The Advertising of Our Ancestors’ Generations

By Maureen A. Taylor

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Here’s how you can look at advertising directed at our ancestors.

While the card catalogs of years past are mostly gone, those subject headings that made finding a book easy are still with us. The Library of Congress uses subject headings for images and other items in their collection.

On use the search box and enter “Advertisements” and a time frame. In this case, Advertisements—1880-1890 turned up this lovely image of individuals sliding down a snowy hill.

When you find an image, scroll down on the cataloging record page and you’ll see other subject headings. Click on one of those links to go to similar images cataloged using those headings. It’s a research shortcut.

Try it and see.

You can also use this search technique and make it more specific to what you see in an ancestral picture. Pick an item such as stoves and a time period for instance, “ stove” 1880 to find an assortment of photographs and advertisements.

The material culture of our ancestors can illuminate ancestral lives. You’ll end up with a better understanding of their everyday habits visible in their family pictures.

advertising people sledding

Take a close look at this advertisement for Star toboggans circa 1886, then look at your pictures of ancestors frolicking in the snow. They might be riding one. It’s a nice element to add to a story about a family photograph. That toboggan could be the trigger that makes someone remember more about an image than they originally thought they knew.

Advertisements can help you date a picture too. You may see an unusual object in an ancestral photo and wish you knew more about it. Advertising trade cards (i.e. a type of business card for a product) and posters can help you study the times in which your ancestors lived.