Closer Readings Commentary

Teaching Advertisements as Primary Sources

Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising. —Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Mark Twain’s words could just as easily apply to an advertisement's ability to popularize products as to as to its ability to reveal insight into the social mores and aspirations of its time. As primary sources that are strongly visual, advertisements have a place in both social studies and ELA classrooms as tools to teach rhetorical analysis, media literacy, and history. In this blog post, we’ve compiled some compelling advertisements from the Marchand Archive and the National Museum of American History (found in EDSITEment’s Best of the Web)—all from the 1890s to the 1960s—to spare you the trouble of digging through the archives. (See note at the bottom of this page for links to these databases.)

Using ads with elementary school students

Ad for Cream of Wheat, 1915

The familiar medium of ads provides an effective way to make the past seem accessible and relevant to younger students. The ads for breakfast foods below will spark a discussion that will help young learners connect with the children of the past through shared food ways. Click on the descriptions to access images and more information.

Ad for Rice Krispies, 1930 | Ad for Quaker Oats, ca. 1900 | Ad for granola, 1902

Brands over the years

Ad for Coca-Cola, 1890sOne strategy to introduce media and visual analysis is to have students look at old ads for still-familiar products. They can then compare the appeals the historical ads make to how the products are viewed today.

Ad for Pepsi, 1959 | Ad for TUMS, 1933 | Ad for Gillette, 1905

Women in the workplace

Ad for the Cleanliness Association, 1929As primary sources, ads reflect the social climate of their time. These ads from the first half of the 20th century came at a time when women were becoming increasingly independent but still had defined domestic roles. Middle school and older students can therefore use these ads to gain insight into the evolution of the working woman and how the First and Second World Wars advanced the professional horizons available to them.

 Ad for U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, 1944 | Ad for Maidenform, 1964 | Ad for the U.S. Army, 1969

America as seen through ads

Ad for Texaco, 1926Patriotism and optimistic depictions of the nation have long been standard in advertising. Challenge your class to track the many ways advertising depicted America’s bright future. These ads lend themselves to both a surface-level analysis and a deeper investigation of the allusions and phrasing at work.

Ad for Certain-teed, 1926 | Ad for Doughboy Donuts, 1941 | Ad for Texaco, 1953

Social mores in advertising

Ad for Jordan cars, 1922These ads reflect the social mores of 1920s and 30s and are filled with opportunities to practice rhetorical analysis skills. In addition, they can provide a launching point for discussion about how women are depicted in advertisements today. 


Ad for Monarch Foods, 1927 | Ad for McCallum Silk Hosiery, 1927 | Ad for Norge refrigerators, 1935

Resources to guide analysis of advertisements

EDSITEment-reviewed databases to discover more vintage advertisements

Also suggested

  • The New York Times' Madison archive of advertisements from the 1920s and 1960s