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A New Freedom for Advertisers: Breaking the Agate Rule

ADVERTISING, DESTINED TO BE the omnipresent, most characteristic, and most remunerative form of American literature, did not come into its own until the second half of the nineteenth century. This new subliterature was destined to have an intimate popular appeal and a gross national influence without parallel in the history of sacred or profane letters. In mid-twentieth-century America the force of the advertising word and image would dwarf the power of other literature.

While advertising was not, of course, a modern invention, the American elaboration and diffusion of advertising, and its central place in the consciousness of the community, were new. The proportion of the national ingenuity, energy, and resources that went into advertising was unprecedented. We have seen how, within two decades after the end of the Civil War, Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck, among others, had built their vast communities of consumers on the advertising in their skillfully composed catalogues. This advertising went to millions of readers, not sandwiched between news or fiction, but exclusively to offer specific merchandise in the best light, and so to persuade people to buy. Even before advertising had become a major American art and a developed American science, Sears, Roebuck’s Big Book had become the characteristically American book.

“Everything is against distinction in America,” explained the English pundit Matthew Arnold in 1888, as he condescendingly cited Abraham Lincoln. “The glorification of the ‘average man,’ who is quite a religion with statesmen and publicists there, is against it. The addiction to the ‘funny man,’ who is a national misfortune there, is against it. Above all, the newspapers are against it.” And, he might have added, advertising was against it.

Nothing loosened up the world of the word quite so much as advertising. Another symbol of how the New World dissolved distinctions, it blurred the line between word and picture, between word and gesture. It showed an aggressive, sometimes belligerent, democracy that had been rare in printed matter before that time. For it ruthlessly and relentlessly sought to widen the audience and to broaden its appeal. There is no better example of the power of new American circumstances to break up old rigidities, to allow the world to flow.

IN THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY, even after American daily newspapers prospered and became enterprising in other ways, their advertising was dull. Monotonous solid columns of small type were the rule. The front page of most dailies was given over to advertisements, which were usually not even classified. (The very notion of “classified” advertisements, and the Americanism “classified,” did not exist until after the Civil War.) Page one of the Boston Evening Transcript, for April 9, 1840, jumbled together three-line notices for Italian Cravats, Money to Loan, Potatoes, two seventeen-year-old lads wanting to help in a public house, the Cincinnati Almanac, and shares of bank stock. The only relief was an initial capital letter or a crude minuscule standard cut of a sailing ship, a horse, or a runaway servant. Yet, from the beginning, the profits of American newspapers depended on just such advertisements, which, even in the colonial period, might run to as many as five pages.

From time to time, even before 1790, an adventurous or flamboyant publisher would offer a double-column spread, a big, specially drawn cut, or large type. But this was uncommon. Shortage of paper, for example during the Revolution and in the early years of the Republic, sometimes forced the abridgement of advertisements, the omission even of the minute stock cuts, and so put the development of display advertising entirely out of the question. In 1833 the Boston Evening Transcript, then printed on small tabloid-size sheets, changed its advertising from the customary small agate (5½ point) type to the even smaller diamond (4½ point) type; the paper explained that this was the only way it could increase its advertising.

Until about the time of the Civil War, experiments in display advertising and in use of the double-column measure were only sporadic. Publishers thought bigger advertisements were a waste of space. They urged, also, that to allow the large advertiser to attract attention by display type or large cuts would be “unfair” to the daily small-space advertisers. And there were technical problems in breaking a column. The markers or “rules” which separated the columns came only in full-column lengths. Therefore in order to print an advertisement stretching across two or more columns, and still keep the rest of the page neatly divided, the printer had to go to the trouble of sawing off the column rule. At best this was a nuisance, but many print shops did not even have the right kind of saw. As a result, agate type and single-column measure became a rigid custom.

Although the more primitive Western papers and weeklies sometimes tried larger type and occasionally broke their columns, the larger and more influential Eastern papers stayed with the Agate Rule. THEY REQUIRED ADVERTISEMENTS TO BE SET IN AGATE TYPE, WHICH WAS THIS SIZE. James Gordon Bennett, of the New York Herald, an innovator in many other ways, only briefly tried a liberal policy in the typography of advertisements in his paper. By 1847 he had returned to a strict typographic democracy among his advertisers, banning even the ornamental stock cut or the two-line initial. Bennett’s highly intellectual rationale was that an advertiser should gain his advantage only from what he said, not from how it was printed. Bennett, with others, made rigid enforcement of the Agate Rule, single-column measure a journalistic principle. As Frederic Hudson, who worked for thirty years for Bennett during the heyday of the Agate Rule and who was managing editor of the Herald, explained in 1872:

