In talking about the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s latest exhibit, assistant curator Anna Carringer borrows a quote from an 1897 issue of Harper’s Weekly. The magazine describes advertising as, “a true mirror of life, a sort of fossil history, from which the future chronicler might fully and graphically rewrite the history of time.” Ms. Carringer and chief curator Bonnie Stacy have done an excellent job in telling the story of the Vineyard in The Art of Advertising, which will be on display — starting this weekend — through May 26.
“It’s a fun graphic look at how advertising has changed over the years and some of the ways that advertising has has been used to sell products — graphically representing Island history through products and selling and marketing,” said Ms. Carringer. The pictures in this article can attest to the fact that the many colorful, imaginative, and, in many cases, clever examples of the history of Martha’s Vineyard advertising can best sell the exhibit itself.
Advertisements from the past tell stories about the Vineyard’s history. — Photo Courtesy M.V. Museum
As anyone who watched last weekend’s Super Bowl telecast knows, advertising by its nature is a particularly attention-grabbing form of art. Walking into the small room containing the exhibit attests to that. The walls and cases are full of eye-catching mementos of the past, both distant and recent. And despite its small scope, one can spend a good deal of time admiring and being entertained by the many items, from tiny campaign buttons (including one for Calvin Coolidge and a beauty with the simple message, Votes for Women) to elaborately carved wooden shop signs (Borrowdale Book Store, Dr. Nevin, and others). The exhibit demonstrates that marketers often recruited some remarkable talent to help sell items, businesses, and even the Island itself.
The exhibit is divided into three sections. The first illustrates early newspaper ads and packaging for products sold (but not produced) on the Vineyard. Next to a wonderful old black-and-white photo of a Vineyard general store with its myriad selections is a case full of inspired colorful packaging. Among the items are old tins, elaborately decorated corset boxes, and a clever card designed to entice customers to John Bent’s store featuring a voluptuous beauty in a swimsuit, which if worn today, would be described as bondage gear. It’s easy to see why these things that could have been considered throwaways have survived for more than a century.
One of the prizes of the collection is a somewhat gruesome WWI poster for Victory Liberty Loans featuring a bloodied American soldier proudly displaying his trophies of conquest including some German helmets. A small section is devoted to the former Oak Bluffs roller skating rink and features a charming poster advertisement and a pair of skates named for the Vineyard. Ms. Carringer explains that the owner of the rink also manufactured skates and was able to use the product to promote the venue and vice versa.
Section two features materials intended to advertise the Vineyard itself. Among a good-sized collection of tourism pamphlets is one from the 1920s, most likely designed by an artist with no firsthand knowledge of the Island. It features a couple in resort wear enjoying the sea breezes in front of a bungalow shaded by a palm tree. Another charming early brochure shows ladies in full flowing early 20th century garb painting en plein air and a gentleman enjoying a sail, illustrating that some of the delights of the Vineyard have remained constant through the years.
“Advertising in the 20th century on the Vineyard is a combination of sophistication using all the latest advertising forms/materials, but also relying heavily on the personal connections that a small intimate community living on an island affords,” said museum oral historian Linsey Lee, who is involved with the exhibit.
Ms. Carringer pointed out that many of the tourism materials featured similar taglines —calling the Vineyard variously the Island of Health and the Island of Beauty. “They used any way that they could to market this place,” she said. “The Vineyard advertised itself as a place of respite. They would tout the restorative benefits of coming to the Island.”
One of the gems of the collection is a poster advertising the Saturday Evening Post. It features one of four witty covers by artist Stevan Dohanos that spotlighted the Vineyard (all four covers are included in the exhibit). The painting shows a large extended family attempting to enjoy some outdoor time on a rainy day by crowding the porch of a small summer cottage.
Among the fascinating oral histories included is one with Phronsie Conlin, who was among the models in the painting. She says that although the family in the painting was supposed to be visitors from Ohio, “He wanted to put in some of us because we were his friends and it was convenient and it was fun.”
The poster is signed by all of the models including a young Sam Low of Oak Bluffs, who is depicted as a tot staring wistfully at a model sailboat in his hands. He has simply signed Sammy in a childish scrawl on the side of the poster along with some other familiar names.
The contemporary portion of the exhibit features advertising materials for local products and services including a tee-shirt from the late Che’s Lounge designed by Colin Ruel, a catalogue of 1980s fashions from local designer Lorraine Parish, and a series of clever campaign merchandise from clerk of courts Joe Solitto’s only contested run for office.
Marketing professional Carol Kolodny, of Kolodny Design Group, has donated a caseful of samples of her work for client The Black Dog, including some charming newspaper ads featuring the iconic dog in a rowboat dressed variously to represent some of the Tavern’s ethnic dinners. Ms. Kolodny, who is featured in a short video, provided inspiration for the exhibit by offering some examples of her work as a graphic designer throughout the years.
The video and all of the oral histories, including interviews by Ms. Lee with locals talking about the old Tashmoo Springs Bottling Company and Priscilla Hancock’s Candies, are very interesting glimpses into life in a small community in another era. By all means, take the time to check out the short audio clips.
Among other things, Ms. Carringer says the museum hopes to encourage new donations with the current exhibit. “Sometimes we have an ulterior motive,” she said. “We’re really looking at recent history where our collections are not that strong presently. There are a couple of things that people will leave the exhibit with. One is to really look at advertising around the Island. There’s a lot of really wonderful advertising around us and maybe in looking at that people will keep us in mind. We don’t have a lot in our collection from businesses of the last 30 or 40 years.”
Referring to one of the most effective marketing tools around, she said, “There’s nothing that really gets to you as much as looking at a shop’s sign. If a shop closes, you have to wonder, where did the sign go?” Hopefully, some are stored away in local businesses and homes and may resurface after Islanders get a glimpse of how representative of our history and culture advertising can be.
The museum will be a particularly busy place this upcoming week, between the opening party for the new exhibit on Friday and a couple of other events. On Saturday, Feb. 8, from 10 am to 12 noon, Kay Mayhew, the museum’s genealogist, will lead an introduction to genealogy workshop. On Tuesday, Feb. 11, Bonnie Stacy will present a slideshow and talk featuring the history of Valentines.
Exhibit opening for The Art of Advertising, Friday, Feb. 7, 5–7 pm, M.V. Museum, Edgartown. $7; free for members. Show runs through May 26. For more information, visit mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441.