Written by Lee Shapiro, 12th Grade Student Historian
As I sit down and scroll through my phone and television, I am usually bombarded by advertisements. Kylie Jenner is promoting her new lip care line; Peyton Manning is singing the State Farm theme song; and Sarah Palin is promoting Donald Trump. While I sit, I think to myself, I wish I could go back in time to when celebrities did not affect my daily life, trying to manipulate me into buying their latest pair of Adidas shoes or fancy cologne. But as I walked through New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman, on my first day of the Student Historian program last summer, my eyes fell upon an advertisement that, although from the late 1800s, used a celebrity to influence people’s lives similarly to how advertisements affect me today.
In The Folk Art Collection of Elie and Viola Nadelman, a 30 x 36-inch trade sign was mounted on the wall with the words “Ye Boston Baked Beans” spread out on the bottom. The sun is reflected upon the clouds rolling in, and candlelight can be seen in the windows of the shops, indicating that the image is an early morning scene. In the foreground, there is a humorous image of a pig pulling a cart holding Uncle Sam and a pot of baked beans. While today this advertisement may not bring out the same sense of excitement that Kylie, Peyton, or Sarah draw, Uncle Sam played the role as celebrity endorser 130 years ago.
In 1886, there were very few celebrities as we think of them today. There was no particular person to promote products like we happen to see on Instagram, cable TV, and online videos today. Companies use celebrities to promote products because they want consumers to assume they will be like the celebrity when they use the product. For example, consumers aspire to obtain hair like Penelope Cruz when they see her in Pantene Pro-V commercials. Companies also want celebrity’s personas to be synonymous with the product produced. For example, Adidas promotes Kanye West’s clothes because Adidas believes people want to look and feel like “Yeezus” himself.
Although there was not a culture of using celebrities to promote products in 1886, companies and stores used Uncle Sam among other American fictional characters in their advertising. Uncle Sam was created to represent core American values and the American government, and therefore, he represents patriotism and Americana. Considering he is dressed almost fully in the American flag, Uncle Sam in the baked beans advertisement brings out those patriotic feelings.
Like Uncle Sam, baked beans are inherently American. In pre-colonial times, Native Americans used beans as one of their staple crops. Beans, grown with squash and corn, were considered the three sisters in many Native American cultures. The three sisters were grown in rotations that helped bring benefits to the soil. The Puritans of Massachusetts also learned the value of beans, and they would make baked beans on Saturday, preserve them, and then eat them on Sunday when they couldn’t cook because of religious practices. This tradition stayed true throughout the early years of our country—so true, in fact, that Boston is referred to as “Beantown,” relating it back to the city’s Puritan origins. The “Ye” in the title “Ye Boston Baked Beans,” brings out the antiquity of the dish. This connects it back to early American roots. If Uncle Sam were not present in this advertisement, the whole Americana feel would be lost, and the marketing strategy would not have worked. This advertisement is trying to get people to buy baked beans because it is American to do so.
After 1886, Uncle Sam began to lose his place in advertising as real life celebrities were being promoted on posters and radio. But Uncle Sam began to take new shape as a significant political advertising campaign figure. Uncle Sam embodies America, and many marketing strategists have used Uncle Sam to make a powerful statement about political candidates. As I looked through New-York Historical’s archives and searched through political buttons and tags, one fit the mark perfectly: A small tag that had the words “NO THIRD TERM!” and shows Uncle Sam with his thumb down. This button is referring to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1940 run for an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term. This had never been done before and was extremely controversial. Roosevelt’s opponents called him a dictator and a fascist. The marketing strategist showed Uncle Sam with his thumb down to say that Roosevelt’s third term was inherently not American and not what American democracy supported.
While celebrities come and go, Uncle Sam is timeless. His powerful, patriotic, and democratic message is clear and concise. From 1886 to 1940 to 2016, advertisers use the nation’s first marketable celebrity as a symbol of America. While Kylie, Peyton, and Sarah are influential today, their influence does not compare to Uncle Sam’s.