A Shopkeeper and a Historian

“Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet won even this trivial insight. They take every epoch at its word and believe that everything it says and imagines about itself is true.”

-Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The German Ideology, 1845.

Normally if you ask me which historians have influenced me the most, I would give you a list of scholars like Studs Terkel or Warren Susman who have written fascinating books and found helped me understand history and historical sources in profoundly different ways. But after encountering this quote from Marx and Engels the other day, I have to add an anonymous and imaginary shopkeeper to the top of my list.

As a historian myself, I certainly hope that I have not been taken by the same trap that Marx and Engels accuse 19th century historians of falling for. I think that many historians of the 20th century (especially since the 1960s) have done a better job of listening to the primary sources of each “epoch” with a critical ear. While historical sources are always biased in one way or another, there is always some kind of truth in them.

Since I like to write about the history of advertising, I’ll use that as an example. If we took advertising at its word, then we would have a pretty skewed view what the early 20th century United States looked like. Margaret Bourke-White’s iconic photograph of a 1937 breadline in Louisville, KY is a glaring example of the gulfs that could separate advertising from reality:

Highest Standard of Living
Does anyone know what this billboard is actually advertising? Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

I imagine that the folks in this line, and in thousands of other breadlines across the nation, were painfully aware of the irony of abundance advertising that was frequently published during the Great Depression. Or take cigarettes, considered by many to be “a ‘dirty habit’- a disreputable form of tobacco consumption typically practiced by disreputable men (and boys). “The boy who smokes cigarettes,” one observer wrote in 1915, “need not be anxious about his future, he has none.” (Allan Brandt, The Cigarette Century, 43-44.) Curious, then, that Ligget & Myers decided to advertise their Fatima brand of cigarettes with this advertisement that same year:

Fatima Advertisement, 1915. Image source: Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising.

Would fancy people like these really smoke cigarettes in 1915? It’s hard to say but definitely not as likely as the advertisement implies. It wasn’t until years later that cigarettes had the near universal appeal that they enjoyed until the later decades of the 1900s.

Marx and Engels are right that we can’t take these historical sources at their word. So, what is a historian to do? I the answer lies, as many historians have revealed in recent decades, in going past a surface analysis of historical sources and diving into the context, motivations, and ideas behind their creation. Advertisements can still be a useful tool for learning about the time periods when they were created. Here is what historian Stephen Fox had to say on this concept:

“Advertising [in the 1920s was] a force that not only moved goods but also might change how people lived. Yet to stay effective, advertising could not depart too far from established public tastes and habits: consumers might be nudged but still balk at being shoved. Ads necessarily reflected the times, and as an independent force they helped shape the times. Ads and their general historical context reinforced each other, forming a circle of cause and effect that doubled back and merged together. Advertising thus was always both a mirror and mind bender, with the relative proportions of these two functions depending on the particular campaign in question- on the audacity of the advertiser, the malleability of the audience, and the skill of the agency’s creative staff. A complex relationship, clouded by variables and imponderables, this double-edged role defies characterization and remains the fundamental chicken-and-egg riddle in advertising history.” (63-64)

Reading through his 1984 book, The Mirror Makers, there are plenty of examples where he looks beyond the ads themselves to learn about their makers and their audiences. Even though an advertisement might not be truthful, the fact that some still resonated with consumers tells us something. The way that ads are created also reveals how advertisers viewed the society they lived in (though their own vision of society was likely skewed as well. “Ads and commercials reflect, to a greater extent than most business products, the quirks and personalities of the people behind them.” (6)

Marx and Engels are right, historians should try to be like shopkeepers. We should take a good critical look at our sources and documents to make sure they are accurate. But we should also embrace flawed and inaccurate sources for hidden truths and unique perspectives on the past that they also contain. More perspectives will help us get a wider and deeper view of any historical subject. I hope that I’ve done a good job distinguishing between my sources!


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