If you were an adult living in the U.S. in the 1850s, you wouldn’t find anything wrong with your times. However, if you were to time-travel there from today, the newspapers of that time are going to be a surprise. Why? Well, look for yourself:

NYT dated September 18, 1851

This is how the New York Times dated September 18, 1851 looked like. It has a savvy, neat format focussed on news with the ending pages taking care of any promotional requirements such as ads.

Oh yes! This is what advertisements used to be in the beginning: mere frills on the papers filled with solid blocks of news. If you look at newspapers even in the following decades, the format pretty much stays the same. This means the 1860s, 1870s and even the 1880s had more news in their newspapers than what we have today. Pretty shocking, huh?

As a result of this, the handful of ads that were indeed present were largely text-based with minor variations in font to make a point. As an example, here is one ad for a summer resort in a newspaper dated July 15, 1857 of New York Times.


However, as time passed, the visible effort to make the ad more effective and appealing became quite visible. I found this advertisement in an NYT newspaper dated May 13, 1869. There is a significant improvement in the formatting as compared to the previous ad.


Fast forward around 15 years and here we have an advertisement from the NYT edition dated June 5, 1885. Notice the improved utilisation of space, what with how the tagline ‘the best and cheapest laxative’ hangs alongside the brand name. As you can notice here, this is an improvement over the above advert that basically had the main text formatted in a centre-align format.


Roughly around the same time in the United Kingdom, Thomas J. Barratt, aka the Father of Modern Advertising, became a part of Pears soap after marrying the eldest daughter of Francis Pears. He introduced several radical ideas under his leadership as he began advertising Pears soap. Here is an 1895 ad for Pears soap.


Do you notice the woman standing?

She was Lillie Langtry, a famous actress at the time who also happens to be one of the first celebrities to do product endorsement. You can now begin to fathom just what made Thomas Barratt the Father of Modern Advertising. He got a celebrity endorsement for his brand like a 115 years back!

The outset of 1900s saw a drastic change in the way newspapers looked. One thing to know of before we proceed on this is that an advertisement comprises of two parts: the copy (i.e. the text you see) and the design (i.e. the pictures). This needs to be kept in mind for what’s next.

So as I mentioned, the presence of advertisements was gradually increasing. By the time I hit a 1932 paper, I found a huge ad coverage much closer to the one we have even today. One more thing to note here is the less text-heavy copy used as compared to the past. Here, take a look:


Another thing that is blatantly obvious is the quality of graphics in those pre-Photoshop times. I mean this 1923 ad for car horns looks more like a child abuse advert and can definitely use some edits, right?


As is the case with any self-evolving process, advertising improved over time at its own pace. Here is a Macy’s advert from June 5, 1945 in the New York Times which looks much closer to the ads we have today than in the past, which means reduced text and increased graphics (partially owing to our reduced attention spans):


Moreover, the turn of the 20th century made advertisers realise the effect of target group’s mindset on their overall sales and brand perception.

As an example, here we have a 1956 advertisement by Kellogg’s with the stereotypical image of a dedicated mother trying to ensure a nutritious breakfast for her kids. Since the decision about food lies more towards the mothers (backed by data), brands began to focus on appealing to the sentiment of the main buyer.


As technology got better, so did the universal appeal of the ads with the best part being the arrival of the Internet, that gave rise to Digital advertising.

Notice that in this 150-years long history of ads, the main idea has evolved from selling ‘what they have to offer’ to ‘what a consumer really/secretly/clearly/regularly wants’ and then doing that in a million different ways.

Source of this post:

A couple of years back, I was chosen as one of the Quora Top Writers for 2016. It brought many perks with it but the best one was an year’s subscription to the New York Times. Initially, I didn’t think much of it but things changed when I got to know about their TimesMachine feature. It is an archive of their newspapers beginning from the year 1850 and straight upto today. Since the first advertising agency (of U.S.) was established in 1840, this felt like a unique opportunity to explore history in real-time. What started as a mere attempt to read historic events in real-time turned into a full-fledged dive into the history of advertising.

Moreover, this article is in no way a comprehensive history of advertising across all the continents. There is a possibility that this evolution took place in a different order or timeline in other countries.

Hope you enjoy reading it just as much as I enjoyed researching on it 🙂

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© A succinct history of advertising by Neha Sharma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.