Father of Modern Advertising

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He couldn’t hear but he sure could see. Earnest Elmo Calkins, arguably the father of modern art in American Advertising, introduced elements of European Modernism to our shores.

This story begins in 1925 at a playground of modernity in Paris along the banks of the Seine. The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was laid out in boulevards lined with fun houses of consumerism decorated with geometric ornament and neo-classical friezes incorporating functional and decorative designs. The world’s leading clothing, furniture, and houseware manufacturers, and many grand retail emporia were encouraged to exhibit their latest products and designs. But one player was noticeably absent. The United States declined an invitation to participate at the urging of its industrial leaders. In 1923 U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover apologetically announced to the Fourth Annual Exposition of Women’s Arts and Industries that although “we produce a vast volume of goods of much artistic value…[America could not] contribute sufficiently varied design of unique character or of special expression in American artistry to warrant such participation.”

American products were either nondescript or laden with Beaux Art ornament to camouflage a mass produced look. Although mass production was the foundation on which the modern American economy was built, many cultural critics felt that items coming off the assembly line lacked good taste. While the Bauhaus, Constructivism, and other European Modern avant gardes had already embraced the machine and proffered the integration of Modern art and industry, American industrialists, who could easily afford to aesthetically improve their products, were usually apathetic, if not resistant, to the idea. What they did not resist, however, were marketing strategies that would insure greater profits. So following a brief economic downturn in the early twenties and subsequent boom, industry frantically tried to find a new means of stimulating even further sales. It was the profit motive, not any transcendent utopian ethic or aesthetic ideal, that paved the way for commercial modernism in the United States, which was introduced to American advertising in 1925 by Earnest Elmo Calkins (1868- 1964), an advertising pioneer, design reformer, and founder of Calkins and Holden Advertising Co. Like other American advertising and marketing executives he visited the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes and came away inspired.

Describing the array of cubistic and futuristic graphics, packages, and point of purchase displays which he discovered in the pavilions for department stores like Bon Marché and Galleries Layfayette, Calkins wrote to his staff in New York: “It is extremely “new art” and some of it too bizarre, but it achieves a certain exciting harmony, and in detail is entertaining to a degree. [Everything is] arranged with an eye to display, a vast piece of consummate window dressing….It is not always beautiful, but it is diabolically clever.” What was so different from most American advertising art was the noticeable rejection of realism in favor of abstraction. Illustration was not representational but through symbols, metaphors, and allegories exuded a “magical” atmosphere. Boxes and bottles were no longer mere utilitarian vessels for their contents, but rather represented the essence of what the product symbolized to the consumer. Later in an article “The Dividends of Beauty” (Advertising Arts, 1933), Calkins summarized the development this way: “Modernism offered the opportunity of expressing the inexpressible, of suggesting not so much a motor car as speed, not so much a gown as style, not so much a compact as beauty.” If this had a similar ring to one of F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist manifestos, it was because Calkins studied and borrowed heavily from the European avant garde. He was a tireless advocate of a formalist version of modernity in commercial art and industrial design. “[W]hat seemed to be a new method for transfiguring commonplace objects became for Calkins a means of disconnecting form and content, thoughts and things,” states Jackson Lears in Fables of Abundance, (Basic Books, 1994).

Modern art, or what the leading advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink magazine in 1928 called “foreign art ideas” elevated advertising art to a higher aesthetic level. For most advertising art directors modernism was a “bag of tricks the artist could use to set an ordinary product apart,” continues Lears. And advertising artists were indeed quick to appreciate the possibilities of modernism since realistic art had reached, what Calkins termed a “dead level of excellence.” It was no longer possible to make an advertisement striking, conspicuous and attractive by still pictures and realistic groups. Spearheaded by Calkins and Holden, and later adopted by such progressive agencies as N.W. Ayer (who opened its own galleries to display and promote their own modern advertising art), and Kenyon and Eckart, commonplace objects — toasters, refrigerators, coffee tins — were presented against new patterns and at skewed angles; contemporary industrial wares were shown in surrealistic and futuristic settings accented by contemporary typefaces with contempo names like Cubist Bold, Vulcan, Broadway, Novel Gothic, and more. Mise en page, or layout, inspired by the European New Typography, also became more dynamic in its asymmetry . Modernism offered what historian Jackson Lears calls the “aura of cosmopolitan culture and avant garde style” and signaled the spread of an aesthetic coming of age of American adverting. In an essay titled “Cavalcade” (Advertising Arts, 1935) leading advertising artist René Clark enthusiastically recalled the years between 1925 and 1931 as the “golden age of advertising…merchandise sold easily…clients spent freely and gave us wide latitude of invention and experiment.”

