Up until recently, I had always pictured adverts from the Victorian period as roughly resembling the one below, which beautifully combines an outdated product (a full body underwear suit?!) with outdated selling methods. Certainly, it is hard to imagine a modern day clothing company running an ad campaign which has the word ‘fastidious’ anywhere near it (that said, perhaps #befastidious could work well on Twitter?)
In any case, with such a preconception I have always been struck by 1890s cycling adverts. Not only are they selling a modern product, but they do so in a way which is undeniably ‘modern’. Contemporary bike adverts such as the one for ‘Gladiator’ cycles beneath don’t use long spiels of text, but rather striking visual imagery. They associate bicycles with freedom and liberation. They even add a sprinkling of sex appeal on top.
How then can we explain the rather striking contrast between a middle-aged man holding a full length underwear suit, and a naked goddess floating through space with her bicycle? Were adverts from this period were rather less awkward and outdated than the first picture might have us believe? Or were the ads used by cycle companies were revolutionary and well ahead of their time?
The answer lies in a happy medium somewhere between the two. Certainly, the selling methods on show in first image should not be seen as the best which ad men could come up with during the late nineteenth century. A quick Google image search showcases that 1890s adverts were often colourful artistic affairs, which not only used simple, eye-catching images, but also associated their product with personal gratification and pleasure.
Such selling techniques were becoming increasingly utilised during this period. 1890s industrialists and marketers are recognised to have been the first to really pedal the now unavoidable message that their goods would make you happier, cooler and generally more satisfied with your lot in life. Before this point, they usually announced the availability and cost of a product, or at most touted its merits compared to its competition. They didn’t play on their readers hopes and expectations (or to put it negatively insecurities and self-doubts) to create a demand for what they were selling.
Being a clever Victorian ad man and employing a naked goddess to sell your latest bicycle model wasn’t then quite as revolutionary as first imagined. During the 1890s other companies were increasingly using similar methods and imagery to capture popular attention and create a demand for their products. Heavenly women were used to sell all manner of things, from bicycles to soaps, perfumes and chocolate.
However, it is hard to find other businesses and that so fully and innovatively utilised modern, consumerist selling techniques in this period. This was largely due to a set of circumstances that will tug at the heartstrings of any good capitalist- fierce competition between profit making rivals. As cycling became more and more popular during the 1890s, there was a huge surge in manufacturers eager to grab a slice of an extremely lucrative and ever-expanding market. In the US there were 27 U.S. bicycles firms in 1890 who produced about 40,000 bicycles. By 1896, over 500 companies were making more than 1.2 million bicycles annually, with similar expansions also occurring in Britain and France.
In such a crowded environment, effective advertising campaigns which distinguished you from your rivals was essential. Encouraged by the huge returns promised by an ever-expanding market, cycle manufactures and retailers poured huge sums into their advertising budgets, the result of which was a widespread distribution of the types of forward-thinking adverts pictured below. To again draw on an American example, it is estimated that during the mid-1890s $6 to $9 million was invested annually in cycling advertising, with 10% of all newspaper adverts being for bicycles.
Of course, newspaper and magazine ads were by no means the only advertising techniques by which you might look to promote your latest brand of bicycle. Since the 1880s cycle manufacturers had sponsored individual cycle racers in an attempt to closely associate themselves with successful, well-renowned athletes. After Albert Schock broke the world record for distance travelled in six days inside a huge Minneapolis Exhibition Hall in 1886 (both other competitors had to retire after one suffered a violent vomiting attack due to exhaustion and the other crashed into a railing after falling asleep), he credited his Victor bicycle for the win, calling it,
‘A vast improvement on all other bicycles ridden by me.’
This did not go down particularly well with their rival company, American champion bicycle, who pointed out that Schock had ridden over half the race on their machine, and had switched to Victor only ‘on account of a pecuniary inducement.’
Unsurprisingly, the 1890s saw manufacturers becoming more professional in how they associated themselves with nationally, and even internationally renowned racers. They placed these individuals at the centre of far-reaching ad campaigns, with the poster below showing the then world-famous American track-racing cyclist Arthur Augustus Zimmerman in an advert for the Raleigh bike company, with his long list of his accomplishments to boot.
However, for all their innovation and forward-thinking, cycle companies still drew upon much older selling techniques which have not stood the test of time particularly well. Whilst sportsmen and women can be found endorsing all manner of brands today, they can rarely be found doing so through polite letters of recommendation. The text below was produced by the British cycle racer A.J. Wilson, and was proudly displayed in an advert for an English cycle clothes manufacturer.
‘Dear Sir- I never signed a cheque with greater pleasure than the enclosed, in payment of your bill. The clothes fit exceptionally, and are very pleasant wear. The price is marvellously low.’
To take us back to where we started, it is certainly difficult to imagine Nike bringing our attention to a similar letter from a ‘most contented Mr C Ronaldo’.
(N.B. Many of the examples above are taken from Margaret Guroff’s new book ‘The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American life (hence the strong American theme throughout!). A very good read for anyone interested in cycling history, covering everything from the early nineteenth century to the present day, with much more on the consumerist advertising methods employed by cycle manufacturers during the 1890s.)