The Advertising and Marketing of Colonial Williamsburg During the Great Depression

by Luke Dunnington

Introduction and Rockefeller's Goals

The recreation of Colonial Williamsburg embraced and celebrated our country's past like no other effort in history. The initiative of Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin and the philanthropy of John D. Rockefeller Jr. made the vision of restorating this entire city a reality. As a full-time philanthropist, Rockefeller was eager to give back to society from his inherited millions. After temporarily and unsuccessfully funding the temperance movement, Rockefeller recognized that fueling a revival of orthodox religion was a far greater task than was achievable with total results. When the opportunity to rebuild the cultural and historical landmark of Colonial Williamsburg arose, Rockefeller adopted a new mission of civic religion. This new goal included the masses learning, appreciating, and witnessing the achievements of God's greatness in the past, that being the events of history (Ideology of Williamsburg Restoration). Colonial Williamsburg's motto is "that the future may learn from the past." In essence, this new secular form of worship exulted the liberty, democracy, and republicanism that our nation was born out of and stands on fervently. Carrying these principles of our founding are the secular saints of Jefferson, Washington, and Patrick Henry. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's chief administrative officer, Kenneth Chorley, stated "there has been created here a shrine which has local, sectional, and national involvement" (#28, 172). In this new realm, Rockefeller enabled people to reach a heightened level of awareness and commitment to God's works through the legitimacy of his extreme historical authenticity.

The Authority of History

Furthermore, a devotion to historical tradition provided people with a sense of stability during a period of uncertainty. The Great Depression was marked by a loss of all that was dependable. The stock market crash left people, at the very least, skeptical of the nation's economic system. Crop failures robbed the land itself of any credibility, sending people from their homes searching for a new more predictable future. However, a life on the road of migratory labor was anything but the expected. An inability to properly clothe and nourish their families added failure and fear to the heap of unpleasant depression-time sentiments. The powerlessness of the government to prevent this decay and social destruction resulted in a loss of assurance in the seemingly omniscient and all-controlling Powers that Be. However, in the wake of wholesale mistrust and insecurity, an adherence to the past emerged as a saving grace to those with nothing to call their own. Amidst the doubt of where tomorrow's meal would come from or how to survive the next growing season, Americans could always count on the dependability of history. History was one of the few things which remained unchangeable and constant during the Depression. Therefore it was deserving of praise and celebration. Thus, despite a family's financial or material losses, all could rally around a common past of colonialism, revolution, and freedom from tyranny. The employed and jobless alike could stake the same claim to a rich historical tradition and participate in the enjoyment of it in a spirit of national pride and unity despite tough times. Newfound historical appreciation could be manifested through observing the sacrament of a pilgrimage to Colonial Williamsburg. In a sense, the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg provided a reeducation and a rebirth of a meritorious time gone by, during a time of stagnation, just as classical antiquity did for the Renaissance from the Middle Ages.

Advertising and Marketing

Despite the theories, intentions, philosophies, and purposes behind Colonial Williamsburg, it would all be for naught if the public were not properly informed on and convinced to make their sacred secular pilgrimage. Therefore, the role of marketing and advertising in the creation of a Colonial Williamsburg image became crucial for the success of the reconstructed town. Thomas Taylor reports from his dissertation on Colonial Williamsburg's reception, that integral to this plan was not so much "how to generate interest in the project, but how to convey the right impression and avoid the appearance of commercialism" (#28, 137). The renovated town was marketed mostly to those of the middle and upper classes who could afford to visit. However, formal and informal advertising undoubtedly reached greater audiences than those in focus. The minority of this advertising was planned and paid for by the Williamsburg Restoration Foundation. Most Americans were attracted to Colonial Williamsburg through public relations efforts towards and individual interest and initiative of newspapers and periodicals. The vast number of published articles on Colonial Williamsburg sold the site as extremely authentic, a colossal undertaking, historically significant, a beautifully inspiring place, and by triggering the imagination.

Radio Ads

While the following analysis will look primarily at printed journals, a brief inspection of film and radio advertisement is warranted. The majority of radio promotions for Colonial Williamsburg were not paid for by the Foundation. They were, for the most part, travel promotional talks, imaginary trips through the restored area, or ads for products used in the restoration, like Benjamin Moore paints (#28, 159-62). Most often, as the Foundation Archives show, there were "numerous requests from writers and broadcasters for information on Williamsburg for inclusion in their programs" ( #28, 166). These attempts by radio stations to seek entertaining and informative programming resulted in the masses hearing praise of Goodwin's master plan and of Rockefeller's contributions. However, on the occasion of a new building opening, the visit of a dignitary, or in the case of a 1937 address from the Rockefeller Plaza in New York, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation specially scripted and announced radio deliveries. Not until the 1940's was a comprehensive radio promotion attempted ( #28, 160-65).


In terms of the big screen, Chorley made repeated attempts to have the restoration captured on film. However, the majority of these plans fell through because of either the vast expense or poor quality of the proposed product. After unsuccessfully dealing with Warner Brothers, a deal was struck with Colombia Pictures in the spring of 1940 to produce a film portraying a tourist visit to Colonial Williamsburg. With a great deal of apprehension as to historical accuracy, "The Tree of Liberty" was released later that fall. Not until deeper into the 1940's would film become a more active agent in promoting the restoration ( #28 173-5).


With film and radio playing a small advertising role, newspapers and magazines were the media channels which generated the most interest in Colonial Williamsburg. Only a small portion of these, however, were paid advertisements. These few ads were placed in Virginia and Eastern seaboard newspapers in an attempt to maintain hotel and restaurant business during the off-season. Furthermore, Taylor reports that "these advertisements were simple and informative. No attempt was made to explain what was being restored or why. It was assumed that people were already familiar with objectives of the restoration" ( #28, 281). From an objective standpoint, this appears to be a careless and half-baked attempt at selling the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. Was this a major strategic advertising faux pas on the part of the Foundation? Were they overly confident and presumptuous as to their national status and prominence? Actually, based on the comprehensive journalism of numerous periodicals, which were motivated by a keen interest in Rockefeller's pursuits, Colonial Williamsburg was thoroughly sold to America without cost to the Foundation. Hospitable cooperation with these journals proved to be a mutually beneficial relationship as the Foundation provided historical information and photographic opportunities, while the writers added their own influential touches. While newspapers did reach the masses, very few actual advertisements were placed in this form of print. Furthermore, magazines had a longer life in the average home and were therefore more likely to be read repeatedly or passed on to other readers. In addition, magazines had a greater capacity to provide quality photographs, which solid images of what to expect from the restoration. An inspection of these magazines provides a better understanding of exactly how and to which groups Colonial Williamsburg was sold. Thus, the following publications are significant in their content and readership:
Architectural Record Automobilist American Motorist Good Housekeeping
House Beautiful Better Homes & Gardens C & O Return to the Beginning
Ramifications of Restoration Table of Contents

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