Advertising is not a new phenomenon in America. Print advertising for goods and services goes as far back as the seventeenth century with the spread of literacy in the colonial period. The urbanization of the mid-1800s created an explosion of brick buildings, new businesses, and new customers. Merchants were quick to take advantage of the large blank canvasses of the backs and sides of buildings to advertise to a new class of American consumers.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, most Americans lived in rural townships that functioned as islands of culture in a vast sea of wilderness; communities were largely self sufficient and economies relatively small and local. Advertising was mostly in print form (either on fliers or in newspapers), symbolic (the barber pole, for example), or painted on shingles hung out over store fronts. The country began to change in fundamental ways, however, with the spread of industrialization in the 1840s. Advertising increased apace throughout the Antebellum and Civil War periods, both in quantity and quality.
By the 1880s, the economic character of the United States had shifted drastically. Provincial trade economies were fading and a national, integrated market economy was emerging. People who had lived insular, bucolic lives for generations were leaving to find work in the city. Former slaves, in addition, were fleeing the South in droves to labor in northern factories and to escape the repressiveness of the black codes. Where just one in ten Americans had lived in urban areas before the 1830s, by the late nineteenth century slightly more than one in four did. At the same time, as the manufacturing base grew, Americans moved away from lifestyles characterized by subsistence work to those sustained by wage labor. On one hand, many were more prosperous than ever before. On the other hand, most men and women became increasingly dependent on brand-name goods that were produced by impersonal corporations hundreds of miles away.
The rapid growth of the railroad, both in the post-Reconstruction South and in the new Western territories facilitated the movement of goods and services further than had ever before been possible, and far-flung manufacturers responded by advertising their products on billboards and on the sides of buildings, especially in urban areas. By the turn of the century, most Americans could purchase items made on the East Coast and sold by distributors in the Midwest, enabling even the average working person to enjoy what had been luxury goods just a generation before. There was yet another market surge when the automobile became affordable and increasingly common in the 1920s, which led to the construction of a vast network of roads and highways that connected previously disparate parts of the country. An American consumer culture blossomed as trucks laden with frills and essentials rumbled from one city to another.
Droves of advertisers followed in their wake, and did so with a purpose. Even before the advent of modern demographic research, advertisers were savvy business people that knew who their customers were and tailored their ad mixture appropriately. Even a cursory survey of the signage in Spokane at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth reveals a snapshot of the population: mostly working-class men who worked rebuilding the city after the Great Fire of 1889, or in mining, the railroad, or lumber. Many of these were skilled laborers, however, who had more expendable income than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Almost any image of Spokane from this period shows signage advertising cheap cigars (Henry George or La Azora), cheap food (Alber's Flapjacks), and cheap, single resident occupancy (SRO) hotels. Advertising had a decidedly local flavor as well. Long before the days of neon or digital signage, local entrepreneurs painted the names of their businesses on the sides of the buildings. Although they have faded over time, dozens of these signs are still visible all over downtown Spokane. Now called "Ghost Signs," they are a window to a fascinating past, and each tells a unique story not only about the products they advertise, but the growth of Spokane.