A New History of Graphic Design in an Old Book

I’ve actually owned a copy of The History and Development of Advertising by Frank Presbrey for 20 years and in all that time I never even cracked it open. A few weeks ago, I did the deed. It was a revelation—yet, not all the content in this 1929 publication was new to me. Indeed, a lot of Presbrey’s account supports my own theories and ideas about both the nexus and origins of advertising and graphic design.

W.A. Dwiggins had already coined the term “graphic design” by the time this was published, but very few others used it then. Presbrey does not invoke the term even once in the 642-page volume (nor does he say “commercial art”). Even so, and even though it was not his intent, Presbrey—who also wrote books on motoring, athletics, railroads, and more—laid the groundwork for a history of modern typography as practiced in the advertising medium. 

In “Chapter XXVIII: The Arrival of Newspaper Display,” he demonstrates the precise moment when advertising compositors switched from “agate” type to “Big Black Type Display.” In a writing style that is refreshingly robust for a trade history, he underscores the notion that graphic design emerged upright from the slime of advertising:

When display really began to be used regularly in American newspapers, bond houses and departments stores were the first to employ it.

Newspaper plants appeared to have no compositors capable of a good set-up, or else were unwilling to give the matter time-taking attention. . . . Much better work was being done in the job printing plant, particularly on theatrical bills. The best typographical work that appeared in newspapers was in the electrotypes that came from the job printing plant to which an advertisers had sent copy for setting. . . . As more attention came to be given the subject the trend was toward gothic type, and this font later became so popular that the 80s and 90s are identified as ‘the gothic period in display.’

That advertising is the “mother of graphic design” vividly comes to life in Presbrey’s book. But the fact that advertisers did not exhibit much motherly affection for the board men and women who devoted themselves to the niceties of type and image is also borne out.

Another of the many insights is found in “Chapter XLI: Tremendous Effect of the Half-Tone,” in which Presbrey notes:

Advertising men came to a new realization of the value of illustration, and the great bicycle publicity of the 90s reflected theire heightened appreciation of its worth. . . . Then came what was regarded as a flood of illustration, the human character trade-mark being an early and effective use of the new aid. . . . By 1896 illustrations had become so much a characteristic of the advertisement that [that time was known as] ‘the picture period.’

And one more revelation: The Mad Men above are, more or less, the ancestors of graphic design, the early advertising pioneers, including F.W. Ayer (above spread: righthand page, top right), and J. Walter Thompson (righthand page, bottom left). Who would have thought that the hipster designer would emerge from them?

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For more Steven Heller, don’t miss his upcoming DesignCast, “Researching Design History: From a Personal Perspective,” streaming live on Wednesday, June 27.

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