by Peggy J. Kreshel
Children were expected to be seen, not heard, as America turned
the corner into the 20th century. Women weren't even seen -- at least
not at meetings of the New York Advertising Club.
In fact, Christine Frederick, a consulting editor for the Ladies Home Journal, was told she could only sit "in the box behind the curtains" when she asked to attend a 1912 meeting of the men-only group.
Such an incident might seem odd considering the importance of the Home Journal and its readers to the burgeoning consumer products industry.
But the attitude prevailed, and it sparked Frederick to enlist the aid of her husband, J. George, also a journalist and a member of the men's advertising club, to create an advertising club specifically for women.
At the Fredericks' invitation about forty women in advertising met at a fashionable New York restaurant in March 1912 to form the League of Advertising Women of New York, the first U.S. professional association for women of its kind.
Such professional associations were important to women who faced resistance in the business world 80 years ago. Even Jane J. Martin, probably the most visible woman in advertising in the early years, had faced a strong reaction from her mother.
"I'll never forget the horror and shame on my mother's face when I announced I was going into business," Martin wrote. "My mother screamed, `Sit in an office all day next to a man! It's enough to unsex you.'"
Martin, who by 1915 was earning an extraordinary $10,000 a year from her work, was not to be discouraged.
Nor were others. Advertising quickly became an entre into the business world for women.
These women convinced the business community that a "woman's point of view" was an asset to companies that increasingly sought to reach female customers. Club members opened doors for many more businesswomen in a growing consumer-oriented society.
Yet now, decades later, the history of these path-breaking women remains largely unwritten.
In my research, I attempt to tell the story of these women who pioneered advertising careers by desribing the occupational culture that framed their experiences and suggesting what it meant to be a woman in advertising near the turn of the century.
That story begins with the League of Advertising Women of New York. From its inception, the league was a professional organization, not a social club. Regular meetings featured prominent speakers from advertising, law, politics and entertainment, including Amelia Earhart, Mary Pickford, Benny Goodman and Eddie Rickenbacker. Others came as advocates -- of suffrage, child and infant labor laws and other causes -- and reflected the league's activist role.
The league sponsored speakers bureaus, consumer clinics and later, a radio program. It was that outreach -- not only to other women in advertising but also to consumers -- that most distinguished the league from men's advertising clubs.
Such activism, characteristic of many reform movements, helped the league idea catch on quickly. Within four years of the league's creation, women's advertising clubs had sprung up in Boston, Dayton, Denver, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
The history of women's advertising clubs has not been easy to reconstruct. Lack of historical documents and other primary sources slows the effort. After league historian Dorothy Dignam compiled a "definitive" history of the league, all the records of the club -- meeting minutes, correspondence and other documents -- were later destroyed because there was no place to store them.
With few primary-source materials to go on, I have looked elsewhere to chronicle this history, including newspapers and trade publications. But interviews, book chapters and, most notably, career guides have offered the greatest insight into women's experiences in advertising.
As women gained more access to professional organizations, the need for women's advertising clubs diminished. Though the League, now known as the Advertising Women of New York, remains active, few such clubs exist today. Still, understanding the origins and struggles of women in advertising gives us clues to the roles women have played in efforts to transform advertising from a craft to a profession.
Peggy J. Kreshel is an associate professor of advertising in the University of Georgia's Henry W. Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication.