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John Strachan. Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-521-88214-9. Price: $99.00

  • W. Michael Johnstone

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  • W. Michael Johnstone
    University of Toronto

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Puffs, puffery, puffing, quacks, hacks, empirics, “anas,” jingles, handbills, sandwich men, wall-chalking, blacking, morocco men, little goes, perfumers, razor strops; Robert Warren, Henry Hunt, Thomas Bish, J.R.D. Huggins, Henry Colburn: these terms and names parade through John Strachan’s Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period, leading the reader into the vibrant world of Romantic period “commercial culture” (4). One comes away from Strachan’s investigation of the interactions and dialogue between advertising and satire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries firmly appreciating the ingenuity of that commercial culture, as if sitting before a window opened onto the noisy streets of its brand proprietors, advertising campaigns, and literary and political debates. Strachan finds the “spirit of the age” (6) alive in its “more quotidian cultural forms” (4), arguing that a study of “advertising … between 1780 and 1830” (9) will tell us much about “the leading cultural brand of the period, Romanticism” (11), and prove “sociohistorically revealing” (13). He is right on both counts. More specifically, he demonstrates convincingly how advertising and satire participated in –– and critiqued –– the “wider literary scene” (6) of the time, and shows how a focus on advertising brings a fuller awareness of “quotidian” life in the Romantic period. In this respect, Strachan’s book makes an important contribution to the growing scholarship on what we might call popular Romanticism, such as in William St. Clair’s The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge UP, 2004) and more recently in Andrew Franta’s Romanticism and the Rise of the Mass Public (Cambridge UP, 2007) or Richard Marggraf Turley’s work on Barry Cornwall (see European Romantic Review 19 [2008]: 253-273).[1] Its great success resides in providing us a lexicon not just for talking about Romantic period advertising, but for reading it as an art in its own right and as a prevalent form of engagement with its socio-cultural context.

The first two chapters comprise a “survey of Romantic period advertising and of the satirical responses to it” (9). Chapter 1 lays the foundation of puffery’s terminology and conventions. Strachan carefully builds an impression of a London (and England) “saturated” (20) with advertising, from newspapers to street processions to graffiti on walls to national campaigns. Here, we learn of various advertising forms, such as handbills, posters, jingles, and whitewashed walls; the techniques of advertisements, such as the patent, brand names inspired by Greek and Latin, testimonials, and typography; and how these forms and techniques relied on imitative or associational strategies to elevate the advertisements and advertisers. These strategies, in fact, justify approaching advertising as “‘an independent department of literature’” (9), a phrase from an 1843 essay on advertising by Thomas Hood that Strachan makes central to his treatment of Romantic puffery. As Strachan writes, “Borrowing from high culture … is part of what is, in my mind, the most significant device within the advertising literature of the age, literary associationism, whereby advertising gestures toward more prestigious discourses and is thereby dignified by association” (27; emphasis added). “Literary associationism” is a flexible interpretive tool and the key to Strachan’s reading of Romantic period advertising throughout, in which advertisers’ employment of “prestigious discourses” (especially poetry) for economic gain casts advertising as a distinctively Romantic art –– characterized by originality, genius, imagination, and the individual product and advertiser. Chapter 2 turns to contemporary satirical and parodic responses to advertising’s pretensions and the commercial culture more generally. Here, we see how satirists used “advertisements as formal models” (84), especially the “mock-advertisement” (73), to expose advertising’s “corrupting, staining influence” (108). Moreover, we see how advertising’s “models” and techniques become weapons in the vigorous “social debate[s]” (76) from the 1780s to the 1830s. Together, these two chapters constitute a substantial record of the “familiarity” (84) and inventiveness of advertising and satire in the Romantic period. They are supported by a wealth of illustrations and examples that Strachan reads with sensitivity and that concretely display the creativity and many voices of advertising and satire, redressing what Strachan sees as a “contextual absence” (1) in Romantic studies.

The book’s remaining chapters and conclusion supply a series of “case studies” (9) of that creativity and those voices, investigating specific advertisers, products, and satirists. These case studies cover shoe blacking and its leading proprietors, Robert Warren and Henry Hunt (Chapter 3); lotteries and their promoters, especially Thomas Bish (Chapter 4); perfumers and hair products (Chapter 5); the popularity of British brands (and satire) in America, epitomized by the career of J.R.D. Huggins, the “Emperor of Barbers” (Chapter 6); and, finally, the puffing practices of publishers such as Henry Colburn and the reactions to them (Conclusion). Also, these case studies demonstrate forcefully the interrelationship between advertising and satire as a means of socio-cultural critique, productive of original works that Strachan recovers into the purview of Romanticism. The chapters on blacking and Huggins are the highlights, and I will discuss the former as indicative of Strachan’s method and conclusions.

