Michael Bierut | Essays

The Golden Age of American Commercialism

The Tiffin City and Seneca County, Ohio, Directory, published by R.L. Polk & Co., designer unknown, 1922

People who like design are always fascinated when I show them a mysterious object called the 1922 Tiffin Directory. I bought it at a used book store several years ago. Every square inch of it is covered with black type, mostly Cheltenham, but also Franklin Gothic and a few other more exotic display fonts. And I mean every square inch. The front cover is covered with type. So is the back cover. The spine. So are the edges of the pages: top, bottom, and side. The same densely-packed layouts continue inside. The typography couldn't be more skillful. It's one of the most beautiful books I own.

And, except for a few inches at the top of the spine, all of that gorgeous typography is paid advertising.

Although I've never seen another like it, I've been told books like the Tiffin Directory were common in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Between product placement, ads in urinals, and Minute Maid Park (nee Enron Field), the invasion of commercialism into everyday life seems like a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Yet around one hundred years ago, America began a romance with salesmanship that today seems almost delirious.

If you want a soundtrack for the era, you could do worse than the The Music Man, Meredith Willson's 1957 musical set in a mythical pre-WWI Iowa town that falls under the spell of a huckster selling marching band instruments. It portrays salesmanship as nothing less than the harbringer of modernity to the sleepy agrarian Middle West. Professor Harold Hill's showstopping sales pitch is an icon of the American theater, of course ("Ya got trouble,/Right here in River City/With a capital 'T'/That rhymes with 'P'/And that stands for Pool!"), but the tone is set right in the opening song, "Rock Island," a rapid-fire contrapuntal piece delivered by a traincar full of traveling salesmen and set to the rhythm of the train track:

Why it's the Model T Ford made the trouble,
made the people wanna go, wanna get,
wanna get, wanna get up and go
seven, eight, nine, ten, twelve, fourteen, twenty-two,
twenty-three miles to the county seat!
Yes sir, yes sir!
Who's gonna patronize a little bitty two-by-four kinda store anymore?
Whaddya talk, whaddya talk?
Where do you get it?
It's not the Model T at all,
take a gander at the store,
at the modern store, at the present-day store,
at the present-day modren departmentalized grocery store!
Whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk?
Where do you get it?
Whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk, whaddaya talk?
Where do you get it?
You can talk, you can bicker
you can talk, talk, talk, talk
bicker, bicker, bicker
you can talk all you wanna
but it's different than it was.
No it ain't, but ya gotta know the territory!
Why, it's the Uneeda Biscuit made the trouble
Uneeda, Uneeda put the crackers in a package, in a package
the Uneeda Biscuit in an airtight sanitary package
made the cracker barrel obsolete, obsolete!

Here we have a piling up of words, words, words, all in service to a new world order signaled by the airtight packaging of the Uneeda Biscuit. It is the sonic equivalent to the horror vacui demonstrated by the typography of the Tiffin Directory.

This celebration of salesmanship as America's manifest destiny reached its apotheosis in the person of Bruce Barton, who in 1925 published The Man Nobody Knows, a book that updated the tenets of Christianity to the new commercial age. It was the country's best selling non-fiction book for two years running. According to Barton, Jesus was no withdrawn mystic, but rather the quintessence of Hail Fellow Well Met, "the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem." In the book's most famous passage, Jesus is portrayed as the ultimate businessman: "He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world." On the strength of such observations did Bruce Barton, the subject of a recent biography, The Man Everybody Knew: Bruce Barton and the Making of Modern America, rise to national prominence. He was twice elected to Congress, and, as you may have suspected, founded an advertising agency: he is the second B in BBDO.

Today, the idea of Jesus Christ as Executive Vice President of Marketing and Consumer Insight seems grotesque and, like the mileau depicted in Willson's River City, quaintly anachronistic. Here's how we sell things these days:

Roma: Stocks, bonds, objects of art, real estate. Now: what are they? (Pause.) An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To 'indulge" and to "learn" about ourselves? Perhaps. So fucking what? What isn't? They're an opportunity. That's all. They're an event. A guy comes up to you, you make a call, you send in a brochure, it doesn't matter. "There're these properties I'd like for you so see." What does it mean? What you want it to mean. (Pause.) Money? (Pause.) If that's what it signifies to you. Security? (Pause.) Comfort? (Pause.) All it is is THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO YOU. (Pause.) That's all it is. How are they different? (Pause.) Some newly married guy gets run down by a cab. Some busboy wins the lottery. (Pause.) All it is, it's a carnival. What's special...what draws us? (Pause.) We're all different. (Pause.) We're not the same. (Pause.) We are not the same. (Pause.) Hmmm. (Pause. Sighs.) It's been a long day. (Pause.) What are you drinking?

