Needlecraft Magazine, 1919 (Georgen Collection, TESHS)

Detail, Life Magazine, 1919 (Trail End Collection)

The Ad Made Me Buy It

The Power of Advertising in the Early 20th Century

A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
​April 2012 - December 2012

WHILE THE MODE of beauty has changed throughout the years, its allure has not. Everyone wants to be thought of as attractive – the poor as well as the wealthy. Therefore, advertisers made sure their products were represented in magazines read by all classes of women.


Some products showed their users in “upper class” venues: a night at the opera, for example, in the arms of a handsome man – the type of situation in which readers of Needlecraft Magazine would rarely find themselves as they read Pompeian Beauty Powder advertisements in 1919. But the message from the advertisement was simple: if the reader used the product, it might make her pretty enough that she might one day find herself in that situation. Or, that she was as good as any opera-going woman, and deserved the same powder.

Other products were more pragmatic in their approach. Consider this from Stillman’s Freckle Cream: "It’s simply good business judgment to keep freckles from marring your attractiveness. Beauty has brought many a girl all her heart’s desires. The history of the world proves that … [beauty’s] power makes it well worthwhile for you to cultivate your attractiveness."


A few products were almost impossible to advertise. Feminine hygiene products – both homemade and manufactured – had been around for centuries, for example, but no one talked about them much until the 1920s. And even then, it was done very discreetly. What they were used for was never mentioned in advertisements.

Purchasing Modess and Kotex products was considered a little embarrassing, especially since most store clerks were men. One manufacturer took care of that impediment in 1928 by introducing the Silent Purchase Coupon. As explained in an advertisement in Ladies' Home Journal of that year:

In order that Modess may be obtained in a crowded store without embarrassment or discussion, Johnson & Johnson devised the Silent Purchase Coupon. Simply cut it out and hand it to the sales person. You will receive one box of Modess. Could anything be easier?


Weight loss products were similarly discreet. Most were advertised in the back pages of magazines, in very small ads in which the words "fat," "fleshy" and "overweight" were prominent. Weight reduction pills, potions, machines, clothing and books were advertised - mostly aimed at women. One company, Health-o-Meter, suggested that mirrors could be deceiving, and the only way to know your ideal weight was to weigh yourself daily:

There is a weight that is your weight – your ideal, regardless of your height, age or sex – a weight that marks your public appearance. It accentuates your charms and enables you to wear clothes well. Do not let your mirror deceive you. Know your ideal weight – don’t guess!! Weigh yourself daily on the “Health-o-Meter,” America’s most popular bathroom scale.


For the rural or small-town girl, cosmetics, beauty aids and fashionable clothes were not always available at the local dry goods store. Enter the “local sales agent.” Representatives from such companies as Rawleigh (sort of an early-day Avon) offered home delivery on everything in the way of “scientific toilet necessities” – soaps, powders, shampoos, tonics, creams – whether that home was an urban tenement, a tiny hamlet, or an isolated ranch.

Mail order marketing resulted from the rapid development of the American Frontier. As the farm and ranch population moved farther west, away from commercial centers, the need arose for a way to get goods to these customers. Traveling salesmen couldn’t reach everyone or sell everything, so Midwesterners Richard Sears, Alvah Roebuck and Montgomery Ward stepped in. Starting in the 1880s, their annual catalogs offered everything from clothing, rouge and bathroom scales to barbed wire, balers and blasting powder – all shipped via the U. S. Post Office.

Hawking Health & Beauty

 State Historic Site

Trail End