I love museum shops. They are almost always full of interesting and beautiful things—and they are one of my best sources for historical “artifacts” I can use to help students explore historical research. In museum stores I’ve acquired replicas of the newspapers reporting activities of the U.S. women’s suffrage movements, tin lamps and other gadgets, early textbooks and, most recently, a set of “optical toys” that are replicas of very clever 19th century advertising.
The set includes an ad for hair restorer that, when held to the light, makes luxurious hair appear on a bald man; a flip book that uses early animation to illustrate a convertible collar; and an ad for German Corn Remover that opens to reveal a happy dancing man. I especially like the twirling ad for St. Jacob’s oil that is said to prevent rheumatism. When spun on its string, the ad reads “May I kiss you?” It seems to have as much to do with rheumatism oil as the scantily clad women at contemporary car shows do with automotive engineering! The most risqué of the ads features an elegant woman with the message “Pull off my gown to see the whisky of greatest renown.” Inside, with bloomers and corset in full view, the same woman drinks Harper Whiskey.
Obviously, the potential uses of these ads vary with maturity of your students. Persuasive advertising techniques used in these and other early ads can be compared to those used today. Younger students could study early ads that twirl, flip, or open and be challenged to imagine how such strategies could be used today. Older students could understand the whiskey or rheumatism oil ads as early examples of a long string of ads that have used sexuality to sell unrelated products. Understanding the historical context of such advertising may help older adolescents better interpret the unhealthy messages such ads promote.
How does this relate to creativity? Of course, creating new advertisements that spin, twirl, or animate, provides plenty of opportunities for creativity. But viewing early artifacts, whether original or reproduced, also allows students to raise questions that parallel those of creative historians. What do these ads suggest about how 19th century companies sold products? Are these ads representative? There are lots of online resources students can use to investigate these and similar questions—here’s one from Duke University. The key is, we need to use historical images to raise questions as well as transmit information. Just a few moments of browsing a search for “early advertising” will provide a treasure trove of options, even if you can’t find twirling images like mine.
Doesn’t this one raise a few questions? Does it make you curious? Perhaps it will send you on a new creative adventure!