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Ours the Greater Luxury: Gender and Gentility in 20th Century Advertisements


Print advertisement is a ubiquitous mode of communication that has been in existence for centuries. The images and ideas found in advertisements reflect the spirit, values, and norms of society and exploit this aspect of the human experience for commercial gain.

Special Collections & Archives staff selected advertisements from the Early Twentieth Century Women's Magazines collection and the Charles Rodrigues Playbill collection that exemplify advertising as a historical record. The advertisements in this exhibit present a number of different themes in order to appeal to the consumer; including gender roles, refinement, and the goal of attaining “the good life.” Through copy and imagery, the ads demonstrate important changes affecting the traditional societal roles of men and women in the early half of the 20th century.

Please visit the exhibit on the second floor, C-wing of Fenwick Library

An exhibit from Special Collections & ArchivesGeorge Mason University Libraries


Leah Donnelly, Veronica Fisher, Hillary Gatlin, Greta Kuriger, Bob Vay



Changes in Print Advertising in the First Half of the 20th Century

Print advertising has changed in both format and themes since the beginning of the twentieth century. Early 1910-1920 magazines were generally read cover to cover; therefore, the advertisements were written as narratives to be “read” by the shopper, often featuring large amounts of copy. Additionally, hand-drawn illustrations or paintings were considered more cost-effective than photography, and images only made up one portion of the advertisement, as seen in the Palmolive advertisement from 1921 (Palmolive, Vogue). Both the copy and illustrations presented specific themes in order to appeal to the consumer, including tradition, luxury, and the “good life of the elite”. Luxury is particularly prevalent in the Early Twentieth Century Womens Magazines Collection given the more affluent nature of magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar. As the decades progressed, the advertisements reflected the changing times, decreasing their text and focusing on increasing visual appeal.

In the 1930s, advertisers experimented with different formats of ads. Ads in general grew larger, with many utilizing a full page instead of the cramped half and quarter pages typical of the turn of the century. New focus was placed on humorous, cartoon-like ads instead of wordy, tedious testimonials, as fewer people had time to sit down and read every page of a magazine. Thus, the amount of copy on ads significantly decreased, and advertisers began using pictures, particularly photographs, as the primary method of communicating with consumers.

To enhance these images, most advertisements were in full color by the 1940s. Thematic elements began to change as well, as advertisements began to move away from the traditional role of women to focus on the woman in society.

These advertisements from the Early Twentieth Century Womens Magazines collection were selected by the Archive as the most interesting examples of advertising as a historical record. Through copy and imagery, they demonstrate important changes affecting the traditional societal roles of men and women in the early half of the 20th century.

Playbills can be important documents for researchers in that they depict the world of theatre changing over time and often provide rich information about prevailing cultural and social attitudes of the moment through articles and advertisements.  Playbills and advertising have been intrinsically linked since 1884 when Frank Vance Strauss began working with theatres to provide programs for free by creating revenue through advertising space. By 1891 Strauss had gained almost full control of the playbill advertising business. Advertisements in playbills were able to present local businesses and luxury goods to a captive community-orientated audience.