The advertisements in the Herald increased with its enterprise and its circulation. It had been the custom of all newspapers in the United States to illustrate the business notices of their patrons with pictures representing the character of the advertisements—of ships, race-horses, houses, stage-coaches, railroad trains, dogs, birds, runaway apprentices and slaves with packs on their backs, wagons, steam-boats, cattle, and the Muses. Typographically, the plan was not a good one. In a business point of view, it was unfair to those not represented pictorially. The Herald in 1847 omitted all cuts and all display. All advertisements were printed in the same style, but neatly and systematically arranged. They gave a thorough business appearance to the paper. Since then no pictures have appeared. There has been no typographic splurge for one to the injury of another. The new plan worked well from its initiation, and the public and the advertisers were alike pleased.

BUT HUDSON WAS not quite accurate. For energetic and imaginative advertisers felt bridled by the old Agate Rule and made it a challenge to their ingenuity. They showed how pieces of the small agate type could be combined into a new kind of display. The Agate Rule, like other efforts at leveling, could not take away the special advantage of the especially clever.

When the pioneer photographer Mathew B. Brady in 1856 advertised “Brady’s Gallery—Photographs, Ambrotypes and Daguerrotypes,” in Bennett’s Herald he arranged the pieces of tiny agate type to form the inch-high numerals “359,” his address on Broadway. A clothing merchant announcing a sale at the Christmas season repeated and rearranged the word “overcoat” into the shape of a Christmas tree. And there were other ingenious variations.

The hero of the battle against the Agate Rule was the flamboyant Robert Bonner. While he dramatized the folly of the Agate Rule, he foreshadowed the power of the advertiser in American life. Considering the future of American advertising, Bonner’s first engagement was fought in a most unlikely cause—the popularizing of sentimental literature. Bonner, born in Ireland, had immigrated in 1839 at the age of fifteen, and began as a typesetter on the Hartford Courant, where he showed a talent for fast composing and a taste for fast horses. In 1851 he paid $900 for the New York Merchant’s Ledger, a dull journal of the dry-goods trade. By 1855 he had discarded the drab commercial matter, had shortened the name to the New York Ledger, and his weekly now offered sentimental stories, serials, moral essays, heartwarming doggerel, and advice to the lovelorn.

One of Bonner’s great services to advertising, as Frank Presbrey, the advertisers’ historian, observes, was to help build an audience of women readers “for the benefit of future advertisers.” The Ledger featured the most popular writers of the day: “Fanny Fern” (the pseudonym of Sara Willis, wife of the biographer James Parton), whose edifying “Fern Leaves” were so successful and so full of amiable buncombe that one reviewer said she should have married P. T. Barnum, and whom Bonner paid the amazing price of $100 a column; Sylvanus Cobb, Jr., whose thriller “The Gunmaker of Moscow” and other items (in the Ledger alone, 130 novelettes, 30 “Forest Sketches,” 72 “Forest Adventures,” 102 “Sketches of Adventure,” 57 “Scraps of Adventure from an Old Sailor’s Logbook,” 573 other stories, and 2,305 other short pieces) earned him the title of the Father of Mass Production in American Fiction. And he offered other masters of the lurid and the sensational—Mrs. Emma Southworth of The Hidden Hand, John G. Saxe, T. S. Arthur, and others—who are now remembered only for having been the forgotten authors of that age.

Bonner published work by names he could advertise. These included General Grant’s father (who wrote the life of his son), William Cullen Bryant, Henry W. Longfellow, George Bancroft, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, besides “the twelve leading clergymen” and “the presidents of the twelve chief colleges of the United States.” To everybody’s astonishment Bonner actually secured articles from his leading journalist-rivals in New York: Horace Greeley of the Tribune, Henry J. Raymond of the Times, and James Gordon Bennett himself; then he splurged them all in one issue. He enlisted the eminent Edward Everett by helping him raise money to buy Mount Vernon to be a public monument, and offered Everett $10,000 for a series to be called the “Mount Vernon Papers.” Bonner reputedly bought from the already notorious Henry Ward Beecher the serial rights to his novel Norwood for $30,000. Among his more conventional acquisitions were a short poem by Tennyson and a short story by Dickens (at $5,000 each).

