From Times Square to the Las Vegas strip, outdoor advertising rules. So it is not a big leap of faith to see how advertising influenced American folk art. Today’s digital billboards were once zinc castings and pine carvings were the mobile ads of yore.
While they once announced businesses, they now make awesome additions to contemporary homes and spare lofts. And the best news is that you don’t have to go picking cross country to fine examples that stir your inner Don Draper because the best are waiting for you at Americana Week.
Ultimately, the story of advertising art in America is the story of America’s carvers, before the invention of chainsaw art, of course. Early carvers could turn white pine into animated figures, caricatures, even puns.
By the 1800’s, carvers had been elevated to the status of artists although they thought of themselves as tradesmen. Wood, rather than marble, was their medium. Their works were marketed through catalogs and sold across the country.
The craft has roots in marine carvings. Figureheads had long been seen as devices to ward off dangers at sea. The Vikings favored dragons. The British thrust the lion rampant up front. American ships often sailed behind the Federal eagle “displayed.” Then, as America came of age, historic figures like Pocahontas, George Washington and Andrew Jackson bean showing up on prows.
Vanity and power being what they are, commercial ships often had portrait figureheads of the owner’s wife, daughters or sweetheart. It was as much an honor to be immortalized in wood as it is today to be immortalized on the cover of People magazine.
One of the most famous figureheads is “Minnehaha” by Boston carver William B. Gleason. It was launched on a clipper ship in 1856 and looked like the famous English actress Julia Bennett Barrows.
As wind power bowed to steam and ships were redesigned, the elimination of a prow rendered the figurehead obsolete. This decline in commissions forced carvers to seek work in the world of advertising.
Cigar Store Indians were the first of the iconic American images, although their origin dates back to England, circa 1617, when small wooden figures – often black men wearing headdresses and kilts made of tobacco leaves – were called “Virginie Men” and placed on counter tops to promote smoking.
As their popularity grew, the figures varied from realistic portrayals of historical figures to idealized braves and squaws. Look closely at the genre and you’ll see garden-variety racism carved right in to the designs.
Some name artists used Native Americans as models, creating specialties within the genre.
- Thomas V. Brooks, for instance, made “leaners,” Indians resting their elbows on log posts, barrels or gigantic cigars.
- John Cromwell was known for his V-shaped headdresses.
- The French-Canadian carver Louis Jobin often placed the left arm at chest level holding a robe while the right clutched a bundle of cigars.
- New York’s Samuel Robb crafted maidens holding bouquets of roses similar to one had made for his wife’s tombstone.
Other retailers relied on all sorts of ethnic figures to advertise their specialties. Tearooms featured idealized figures of Chinese men and women. Women’s clothiers put out well-attired “period girls” to attract affluent buyers.
The businessman at the helm offering figures was a German named William Demuth of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He liked wood until discovering the advantages of zinc and by 1875 the Demuth catalog advertised 30 different zinc figures, twice the number of wooden ones.
Trade signs were no less dramatic than figures. In fact, some were so cleverly crafted with exaggerated images and out-of-scale numerals that the art overshadowed the message.
Overall, up until the American Revolution, tavern signs (like the one shown above) played off well-known English images, like the lion. In the sign featured here, William Rice, a Connecticut carver, paired a Federal eagle with a chained lion as a nod to American independence.
The business of trade signs was so lucrative that even well known artists like Edward Hicks worked them. Best known for serene farmscapes and depictions of the peaceable kingdom, Hicks began as an apprentice in the coach making business. There, he lettered and adorned a wide variety of goods, from furniture to fire buckets to signboards.
Carousel and Circus Figures
When the demand for show figures peaked circa 1840 to 1890 carvers looked far a field once again for their livelihood. This time they found carousel makers and traveling circuses ripe for their talents.
Animals that rode the outside ring of the carousel had the greatest visibility, so carvers lavished them with the finest effort. Circus wagons usually had artwork that portrayed many different aspects of civilization, such as an animal cage decorated with rather high-brow musical themes
Weather Vanes and Whirligigs
Weather vanes, though not often used as trade signs, have a special place in American art. The earliest date to the middle of the Seventeenth Century, and are descendants of the banner or pennant vanes that originated in Europe and England over 500 years ago.
Flat, homemade vanes and those created by local blacksmiths depict everything from barnyard animals to variations on the Indian hunter. The earliest ones are made of painted wood, sheet metal or a combination of both.
By 1850, vanes were mass produced. Made of thin sheets of copper that were hammered into cast iron molds and then soldered together, they are quite prized.
Whirligigs are most whimsical of the genre. Whatever their form – soldier, policemen, ducks – whirligigs serve no purpose other than to delight the eye.
Today, as avatars increasingly invade our screens, advertising art of the past is a joy, a delight, an art form to be treasure