Lingk: Gimlet.

Roma: Well, let's have a couple more. My name is Richard Roma, what's yours?

Lingk: Lingk. James Lingk.

Roma: James. I'm glad to meet you. (They shake hands.) I'm glad to meet you, James. (Pause.) I want to show you something. (Pause.) It might mean
nothing to you...and it might not. I don't know. I don't know anymore. (Pause. He takes out a map and spreads it on a table.) What is that? Florida. Glengarry Highlands. Florida. "Florida. Bullshit." And maybe that's true, and that's what I said: but look here: what is this? This is a piece of land. Listen to what I'm going to tell you now:

(Act One curtain.)

That's master salesman Ricky Roma unloading a piece of worthless real estate on someone he just met a few minutes ago in David Mamet's brilliant 1983 play Glengarry Glen Ross. More words, words, words, but now all is subtlety and indirection. It might mean nothing to you...and it might not. He makes his sale, by the way. For its graphic analog, see the ads in any issue of Vanity Fair or The New Yorker.

And what's the contemporary version of the 1922 Tiffin Directory? Well, you might try The Bulgari Connection. This 2001 novel from the ordinarily respectable Fay Weldon was sponsored by...wait for it...Bulgari, who required at least a dozen mentions of their product in the terms of their contract with her, which was believed to the the first time a literary author was directly commissioned by a commercial company to write a novel. According to the Guardian, "Her agent, Giles Gordon, was exultant. 'The door is open and now the sky is the limit,' he said. 'I've suggested that in her next book she includes a whole string of top companies, Disney, Levis, McDonald's, the lot, and we write to all of them and say 'Ms Weldon is including a mention of your fine company in her next book, what do you reckon?'" Giles Gordon, meet Ricky Roma. For her part, the enthusiastic Ms. Weldon put in three times as many mentions as her agreement required.

So just as in the Tiffin Directory, every word in Ms. Weldon's book is potentially selling you something. Except in the case of The Bulgari Connection, you're not supposed to know you're being sold to. Which do you prefer, the insidiousness of today's soft sell, or the crass commercialism of yesteryear? I know one thing for sure: crass commercialism sure looks a whole lot better.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, History, Media, Typography

Comments [21]

Coincidentally I've just ran across the BBC Series "The Century of Self":

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed the perception of the human mind and its workings profoundly. His influence on the 20th century is widely regarded as massive. The documentary describes the impact of Freud's theories on the perception of the human mind, and the ways public relations agencies and politicians have used this during the last 100 years for their "engineering of consent".
Along these general themes, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitude to fashion and superficiality.

David Magda

If you ever wander through the Los Angeles Main (Downtown) Library, Reference Section, you'll find that all of the city directories are like Tiffin's. Polk bindings were found Everywhere in every state (and territory). Most 1890's newspapers had wonderfully typeset advertisements all over the front page.

I like insidious soft sell and blatant adverts. Snake oil salesmanship never left.

Sean Fraser

Grrrrrrreat! article.

I was driving home this evening in my Honda, when I stopped off at the local Target (to get Bob Dylan's new album). While I was getting a coffee at their in-store Starbuck's, I was thinking to myself -- "Self" what new product placements will be in this year's Grey's Anatomy?


I don't understand the pussy-footed ads some companies put out.

Have also heard many non-designers tell me they don't even know or remember what some ad they saw were selling-- or who the company was -- because they were so "weird" or "vague."

Best antidote I've seen in a movie were the cigarette packs in Pulp Fiction. Brilliant!

How about a redifined axiom? Crass and Clever.


Whoops! Gotta go. The Simpson's are on. (With guest appearances by Mr. Peanut and Superman!)

Joe Moran

Very cool book! About ten years ago I bought an 1867 huge leather bound family Bible from a friend of mine. The typography and layout on the pages and the gold foiled etching illustrations are just fantastic.

No advertising in it of course but it's fun holding something that very talented craftsman and artists designed all before computers. I have that same fascination when I look at the book you featured.

I have the same fascination when I look at the symmetric and patterns on old tapestry designs by William Morris too. It's jaw dropping knowing it was all done by hand. I am sure they would have embraced the computer but it's too bad so many students come out of the gate with very little tactile ability.
Von Glitschka

"he is the second B in BBDO."

