Early Wooden Vehicle Advertising & Promotions

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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I’ve been involved in the world ofadvertising and broadcasting for three and a half decades.  In that time, a lot of things have changed.  As the saying goes, though, it seems ‘themore things change, the more they stay the same.’  Despite some modern-day beliefs that the1800’s were full of uneducated simpletons with minimal knowledge and skills,even a brief look at America’s early transportation industry tells a much differentstory… a story of aggressive innovation, artistic product design, extraordinarilydetailed craftsmanship, and savvy business tactics all wrapped up in afinely-tuned marketing machine. 

While 19th and early 20th century wagon makers didn’thave contemporary tools like the internet, television, or other forms ofelectronic advertising, there was no shortage of avenues used forpromotion.  In fact, many of the surviving materialsfrom these period marketing efforts have become highly sought-aftercollectibles.  Below are a few of those areas. 
AdvertisingMethods of early  wagon makers included…

Awards – As a way togrow participation within various events, state, local and national fairs oftenprovided awards for entries in a particular category.  Early vehicle builders made much ado over these honors, using them as affirmation of a specific brand’s superiority.  Studebaker was just one of many vehicle brandsto showcase special awards in the promotion of their products.  In the same way, modern vehicle makers still useaccolades from third parties in their advertising.

Competitions,Expositions, Fairs, Parades & other special events – Folks intoday’s world of marketing and advertising would likely refer to theseopportunities as “Event Marketing.” Since so much of a product’s acceptance is based on growing relationshipsand building rapport with buyers, these types of personal, one-on-one promotionshave always been popular with companies and consumers.

Major builders as well as large distribution houses like Deere & Webber used fairs, parades, and other special events to showcase the latest wheeled offerings.
ProductDemonstrations– Proclaiming advantages of strength, durability, quality construction, andlightness of draft, many early wagon builders took to the streets (locally, regionally,and nationally) to showcase unique design features and owner benefits.    

Innovations – Emphasizingthe ultra-competitive nature of the wooden wagon industry, there are very fewareas of a wagon’s construction that weren’t featured in at least one patentfrom the 19th and early 20th centuries. As is the case with auto makers today, builders of wagons and westernvehicles often touted the purported advancements of a particular design.  The chest-pounding didn’t stop with regularadvertising as some makers aggressively pursued copycats through the judicialsystem.

Vehiclesignage– From custom canvas wraps and paintings to vehicles built in novelty shapeswith ornate pin striping and three dimensional lettering emblazoned on the sides,the 1800’s were full of creatives working to help companies promote themselvesat every turn.  Like so many other formsof advertising, these efforts have evolved with technology but, continue to bea valued part of business promotions.

Outdoorsignage– Forming the roots of billboard advertising for today’s car dealers, retailersof wagons often promoted a particular vehicle brand by placing wooden outdoorsigns above their places of business.  Waxedcardboard signs were also available from some manufacturers.  These were typically smaller than the 6 to 15foot wooden signs and could be placed in a variety of areas from the sides ofbuildings to fence posts and trees along a well-traveled route.

This section from a Studebaker catalog shows one of many customized dealer signs that were available from the legendary manufacturer. 
Promotionaltrinkets/handouts– Imagination was the only limit to what one could see in this category.  Promotionally branded pieces included brushes,tape measures, coins, watch fobs, door stops, match strikers, travel cups,mirrors, whetstones, stick pins, buttons, art prints, notebooks, puzzles,games, paper weights, etc.

Flyers/DirectMail–  As with countless, vintage print ads,many of the direct mail pieces from early vehicle manufacturers were B2B(business to business) as builders worked to grow distribution by promoting theirproducts to as many retail outlets as possible. Nonetheless, direct mail messages to consumers were also employed,encouraging potential buyers to visit individual dealers or, in the case ofsome factories – buy direct.

This collapsible aluminum cup was a later promotional item used to help highlight the Mitchell wagon brand.
PrintAds– Many print ads from vehicle manufacturers in the 1800’s were placed in trademagazines and directed toward retailers in a particular area.  Others were focused on the end user andcould be found in everything from cookbooks and local directories to farm magazines,newspapers, and pocket ledgers. 

Catalogs – Most full-linecatalogs from horse-drawn vehicle manufacturers were created after the CivilWar, once printing became more affordable for individual businesses.  While the majority of builders did notproduce extensive brochures, it was a business expense embraced by the moredominant brands.  The earliest woodenvehicle catalogs in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives will date to 1860.  The pieces are in hardback book form – acostly and rare production for its day.

TradeCards– Printed trade cards were a favorite form of early advertising among vehiclemakers.  During a time when colorprinting was relatively rare, early versions with colorized scenic imagestended to draw significant attention. The back side of the card would often include maker information andperhaps a line drawing of an associated vehicle.

Jingles – Since themajority of the horse-drawn vehicle era occurred prior to the advent of radio,this topic may seem out of place.  On thecontrary, numerous songs/choruses were written or adapted for earlyvehicle makers.  Jackson, Webster, andStudebaker wagons were a few of the brands known to regularly use music to helppromote their vehicles.

Letterheads/Billheads/Envelopes – Prominentwagon firms made the most of every opportunity to promote themselves.  As such, company letterheads, billheads, and envelopeswere regularly splashed with specially-engraved images, slogans, and admessages... still another common practice employed by contemporary businesses.  Product Placement – These days, this term often references products and brands that seem to 'coincidentally' appear in movies, television shows, video games and so forth.  In similar fashion, a number of early vehicle builders recognized the value of large scale, yet subtle endorsements.  Many worked to secure similar placement opportunities within the promotions of notable businesses and prominent individuals.PublicRelations campaigns – Early horse-drawn vehicle makers also understood thepower of the press and continually worked to develop newsworthy segments forplacement within the stories of a publication. Similarly, period newspapers needed local and regional advertisers sothey also worked to court the favor and attention of these builders byproviding editorial ink for them.

Testimonials – Many of therare, original catalogs and other horse drawn vehicle literature housed in theWheels That Won The West® Archives contain testimonials from users.  It’s a sound advertising method as ownerexperiences and other product reviews continue to play an important role within the decision-making processes of buyers today.  

The Austin, Tomlinson, and Webster Manufacturing Company built the legendary Jackson wagon and used a number of promotional tools such as this heavy cast iron door stop.
The list above contains just a few ofthe advertising methods employed by early wagon and western vehiclemakers.  Clearly, the promotionalresources available to these builders were extensive.  As I’d mentioned in the beginning of thisblog, the more things change – the more they stay the same.  Many of these same ideas used throughoutmultiple centuries have now been transferred to the arsenals of modernadvertisers.  They continue to berecycled as effective forms of communication, attention, and persuasion.  
Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.
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