answer historical questions on companies where information is harder to come by. For example, companies looking for capital will try to lure would-be investors with advertisements telling them about the company and its prospects. In contrast, information on smaller, local businesses is often limited to location and ownership information in their advertisements for their products and services.
Looking at advertisements has traditionally meant scouring newspapers by scrolling through microfilmed copies at local libraries and historical groups, but increasingly digitized historical newspapers are being offered through subscription sources. But the Library of Congress has a great, project similar to the subscription sources that is free and available to researchers on the Internet. This digitization project from the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP), is called Chronicling America and contains public-domain newspapers from many states, mostly dated between 1880 and 1920. Below are a few examples of some of the newspapers that are available from just a few of the states (you can see the list of available papers and their date ranges):
- Washington, D.C. – The Colored American, The Bee
- Arizona – Mohave County Miner and Our Mineral Wealth, Daily Tombstone
- Utah – Iron Country Record, Garland City Globe, The Intermountain Catholic
- Minnesota – The Tomahawk, St. Paul Daily Globe
Another source I’d like to mention is American Memory, which contains several collections on advertising. Among these collections are some WPA posters as well as three other special collections – Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929; Fifty Years of Coca-Cola Television Advertisements; and The Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920.