I have a friend who is an art director at BBDO Guatemala and when he went to ask for a visa to come to the US, they asked him what BBDO stood for. Of course, nobody knows that, so he didn't get the visa! Hey, I worked that time with Euro-RSCG... and then with TBWA...
Roni Mocan

Those City Directories were still published as recently as the 1970s, and as far as I know, are still being produced. My dad used to buy the local edition every year, and he always bought ad space on the cover too. He always said the directories were great advertising because the books would be in constant use for a full year by local businessmen, the ad would constantly be on everyone's desk.

...they asked him what BBDO stood for. Of course, nobody knows that...

This is getting off topic, but it's easy to remember "Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn" after you've heard Fred Allen's famous quip, "it sounds like a trunk falling down a flight of stairs."
Daniel Green

*jealous of your book*
Charlie Trotter

It is a sad fact that, given the nature of all things marketing, such a an accomplishment of typographical wizardry could never be created today. The common demand to "Make the logo bigger!", "Make it pop!", and "Can we add a baby or a dog? Everyone loves babies and dogs!", relegate such works to a self-published pet project.

Ah, the cynicism flows freely today...
James D, Nesbitt

It's a beautiful thing. It reminds me of the cover of the first McSweeneys I ever saw. How long will it take before some book jacket designer (for a more mass market publisher) is given too much copy, and chooses to treat the design in this fashion?

Marty Blake

Marty: John Gall's approached this a few times recently. Probably the best-known so far is the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories(and back cover). Note John pops in for a comment there himself.

I know I've come across a few other covers with this cram-it-all-in idea, but can't recall them right now.

Beautiful thing indeed! I, too, am jealous!

Great post, Michael. I tend to agree with your comment about crass commercialism -- at least it's obvious.

I remember reading an article in The Washington Post (this was many years ago, in the 70s, and I was still in high school) about product placement in books, in which the reader was asked to imagine William Shakespeare being offered to make product placements in his plays (!).

I also remember reading a book, a few years later, by a certain best-selling horror writer, in which one of the characters was always smoking cigarettes... not just any cigarettes, mind you. No. They were Chesterfields. Somehow I was able to finish the book, but not without a certain sense of disgust.

...imagine William Shakespeare being offered to make product placements in his plays (!)

That's not too hard to imagine. If I correctly recall my theatre history (I don't have my old textbooks nearby), it was not at all uncommon in Elizabethan theatre for plays to have small cameo roles for appearances by wealthy patrons. In an age before contemporary advertising, this was as close to product placement as you could get.
Daniel Green

"I am sure they (William Morris et al) would have embraced the computer"

Slightly off-thread I know, but I don't think Morris nor any of his contemporaries in the Arts and Crafts movement, if they were alive today, would allow a computer within a hundred miles of their studios or workshops - even those of the Kelmscott Press - because they believed that art, printing, and so on should have been created by hand to have any real aesthetic integrity.
Tim Masters

It's a minor point, but of course books like Babbitt were contemporary revulsions against the culture that produced The Man Nobody Knows. And the period when "the Lost Generation" of World War I embraced bohemianism and rejected the materialism of the period.
john massengale

Thanks for that bit of historical info, Daniel. :-)

No need to be jealous... Search eBay for "r.l. polk" and see what you find.
A. Chicagoan

And what's the contemporary version of the 1922 Tiffin Directory?

Mr. Bierut, don't get fooled by the black type on white paper and the not so unusual print on the paper edges. It is just a yellow pages directory book which we receive updated every year. Produced in a different time-frame, where technical constraints and production policies were different. Just commercial ads. How could they possible be beautiful.

It's great to see ephemera like this in the spotlight. The items I feature on www.ephemera.typepad.com dovetail nicely with this post. Just wanted to say I enjoyed seeing this featured on your blog. Very interesting. Nice work.
Marty Weil

As many commenters have pointed out, these books are nowhere near as unique as I thought. Now it turns out that Alan Fletcher included an image of Kelly's Directory in The Art of Looking Sideways (page 403.)

He accompanies it with this quote from Marshall McLuhan: "Historians and archaeologists will discover that the advertisements of our time are the richest and most faithful recollections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities."
Michael Bierut

Personalmente estoy de acuerdo en la publicidad dentro de libros, siempre y cuando esta sea de corte creativo y no afecte a la estetica y contenido de la obra. En el 2007 propuse en Ecuador el proyecto MARCA TU MARCA, incluir publicidad en libros de alta demanda. Y la propuesta tuvo eco en empresas nacionales y extranjeras.

Ruben D. Alcivar
ecuaimagen USA, LLC.
Ruben Alcivar Zambrano

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