Chapter 3 takes the ubiquity of shoe blacking advertising as the grounds for an astute analysis of its “social resonance” (120), exemplified by the period’s most famous brand proprietor, Robert Warren of 30 Strand. In Warren’s advertisements, which relied heavily upon jingle copy, Strachan shows convincingly the function of “literary associationism,” as Warren used Scott and Byron as “poetic models” (127) to puff his wares. Warren’s own popularity and the omnipresence of his blacking advertisements generated a healthy satirical response, which traded on the “familiarity of Warren’s metrical merits” (155), and blacking itself became the inspiration for and subject of rodomontade and burlesque. Warren’s competitor, Henry Hunt, exhibits how advertising and politics could intertwine, as Hunt –– of Peterloo fame –– mixed “brand endorsements” with his “speeches and journalism” (147), appealing in both respects to his radical and working class audience(s). Yet of most consequence is Strachan’s description of William Frederick Deacon’s 1824 Warreniana; with Notes, Critical and Explanatory. The “central conceit” (156) of Warreniana involves Warren’s employment of “eminent writers” (156) such as Byron and Wordsworth to pen blacking jingles, both to parody Warren’s advertising copy and to acknowledge Warren’s “creative, if capitalistic, genius” (160). For Deacon, the spirit of the age resides in Warren, but in “quotidian” and “commercial” terms (160). Warreniana, therefore, links Romantic “poets and advertisers” (161) in the similarity of their “self-promotional strategies” (160), troubling the distinctions between “high” and “low” culture. A work such as Deacon’s deserves continued scholarly attention, specifically for delineating the popular reception of principal Romantic poets.[2]

This is a highly readable and insightful book, strong in its analysis of advertisements and presenting frequent surprises such as Deacon’s Warreniana, while its wealth of sample advertisements (forty-nine overall) and quotations immerses the reader in the art of Romantic period advertising and satire. Yet that wealth of examples also points to some of the book’s weaknesses. At times, the number of illustrations and occasional lengthy quotations comprise a mere catalogue, lacking the close reading of the book’s most engaging segments. Several times, for instance, Strachan mentions accusations that Byron wrote blacking puffs and shows the use of Byron in advertising and advertising-related satire, but there is no sustained discussion of Byron’s personal reaction to such accusations or thoughts on contemporary commercial culture. Moreover, in Chapter 4, Strachan details the literary responses of Coleridge and Charles Lamb to lotteries, but I am left wishing for other similar examinations of how major Romantic authors dealt with popular culture. While Strachan repeatedly acknowledges quack doctors (or, empirics) as the true advertising innovators of the period, he dedicates no case study to them. Finally, some references require further elaboration for the reader, such as one about the “royal marriage controversy” (178) involving Queen Caroline in 1820, which omits any contextual explanation.

Strachan raises an intriguing issue of historical designation by conflating “Romantic period” with “late Georgian period” throughout. The latter term comprises “the 1780s to the 1830s,” but while all “Romantic literature is late Georgian,” not all “late Georgian literature … is Romantic” (270). This distinction is not stated in the book’s main text, but it should be, especially considering that Strachan regards Romanticism as the “leading cultural brand of the period” (11), distinguished from “more quotidian cultural forms” (4), i.e., advertising. I emphasize this matter because I think Strachan’s distinction holds much promise. “Late Georgian period” incorporates a wider socio-cultural spectrum than “Romantic period,” and it reminds us that “Romanticism” is a “brand” devised after the fact, in the interests of literary history. “Late Georgian” likely will not supplant “Romantic” any time soon. Yet Strachan’s “late Georgian” ultimately signals areas of future study opened up by his book: how women participated in advertising, as “brand proprietors” (63) especially (Strachan’s case studies examine only male advertisers and satirists); how advertising and its related satirical responses serve as crucial gauges of the contemporary reception of “Romanticism”; how “Romantic” authors and works might be reread in view of their awareness of, reaction to, and possible involvement with advertising and late Georgian popular culture. At the last, the lively, sophisticated art of late Georgian puffery clearly demands and sustains the “critical attention” (3) Strachan gives it. We are also, perhaps, encouraged to think of Romanticism as a kind of commercial commodity, puffed by the very scholarship that promotes its value and secures a market for its products.