The "New Woman" in Advertisments

These were not the only images of womanhood in the early twentieth century. Women were entering colleges and universities, seeking professional advancement, and demanding the right to vote. Critics of women’s rights often described this “New Woman” as a masculinized rejection of the ‘natural’ feminine pursuits of home and children. Yet many illustrators and photographers found the New Woman a compelling figure, and captured the sensuality and social freedom she epitomized in riding a bicycle, enjoying the beach, or flirting with men.

Most Men ask "Is she pretty?" not "Is she clever?"

In the early decades of the twentieth century, advertisers incorporated elements of the New Woman into their work, although typically in ways that limited broader claims for liberty and equality. Cigarette ads of the1920s encouraged women to smoke—previously seen as a disreputable female activity—by claiming this was a form of liberation. Ads for kitchen appliances highlighted the modern woman’s leisure and “emancipation” from domestic work through labor saving devices. Even beauty product ads tried to insist that women could be intelligent, accomplished, and attractive, but their message emphasized the centrality of appearance—and men—to women’s identity. “Most men ask ‘Is she pretty?’—not ‘Is she clever?” read the headline of one Palmolive ad.

All the World's Your Neighbor

This was a time when the modern advertising industry emerged and professionalized. Unlike the trade card era, advertising executives, copywriters, and illustrators became intentional and strategic in their depiction of gendered consumers. Advertisers increasingly approached women as the “chief purchasing agent” in their families or, as home economist Christine Frederick put it, “Mrs. Consumer.” These firms pioneered in the use of market research to assess consumer attitudes. Yet they understood the consumer as a white, middle-class American, ignoring the buying habits and desires of working-class people, immigrants, and African Americans. In the new mass-circulation advertising, African Americans continued to appear as workers, not consumers, holding subservient roles as maids, cooks, and porters. Some of the most offensive racial depictions, common in the late 19th century trade cards, gave way to a modicum of dignity, but the images of minstrelsy and primitivism did not disappear. For example, a 1947 radio ad underscored the modernity of the white female consumer, listening to an upscale receiver in her living room, by juxtaposing her photograph to a primitive drawing of an African male playing a drum. “All the world’s your neighbor,” it exclaimed, but safely at a distance.