Racism in Advertising of the 19th Century; Depicting African-American’s in contrast, to appeal to the white consumer

The blueprint of advertising in the 19th century towards white consumers, for the most part would depict an African-American as a counter to the white subject. Before the Industrial revolution, this depiction of the African-American subjects were seen as labouring to the white subjects using pre-industrialized devices. The depictions would show the African-American as less to the white counter; from serving the white subjects, to being depicted as criminals beside the white officers. This was a problematic theme that was repetitively shown throughout illustrated advertising cards in the 19th century. These cards were targeted advertisements from brands, highlighting products. These cards were strategically made to appeal to the white consumers, in what was “ideal” in that time. They would then become a popular collectors item at the time, spreading these racist ideologies.

The Universal Clothes Wringer; advertisement card, 1880.

Although many cards were scenic, nature depictions, almost half of these advertising cards had called on some sort of racial stereotype. There was always a contrast between the two subjects from a visual and cultural context. The card in the image above depicts an  African-American woman, who is stereotypically over-exaggerated in her features. Contrasting the white woman who has much smaller, slender features. Clothing also shows a contrast between the two, the white woman is depicted wearing cleaner, more proper clothing. Whereas the African-American woman is shown wearing more worn out clothing. It is also evident that there is a contrast between their speech. They depict the African-American woman’s speech as exaggerated and stereotypical “black dialect.” Whereas the white woman’s text is proper English. This stereotypical, racist advertisement is a product of the ideals and perspective of the white consumers from this time.

N. K. Fairbank Co., trade card, ca. Late 1880s.
N. K. Fairbank Co., trade card, ca. Late 1880s.

This next trade card is another example of advertisements that depict an African-American subject juxtaposed next to a white subject in order to appeal and profit off of white consumers. The image is a Fairy Soap advertisement card from the late 1880s, depicting two children. The white child is seen as properly dressed and clean holding the Fairy soap, whereas the African-American child is depicted wearing dirty, raggedy clothing and no shoes. The racist views that darker skin colour is associated with the idea of “uncleanliness” is an underlying message in the card. Another stereotypical, racist depiction of African-American’s in 19th century advertisements, that were the result of the “ideals” from white consumers of that time.

e 4 J. S. McMurtrie, trade card, ca. Late 1880s.
e 4 J. S. McMurtrie, trade card, ca. Late 1880s.

This next card is another example of this contrast between the African-American subject and the white subject. It depicts the African-American woman as the the labourer next to the white woman and child, another contrast to highlight the difference between the subjects. The marketers seemed to deem this contrast essential to appeal to the white consumers as this theme dominated many cards. 

These advertisement cards all show an underlying theme of this juxtaposition of the African-American and Caucasian subjects.  The brands/companies targeted the white consumers by using these racist, stereotypical “ideals” that were rooted in history, in the 19th century. They express the theme of white superiority across these advertisement cards in order to appeal to white consumers.

Works Cited

Mehaffy, M. (1997). Advertising Race/Raceing Advertising: The Feminine Consumer(-Nation), 1876-1900. Signs, 23(1), 131-174.  www.jstor.org/stable/3175155


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