When I was a child, I remember a farmer parking his truck in our sprawling housing complex, striding the lanes yelling “STRAAAAAW – berries!” My mother always ran out and bought a few baskets from him. Using your voice is the original form of advertising, and it remained the main form well after the invention of the printing press in Europe in 1440, because the average European couldn’t read.
In America, the first printed advertisement appeared in the Boston News-Letter in 1704. The average person still couldn’t read, but the ad was seeking a buyer for an Oyster Bay, Long Island, estate. Clearly the buyer was not seeking an average American!
Benjamin Franklin is considered the source of the first American magazine ad. In 1729 he started the Pennsylvania Gazette which contained a section for “new advertisements.” (At the time, the word “advertisement” simply meant a public announcement of any nature, not items for sale.) In the July 31, 1776 edition the front page listed military movements announced by John Hancock alongside the sale of a Pennsylvania plantation, a reward for a horse that strayed from home, the sale of an unnamed “hearty Scotch Servant girl” and a reward for a couple of runaway servants.
In the 1890’s, the first barn ads appeared. Passing travelers were encouraged to “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. Treat Yourself to the Best” by the oldest and most successful outdoor advertising campaign ever launched in America, the Mail Pouch Barn-painting Program, which inspired many imitators. In 1998, Ohio launched a campaign to adorn one barn in each of the state’s 88 counties with a red-white-and-blue bicentennial logo.
Although barn advertising isn’t quite extinct, it’s still a vanishing phenomenon. The medium lost its most famous artist when Harley Warrick passed away in 2000. A barn painter for nearly half a century, Warrick painted thousands of barns (and even an elephant!) during his colorful career. Warrick shared vivid descriptions of what it was like to travel the countryside with a truckload of paint in William G. Simmond’s book: Advertising Barns: Vanishing American Landmarks.
Barn art was a great way to help struggling farmers make extra income. If the farmer didn’t have a barn which qualified for ads, he usually had a few cows. Standing in pastures all day, cows could be a great source of low maintenance income. In 1984 a Canadian farmer offered advertising space on his cows. One ad said: Concentrate on the Road. This puts a whole new spin on how to milk a cow.