Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Early Wooden Vehicle Advertising & Promotions

I’ve been involved in the world of advertising and broadcasting for three and a half decades.  In that time, a lot of things have changed.  As the saying goes, though, it seems ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’  Despite some modern-day beliefs that the 1800’s were full of uneducated simpletons with minimal knowledge and skills, even a brief look at America’s early transportation industry tells a much different story… a story of aggressive innovation, artistic product design, extraordinarily detailed craftsmanship, and savvy business tactics all wrapped up in a finely-tuned marketing machine. 

While 19th and early 20th century wagon makers didn’t have contemporary tools like the internet, television, or other forms of electronic advertising, there was no shortage of avenues used for promotion.  In fact, many of the surviving materials from these period marketing efforts have become highly sought-after collectibles.  Below are a few of those areas. 
Advertising Methods of early  wagon makers included…

Awards – As a way to grow participation within various events, state, local and national fairs often provided awards for entries in a particular category.  Early vehicle builders made much ado over these honors, using them as affirmation of a specific brand’s superiority.  Studebaker was just one of many vehicle brands to showcase special awards in the promotion of their products.  In the same way, modern vehicle makers still use accolades from third parties in their advertising.

Competitions, Expositions, Fairs, Parades & other special events – Folks in today’s world of marketing and advertising would likely refer to these opportunities as “Event Marketing.”  Since so much of a product’s acceptance is based on growing relationships and building rapport with buyers, these types of personal, one-on-one promotions have always been popular with companies and consumers.

Major builders as well as large distribution houses like Deere & Webber used fairs, parades, and other special events to showcase the latest wheeled offerings.

Product Demonstrations – Proclaiming advantages of strength, durability, quality construction, and lightness of draft, many early wagon builders took to the streets (locally, regionally, and nationally) to showcase unique design features and owner benefits.    

Innovations – Emphasizing the ultra-competitive nature of the wooden wagon industry, there are very few areas of a wagon’s construction that weren’t featured in at least one patent from the 19th and early 20th centuries.  As is the case with auto makers today, builders of wagons and western vehicles often touted the purported advancements of a particular design.  The chest-pounding didn’t stop with regular advertising as some makers aggressively pursued copycats through the judicial system.

Vehicle signage – From custom canvas wraps and paintings to vehicles built in novelty shapes with ornate pin striping and three dimensional lettering emblazoned on the sides, the 1800’s were full of creatives working to help companies promote themselves at every turn.  Like so many other forms of advertising, these efforts have evolved with technology but, continue to be a valued part of business promotions.

Outdoor signage – Forming the roots of billboard advertising for today’s car dealers, retailers of wagons often promoted a particular vehicle brand by placing wooden outdoor signs above their places of business.  Waxed cardboard signs were also available from some manufacturers.  These were typically smaller than the 6 to 15 foot wooden signs and could be placed in a variety of areas from the sides of buildings to fence posts and trees along a well-traveled route.

This section from a Studebaker catalog shows one of many customized dealer signs that were available from the legendary manufacturer. 

Promotional trinkets/handouts – Imagination was the only limit to what one could see in this category.  Promotionally branded pieces included brushes, tape measures, coins, watch fobs, door stops, match strikers, travel cups, mirrors, whetstones, stick pins, buttons, art prints, notebooks, puzzles, games, paper weights, etc.

Flyers/Direct Mail –  As with countless, vintage print ads, many of the direct mail pieces from early vehicle manufacturers were B2B (business to business) as builders worked to grow distribution by promoting their products to as many retail outlets as possible.  Nonetheless, direct mail messages to consumers were also employed, encouraging potential buyers to visit individual dealers or, in the case of some factories – buy direct.

This collapsible aluminum cup was a later promotional item used to help highlight the Mitchell wagon brand.

Print Ads – Many print ads from vehicle manufacturers in the 1800’s were placed in trade magazines and directed toward retailers in a particular area.  Others were focused on the end user and could be found in everything from cookbooks and local directories to farm magazines, newspapers, and pocket ledgers. 

Catalogs – Most full-line catalogs from horse-drawn vehicle manufacturers were created after the Civil War, once printing became more affordable for individual businesses.  While the majority of builders did not produce extensive brochures, it was a business expense embraced by the more dominant brands.  The earliest wooden vehicle catalogs in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives will date to 1860.  The pieces are in hardback book form – a costly and rare production for its day.

Trade Cards – Printed trade cards were a favorite form of early advertising among vehicle makers.  During a time when color printing was relatively rare, early versions with colorized scenic images tended to draw significant attention.  The back side of the card would often include maker information and perhaps a line drawing of an associated vehicle.

Jingles – Since the majority of the horse-drawn vehicle era occurred prior to the advent of radio, this topic may seem out of place.  On the contrary, numerous songs/choruses were written or adapted for early vehicle makers.  Jackson, Webster, and Studebaker wagons were a few of the brands known to regularly use music to help promote their vehicles.

Letterheads/Billheads/Envelopes – Prominent wagon firms made the most of every opportunity to promote themselves.  As such, company letterheads, billheads, and envelopes were regularly splashed with specially-engraved images, slogans, and ad messages... still another common practice employed by contemporary businesses. 

Product Placement – These days, this term often references products and brands that seem to 'coincidentally' appear in movies, television shows, video games and so forth.  In similar fashion, a number of early vehicle builders recognized the value of large scale, yet subtle endorsements.  Many worked to secure similar placement opportunities within the promotions of notable businesses and prominent individuals.

Public Relations campaigns – Early horse-drawn vehicle makers also understood the power of the press and continually worked to develop newsworthy segments for placement within the stories of a publication.  Similarly, period newspapers needed local and regional advertisers so they also worked to court the favor and attention of these builders by providing editorial ink for them.

Testimonials – Many of the rare, original catalogs and other horse drawn vehicle literature housed in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives contain testimonials from users.  It’s a sound advertising method as owner experiences and other product reviews continue to play an important role within the decision-making processes of buyers today.  

The Austin, Tomlinson, and Webster Manufacturing Company built the legendary Jackson wagon and used a number of promotional tools such as this heavy cast iron door stop.

The list above contains just a few of the advertising methods employed by early wagon and western vehicle makers.  Clearly, the promotional resources available to these builders were extensive.  As I’d mentioned in the beginning of this blog, the more things change – the more they stay the same.  Many of these same ideas used throughout multiple centuries have now been transferred to the arsenals of modern advertisers.  They continue to be recycled as effective forms of communication, attention, and persuasion.  

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.