Lots of things happened during the nineteenth century and the rise of modern advertising culture is one of the many innovations of that century. Of course, there had been advertisements even before that, but during the nineteenth century marketing grew into a profession of its own and the methods of marketing diversified from newspaper notices to rampant puffery, celebrity endorsements, loyalty programs, discount campaigns, bouncers dressed up as tea kettles, and to product placements in plays and Sunday services. As the spending power grew and more and more competing products entered the shops, manufacturers and shopkeepers had to find new modes to appeal to customers and invent more and more innovative and dramatic ways to catch the consumers’ attention.
Victorian London was the heaven and hell of advertising – and a butt of all jokes. Anthony Trollope parodied the advertising business in The Struggles of Brown, Jones, and Robinson by One of the Firm and numerous satires appeared in magazines ridiculing the London cityscape that was plagued with commercials. Although advertising in London was on par to none, it did not mean that commercials would not have decorated other cities as well. Paris was filled with advertisements, though the English tourists were astonished by the style and elegance of the Parisian marketing posters. Yet, even the smaller towns were affected by the advertising craze and posters and placards found their way to wherever there were potential customers. This summer I learned that nineteenth-century advertisements appeared in the most unexpected locations – like in the caves under Maastricht.
For centuries, mining was an important source of income in the region that is today known as southern Limburg and the St. Pietersberg hill in Maastricht was one of the many mines in the region. During the peak of the mining activity, the hill concealed more than 200 kilometers and 20,000 passageways. Today the network of caves extends to 80 kilometers and can be visited as part of a guided tour. I took one of these tours in July and discovered that the caves conceal a real surprise to anyone interested in the history of advertising or in the history of reading and writing.
The walls in the caves are covered with signatures, signs, and notes from the miners of different centuries, but even more astounding and surprising is to discover the other decorations on the walls of the passageways and caves. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the local artists and businessmen began to fill the wall with their artwork and advertisements. According to the guide, the caves had become an extremely popular destination for the Sunday promenades of the Maastricht society. In no time the artists and shop owners realized that the caves were a perfect location for their advertisements. The artists began to decorate the walls with charcoal drawings and paintings to induce potential buyers to their shops and studios. They painted local landscapes, documented historical events, and illustrated Biblical stories. Even Clio found her way to a wall in one of the caves. Thanks to the natural conditions in the caves, the paintings remain in their original condition.
The owners of local businesses were eagerly anxious to tap the potential this new advertising space offered to them. Hotel and restaurant owners promoted their services and the visitors learned, among others, about the different types of drinks that Bols produced.
The advertisements in the Maastricht caves are a good example of the very textually rich nineteenth century. Printed texts – words, letters, numbers, signs, and symbols – appeared literally everywhere. It was nearly impossible to escape the continuous exposure to writing in one form or another. Although the Maastricht tradesmen targeted their advertisements at the local well-to-do classes, the miners saw the same posters when they tramped up and down the passageways leading to the heart of the mine. How much this kind of omnipresence of textual influence shaped the nineteenth-century literacy and the culture of reading and writing, is of course a matter of debate, but its impact on making words and texts familiar to pretty much everyone should not be underestimated.
The photographs on the courtesy of Mr. Footnote and his mother – thanks!
[Anon.], “The Age of Veneer. The Science of Puffing”, Fraser’s Magazine (January 1852): 87-93.
[Anon.], “Thoughts on Puffing”, All the Year Round (4 March 1871): 329-332.J. “The Grand Force!”, Fraser’s Magazine (March 1869): 329-332.
W.J. “The Grand Force!”, Fraser’s Magazine (March 1869): 380-383.
White, Mrs., ”A Chapter on Puffs and Advertisements”, Ainsworth’s Magazine: A Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, and Art, XVI (1849): 42-46.
Mason, Nicholas, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.