All these items were themselves a new form of advertising, of which Bonner was well aware. His confidence in the power of advertising led him to risk ever larger and larger sums. The bold gambling spirit which Bonner shared with his contemporary P. T. Barnum made Bonner one of the leading race-horse owners of his day. He spent more than half a million dollars on racehorses during his lifetime; but once he owned a horse, he never allowed it again to race for money. One of his prizes was the famous trotter Dexter, the envy of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and said to be one of the few of Vanderbilt’s desires that he was not able to buy.

While Bonner’s Ledger did not accept advertising, nevertheless it was built on a foundation of advertisements. By advertising in other publications, Bonner gained the attention of the world and secured the large circulation needed to repay the high stakes he had invested in his writers. And his passion for advertising stirred him to bold experiment.

When James Gordon Bennett refused to let Bonner use display type in the New York Herald, Bonner took a cue from the London Times, where he had observed the effect of repetition. There auctioneers, instead of taking a single long advertisement, would run in the same column numerous short announcements of equal length, each beginning with the same large initial letter and the name of the firm. Bonner observed that these repetitive items caught the reader’s attention more than a similar number of miscellaneous items inserted by the same advertiser. He then elaborated his own techniques of repetition, which got around the Agate Rule and put new power in the printed page. Bonner began by filling a whole column with ninety-three repetitions of a single announcement: “Orion the Gold Beater is the title of Cobb’s sensational story in the New York Ledger.” Soon after, he tried filling two columns with his repetitions. He created the advertising sensation of 1856 when he took a full page and repeated his message six hundred times.

“Iteration copy,” as this came to be called, was ingenious form repeating commonplace content: “See the New York Ledger with Cobb’s new story,” or “Don’t go home to-night without the New York Ledger,” or “Let the news go forth that the New York Ledger is out.” Or Bonner would take six columns to make such a message into an acrostic. The two-line-high initial letter “L” of “Let the news go forth …” in the first column would fit with the initial “E” in the second column of “Everyone is reading Cobb’s new sensation story in the New York Ledger” and so on to spell “L-E-D-G-E-R.” Lest any reader should miss the point, each column bore the heading “Ledger Acrostic.” The climax of iteration copy was reached on May 6, 1858, when Bonner produced what was said to be the largest advertisement yet to appear in any newspaper. In the Herald he announced a new adventure serial by the prolific Emerson Bennett, with iterations that filled seven pages.

Bonner soon secured nearly as much publicity from the rumors about his advertising budget and his advertising stunts as from the printed advertisements themselves. The Ledger was reputed to have spent as much as $27,000 on advertising in a single week; its annual advertising budget ran to $150,000. This paid off when Bonner managed to bring the circulation for his four-cent weekly of “choice literature and romance” up to nearly 400,000. He had shown American advertisers how to break the shackles of a stodgy tradition. Bonner’s iteration style, as historians of advertising suggest, may have been the parent of the advertising slogan. Advertisers later in the century, when they attacked the eyes of Americans everywhere with “Use Sapolio” and other unforgettable refrains, were profiting from Bonner’s early successes in the battle against the Agate Rule.

BONNER’S ITERATION STYLE was widely imitated. The built-up large letters compounded of numerous small agate letters actually became a trademark of Bennett’s Herald. The Agate Rule had proved futile as a way of preserving a paper’s “dignity.” But the great liberation of advertising typography, by the widespread use of large and varied display type and the freeing of the newspaper page from rigid columns, was surprisingly slow in coming. Brady, Bonner, and others had unintentionally begun to show the attention-getting value of white space on the printed page. Although early patent-medicine advertising and theater handbills had occasionally used large type and illustrations, the freer new techniques were not common until near the end of the nineteenth century.

It was no accident that the largest and most enterprising department stores were the pioneers of newspaper display advertising. Their need to attract crowds within a small geographic radius made the city dailies their perfect medium. And before long, as we have seen, the department stores had become the mainstay of the big-city dailies. The American leadership was taken by Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Wanamaker’s. The Journal des Débats, published in Paris in the 1850’s, had carried advertisements in type three inches high (72 point), a font larger than any found in American newspapers. But for some time the five-pointed star that headed Macy’s advertising columns and became its trademark was composed of numerous pieces of agate type. By 1865 Macy’s had begun to use display type in its advertisements. Lord & Taylor (by now using 30-point type for its signature) joined Macy’s in revolt against agate type for general newspaper advertising, and they both broke the column rules with advertisements that regularly appeared in an undivided double column. In 1879 Wanamaker placed what is said to be the first full-page American daily newspaper advertisement for a retail store. By the 1880’s, full-page newspaper advertising, with liberated type, including display, was common practice for department stores.

