History 129B

June 1, 2002

 

You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements," wrote British author Norman Douglas. But as associate professor of history Sydney Nathans will tell you, ideals are far from static, and the tenor and substance of ads have changed radically over the past 150 years. Consistently, research on advertisements provides a magnifying glass for the juniors and seniors who enroll in his social and cultural history course.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Nathans explains, the Victorian period was characterized by enormous strain as people moved (geographically or psychologically) away from villages and small communities to bigger and bigger places. History 129B is really about the unexpected social turbulence brought on by this shift from a village-centered to a market-centered economy and lifestyle, and what society did about it. "It becomes a story about the making of the middle class," Nathans says.

The classic Victorian moral formula for a world in disarray was self-discipline--relying on one's inner moral compass. But the formula excluded many groups: women, African Americans, Southerners, working people. Students delve into Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and John Hope Franklin's edition of W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk. They peruse Upton Sinclair's The Jungle--"written to be the Uncle Tom's Cabin of the twentieth century, to focus on industrial slavery," says Nathans--and Edward Ayers' Southern Crossing: A History of the American South, 1877-1906.

Confronted by the rising anger and uneasiness its very mores had engendered, what was late nineteenth-century America to do? The class goes on to examine three potential solutions society came up with: first, Populism and Socialism, as seen through the lens of Nick Salvatore's biography of labor organizer and jailed presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs; second, the paternalistic model of corporate behavior as evidenced in the mill town, where, in Nathans' words, "We'll charge you next to no rent and pay you next to nothing, employ your whole family, and patrol you morally"; and third, the mercantile solution--the one that lasted. It was a breathtaking ideological shift: make consumers of everybody; pay them enough to buy the products they helped manufacture, and you could ease social, political, and economic unrest of the disenfranchised and historically dispossessed. Make them want, and let them have what they want--at a price.

Doing that meant overcoming Victorian commitment to the ideals of parsimony, saving, and self-denial. So the course turns to look at the rise of the department store and the radical rethinking of marketing, with help from William Leach's Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture.

Students undertake a fifteen-page paper. It is there that the library's John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History comes into play, often in tandem with nineteenth- and twentieth-century magazines. The collection, now ten years old and growing in size, includes not only such raw materials as advertisements and radio scripts but also a treasure trove of internal communications, minutes, and correspondence of the likes of J. Walter Thompson, the dominant American ad agency of the period.