Calkins, who with Ralph Holden co-authored Modern Advertising (D. Appleton and Company, 1905), proposed that fine typography must be a component of successful advertising rather than an afterthought thrown-in by job printers. The first man to specialize in advertising typography was Benjamin Sherbow, who Calkins had hired as a copywriter in 1919 but soon began to experiment with display and text type (he later published a manual titled Sherbow’s Charts, which Calkins touted as a “must” item in agency production departments). Around 1920 Calkins introduced the job of “type man,” later called “type director,” who specialized in providing fresh points of view to counter the clichés of the average printer. Integrating good typography and art was “a more subtle way of suggesting beauty in the products than baldly stating the fact in the text,” wrote Calkins in his autobiography, And Hearing Not (Charles A. Scribners and Sons, 1946) also known as Louder, Please (above). Suggesting a special relationship between the advertisement and goods by the style of the graphic design was something Calkins called “atmosphere,” a fetishistic trait that ultimately rubbed off on the product itself. “Improving the physiognomy of advertising had a twofold result…” he explained. “It directly influenced the taste of the public and indirectly conditioned the production of goods.” Calkins recalled that he and artists were irked when they had to produce a good-looking advertisement for something that did not lend itself to attractive pictorial treatment.

In Calkins’ view advertising was the Hy-test running the engines of industry. He was not wrong. “The styling of manufactured goods,” he wrote in “Advertising Art in the United States…” (Modern Publicity), “is a byproduct of improved advertising design…The technical term for this idea is “obsoletism.” We no longer wait for things to wear out. We displace them with others that are not more efficient but more attractive.” Although clothing manufacturers had for decades been changing styles annually to increase consumer interest, industry had not adopted this strategy until Calkins made it his mission. “It seemed reasonable that if design and color made advertising more acceptable to the buying public,” he wrote, “design and color would add saleability of goods.” He also noted that the majority of consumers were women, who indeed were accustomed to changes in fashions and were happily seduced by the sleek new designs. Although Calkins and Holden’s clients included car, cereal, and hat manufacturers, the majority of their accounts were for products targeted at women, such as appliances, housewares, and detergents.

Calkins was a missionary of acceptable modernity who in his zeal to establish advertising as the agent of progress turned his attention to pseudo-science, and was instrumental in such modern marketing concepts as “consumption engineering,” “forced obsolescence” and “styling the goods.” These were the core concepts of an advertising strategy that introduced Modern art to the otherwise devoutly conservative profession whose primary responsibility was purchasing ad space from magazines and newspapers. By combining aspects of perceptual psychology with the pseudo-science of market research, Calkins proposed ways to control consumers’ behavior through Pavlovian methods — by incrementally feeding them new mouthwatering styles. Consumption engineering was essentially a trick that encouraged redundancy, and artificially stimulated growth. “To make people buy more goods,” he wrote in an essay titled “Advertising, Builder of Taste” (The American Magazine of Art, Sept 1930), “it is necessary to displace what they already have, still useful, but outdated, old-fashioned, obsolete.”

Calkins further believed that Modern art was its own value additive. “When the uglier utilities of business cannot be beautified, art is used to make them disappear,” wrote Calkins in “Advertising, Builder of Taste” “Gasometers are being painted according to the principles of camouflage…The bottles, jars, tubes, boxes and cartons of hundreds of foods, drugs, toilet articles, perfumes, powders, pastes and creams are in the hands of artists working solely to produce a container pleasing to the eye to add color and form to the shop window, or toilet table and kitchen shelf.” This was one of innumerable pronouncements that Calkins made through trade journals, articles in newspapers and magazines, and lectures before business and civic groups. He was a missionary who fervently believed that Modernism equaled beauty, and beauty was the key to economic health and well being. His pseudo-scientific notions provided a virtual catechism for the rightness of Modern design. Like the revolutionary European Modernists he pontificated that “We must acquire the new point of view, aided by the undeniable affinity that exists between some aspects of modern industrialism and some aspects of modern art.”

For more on Calkins and Commercial Modernism see my podcast here.

Elmo Calkins
Modern Advertising
Commerical Advertising