Popp’s article examines ways that advertisement checkers and advertising agencies in the mid to late nineteenth century collected and organized the entire nation’s print production.
Starting around the mid nineteenth century, technological advancements such as railroads and the rise of print media such as newspapers created an environment in which it became possible for businesses to advertise to a national audience. Advertising agencies were started as “middle men” to connect businesses to potential customers who were not in the same city, state, or region of the country.
As a part of this industry and as a way of providing credibility to the advertising business, agencies employed their own checking departments. The checking departments would receive copies of all of the newspapers from around the country by train (often for free since newspapers knew that advertisers made them money), and their checkers would look through every one in which one of their customers had contracted to put an advertisement (a considerable amount of labor!). After the checkers had found, marked, and made a record of all the advertisements for the contract (including mistakes), they billed the individual businesses.
As a result of this practice, checking departments became large-scale collectors of print media from across the country—they literally collected every newspaper. Popp argues that this state of affairs accomplished two purposes. First, it lent the advertising agencies a lot of credibility, since advertisers were previously thought of as hucksters and snake-oil-men. They would ask their customers to come to their reading rooms and survey the print material which they had amassed as a way of proving their credibility.
The second effect of this habit of collecting print material, Popp argues, was that it organized the nation geographically; in some checking departments, a person could literally walk into a kind of cove (like at a library) that represented two or three states of the union. Popp examines the newspaper pavilion at the 1876 Philadelphia centennial celebration as an example of the way advertising agencies were organizing the nation’s print and the rhetorical power this kind of completeness and collapsing of space had on viewers. He calls this effect “geographic mastery” (60).
I think Popp’s historical account is quite fascinating, and I agree with his argument about the effect that agencies’ collections had on their customers and the public. I would be surprised, impressed, and a little proud if a reading room managed to contain my hometown’s local newspaper (though I’m no fan of the paper).
But there’s one thing I couldn’t help but wonder about after reading Popp’s argument. If, for example, a reader in Kansas learns about a product made in New York City, and he or she wants to purchase one, what happens then? Does that person send an order or a letter? Does the company have to ship their product to Kansas? Does the customer have to pay steep shipping costs? What if a company’s advertising campaign is a little too successful and they can’t keep up with the orders from their sudden ability to address a nation? Popp writes, “Businessmen who passed up this opportunity, preferring to keep their markets local, would come to regret their lack of ambition, admen warned” (80). Obviously, this is the admen talking, but wouldn’t some businesses have been incapable of having a national market?