Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1414:
ADVERTISMENTS IN 1869

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1414.

Today, advertisements just after the Civil War. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Last year I picked up a bound volume of the weekly Appleton's Journal, August through December, 1869. Once in it, I was drawn less by the articles than by the advertisements. To understand American culture and technology at the end of our first century, what better place to look than at the wares we offered for sale?

Every issue has a small ad for Waltham watches made in Lowell, Massachusetts. They tell us that the winder is now located in the stem. Lowell had started out as a model industrial city with two great industries: the textile mills and the Waltham watch works.

By 1869, Lowell was turning into the industrial slum of Eastern America, and cheap watches were its major product. The ads also offer a new book on the Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill. It goes for a dollar. The mills of Lowell were famous for exploiting the labor of young women. But I doubt this was meant for them. One dollar in 1869 translates to around fifteen dollars today.

You see, this magazine targets the carriage trade. Lord and Taylor offers whole sets of clothing at handsome prices. An infant wardrobe goes for a hundred dollars. A young lady can buy her trousseau for $250. A trousseau was once a set of personal clothing and linens that a woman sewed for her marriage. To sell such a thing prepackaged heralded the twilight of the old distaff arts.

One dollar buys a toy steam engine that really runs. Forty-five dollars buys a cabinet organ. Pianos start around $275. That'd be $4000 today -- about what low-end pianos still cost, but now they're better made. Middle-class parlors had keyboard instruments, and they were heavily used. Everyone sang around the piano.

The ads waste little time on the usual nostrums and cure-alls. That wasn't for this audience. Instead we find ads for ladies' private schools with instruction in both English and French.

Most interesting are weekly notices of mortgage bonds. Union Pacific had pounded the Golden Spike that connected east to west by rail earlier in the year. Now they offer 30 million dollars' worth of bonds at six percent interest. America was on the march, and Appleton's readers were the ones who would put up the capital.

But the staples of these ads (in order of importance) appear to be books, clothing, upscale household wares, education, and seeds, with books leading: books on science; books on language; books on travel; books on moral, physical, and psychic well-being; books filled with stories of every kind.

Read the advertisements and you learn who we were just after the Civil War. Imagine the parlor piano, the stereopticon on the table, the stuffed sofa protected by crocheted antimacassars. We sang, we read, and we husbanded our costly garments. It is a world I can easily view with aching nostalgia. But it's also a world that I doubt any of us would want to exchange for our own.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Appletons' Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. New York: D. Appleton and Company, August-December, 1869.


  For a very large blown-up image of this page of the advertisements from Appleton's, click on the thumbnail to the left.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H. Lienhard.