The Role of Advertising

Advertisements were crucial to the success of almost any frontier newspaper, as they provided a much needed infusion of revenue to printers struggling to stay afloat. Indeed, the western newspaper business was far from lucrative, and advertising space was often the saving grace that allowed the western editor to maintain some semblance of a livelihood. Historian Robert Karolevitz notes that “papers are filled with editorial appeals for cordwood, potatoes, chickens, and other vital commodities which publishers were anxious to receive in exchange for advertising space…” (Karolevitz, 31). The advertisements not only eased the burden on cash-strapped publishers, but performed a vital role in the community as well.

Sell it!
Newspaper were often made up of as many advertisements as articles.

As previously noted, the institution of the newspaper had a stabilizing affect on the community as a whole. Townspeople on an uncertain frontier were assured by the vestiges of a more permanent civilization, something the newspaper most certainly was. Advertising, too had a similar affect. An advertisement in a newspaper effectively brought the small down reader into a national market, and one could imagine that their access to goods was the same as the denizen of a large city. Of course, most advertisements did not tout nationally distributed products, and notices were just as likely to be purchased by local merchants publicizing local establishments. The great want of currency led most editors to accept virtually any request for advertising space, and in times when truth in advertising was at best something to be strived for, papers were littered with dubious claims for various cure-alls, wonder drugs and various other quackery.
Dubious Claims
Quackery abounds in early advertising

Indeed, the relationship of local merchant to the local paper was mutually beneficial. Merchants knew the value of a well-established paper, as a successful business depended upon a settled clientele, something that a town with at least one good paper was likely to have. To this end, merchants frequently placed ads in newspapers as acts of charity, and often ran the same ad week after week so the printer would not need to reset the type. (Dary, 201). These business men believed, quite rightly, that “a lively camp paper gave outward evidence that the community was thriving and its future secure.”(Halaas, 35). Nevertheless, some merchants refused to spend money advertising in local papers, much to the indignation of local editors. Indeed, these tight-wad proprietors were sometimes blacklisted by the paper, and citizens were urged to only patronize the merchants who cared for the community. As one editorial from a Denver paper fumed, “When you see a man who is too close to and stingy to advertise, you can safely put him down as being too selfish to deal generously or very fairly or honestly.”(Quoted in Halaas, 35).

Aside from advertising products and local establishments, newspapers could also gain revenue from publishing the proofs of homesteaders. Proofs were notices placed by homesteaders proclaiming the dutiful completion of all necessary steps needed to rightly lay claim to the land granted from the government. As large groups of homesteaders moved into the same area, editors often found a miniature bonanza publishing these legal notices; indeed less civic-minded printers were known to periodically pack up and seek out homesteaders who were close to proofing their land. (Dary, 205).

Advertising in western papers became more widespread as means of transportation improved and a national consumer market began to flourish. As towns grew and took on the trappings of permanence, the “need” for advertising may have waned. Yet these notices had served an important purpose in the unsettled world of the early West. A passage from Daniel Boorstein speaks to this importance of American advertising in general, and deserves to be quoted at length: In an old and thickly-peopled country, where everybody is everybody else’s next door neighbour, andknows precisely what he buys and sells, advertisements are rather a luxury than a necessity. But in a country with perhaps five or six inhabitants to the square mile, and where probably, one half of the population arrived by the last steamer, it is absolutely indispensable for the new come Yankee to announce his advent and his benevolent intention of dispensing dry-goods, of giving “cash for wheat” or lecturing spiritualisam, or drawing teeth. Advertising is there a necessity of existence; and by advertisements the paper lives.”(Boorstein, 126.)

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This site created and maintained by David A Hendrick.
Last updated Dec 13, 2001