Another break in the stodgy pattern of agate advertisements came in 1870 when Sapolio (a soap powder) introduced the human-interest illustration. A cut that had been used in magazine illustrations, showing a man looking contentedly at his own reflection in the bottom of a pan made mirror-shiny by Sapolio, finally appeared in a general-circulation newspaper. But pictorial representation entered the advertising columns of newspapers only gradually. And then it was not the department stores but the manufacturers, especially the sewing-machine firms, who took the lead.

UNTIL THE 1830’s the common newspaper practice was to sell to advertisers the right to insert a daily advertisement at a flat fee for the whole year. For about $32 an advertisement would appear every day in a big-city newspaper, and the advertiser was not closely restricted in space or linage. This practice, together with the cheapening of paper by the Fourdrinier paper-making machine in the 1820’s, encouraged the printing of larger and larger papers. By the 1830’s the New York Journal of Commerce stretched across eleven columns on a sheet 35 inches wide and 58 inches high. This unmanageable expanse, nearly six feet wide when opened, came to be called the “blanket sheet.” The inconvenience of such a paper explained the special appeal of the new tabloid format, and when the New York Sun first appeared in 1833, it was only 9 inches by 12 inches. A paper shortage in the mid-1830’s was another incentive for smaller-size sheets.

Dailies changed their policy, and instead of receiving unlimited space, an advertiser now had only ten lines a day for his small annual fee. For the first time, then, daily newspapers generally fixed daily rates by the line. Of course, this economized advertising space. But the “standing ad,” the fixed text which did not need to be reset and which remained unchanged month after month, or even year after year, was still common.

James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, who had stuck by his rigid Agate Rule to keep his advertising columns “dignified” in form, showed more imagination in improving the advertising content. Advertising, Bennett said, like all the rest of a newspaper, should be newsy. At first, early in 1847, he required that the text of all advertisements be changed every two weeks. Then he made the sensational announcement that beginning on January 1, 1848, all advertisements would have to be renewed daily. The top of his front page proclaimed: “Advertisements Renewed Every Day.” As Bennett’s long-term managing editor, Frederic Hudson, boasted:

The advertisements of the Herald are a feature. They are fresh every day. It is intended, by its system, that they should be. Its proprietor would prefer to have every business notice freshly written daily. On this plan the advertisements form the most interesting and practical “city news.” They are the hopes, the thoughts, the joys, the plans, the shames, the losses, the mishaps, the fortunes, the pleasures, the miseries, the politics, and the religion of the people. Each advertiser is therefore a reporter—a sort of “penny-a-liner,” he paying the penny. What a picture of the metropolis one day’s advertisements in the Herald presents to mankind!

This extravagant puff for advertising was already beginning to be sober fact when Hudson composed it in 1872. Advertising, with its spreading power and its new freedom from pedantic and typographic bonds, was already evolving a democratic genre of literature. Within the next century, advertising would shape the American language, would make new demands of writers and would offer a kaleidoscope of bizarre and staccato trivia to listeners and readers.

The commercial motive, aiming to reach everybody’s pocket book, to enlist as many as possible in the new consumption communities, like the religious motive of the New England Puritans two centuries earlier who aimed to enlist as many as possible in communities of the converted, now produced a new kind of “plain style.” Something like what rising Protestantism had done for the spiritual world, the democratized American consumption communities now did for the material. Everybody was now a potential buyer, to be reached by an advertising appeal directed to him.

“The commonplace is the proper level for writing in business,” explained John E. Powers, the dean of early American advertising writers, “where the first virtue is plainness, ‘fine writing’ is not only intellectual, it is offensive.” The pioneer advertising agent George P. Rowell advised, “You must write your advertisements to catch damned fools—not college professors, and you’ll catch just as many college professors as you will of any other sort.” Or, as his disciple Claude C. Hopkins in the 1920’s still urged, “Brilliant writing has no place in advertising. A unique style takes attention from the subject. Any apparent effort to sell creates corresponding resistance…. One should be natural and simple. His language should not be conspicuous. In fishing for buyers, as in fishing for bass, one should not reveal the hook.”

In the new literature of advertising, alongside the tradition of forthright plain talk, another American tradition flourished anew. This was the tradition of Tall Talk. Boosters for new consumption communities discovered extravagant possibilities in the language of the commonplace. Advertising men, like the publicists for imaginary Western towns, freely used the language of anticipation, and they, too, were seldom inhibited by the fact that something had not yet “gone through the formality of taking place.” Any Western tall-talker would have been proud to call a shampoo “Halo” or to name an automobile the “Fury.”

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