Some Fantastic Old-Timey Magazine Ads

You know how you page through those coupon magazines and the pages toward the back are always stuffed with silly ads for everything from creepy porcelain baby dolls to bunion removers? Or how you spend several minutes furiously paging through dozens of full page clothing ads in fashion magazines until you finally find some articles?

Well, I’ve discovered that times haven’t really changed. Fan magazines back in the Roaring Twenties and Edwardian times were also full of silly ads, although admittedly with very charming fonts.

Song Poems Wanted mot pic mag '16

Circa 1916, Motion Picture Magazine.

Just like today, the ads were made to fit the magazines’ audiences. So film fan magazines were full of jewelry and makeup ads promising to make you beautiful, while trade magazines hawked cameras and offered money for “photoplay” stories to ambitious would-be filmmakers. My favorite ads so far are from the 1910s, which are quaint and (very) curious things of delight. (Note: The following images are from 1915-17 fan magazines.) Let’s take a little trip down Ye Olde Consumerist lane.

In the mid-1910s studios were constantly looking for fresh ideas, and fans were encouraged to send in scenarios (screenwriter Anita Loos famously got her start this way). This of course lead to ads like this, from obviously-not-shady “companies”:

Wanted Your Ideas

Sounds legit.

Of course, instead of writing to a shady address in New York you could always pick up a free instructional booklet on how to strike it rich writing successful photoplays:

Learn to Write Photo Plays mot pic mag '16

“Pick up our free book describing our correspondence course you have to pay to take!”

Write Photoplays mot pic mag '15

“End up buying our book on writing photoplays!”

Of course, you couldn’t do any successful writing without a shiny new typewriter:

Typewriters All Makes mot pic mag '15

Or without renting a shiny new typewriter.

But maybe your creative skills went in a different direction. Cartoons were a huge part of popular culture in the early 20th century, having a big impact on slang and both stage and film comedy. Quite a few aspiring cartoonists dreamed of seeing their work in print, and ads for “cartooning schools” like this would’ve gotten their attention:

You Can Draw mot pic mag '15

As would cartoon Jack Smith’s vaguely sinister face.

And if your artistic skills leaned more toward fancy lettering, you could learn how to hand-paint signs, posters, and more (the great Windsor McCay was once a poster designer):

Learn to Paint Signs mot pic mag '15

And you were apparently taught by Teddy Roosevelt’s long-lost cousin.

Hmm, maybe the creative arts just aren’t for you. Maybe you’re looking for a job that would guarantee untold-amounts of disposable income. Buddy, you could become a travelling salesman and make up to ten grand a year!

Traveling Men mot pic mag '15

You know it’s lucrative when the words “Big Pay” are capitalized.

But let’s say you’re a wife and mother with a household to keep in order–a big job in the days before electric appliances. How to bring in a little extra income to help your family? You could always sell ladies’ hosiery, probably in Mary Kay rep fashion:

Sell Hosiery mot pic mag '17

And sell with dignity and honor, too!

Speaking of wives and mothers, back then babies’ health was a big concern, especially since much of the medicine we take for granted today didn’t exist. Ads for infant formulas that promised “robust and happy infants” were prominent:

Mellin's Food baby

A pre-Gerber baby.

Not only the young ‘uns were supposed to be robust. If you were a typical Edwardian man your ideal was to be strong, muscular, and full of vim and vigor. Basically, you wanted to be like Douglas Fairbanks crossed with a barrel-chested champion wrestler. Various brawny-armed men became a fixture in ads promising “muscle development” and “vitality,” which were written by “specialists.” Here’s one from the ’10s:

How to Develop mot pic mag '15

An ab-tastic Professor Titus will hook you up, gents.

Just for comparison, here’s a similar one from the twenties (they didn’t change much):

What Kind of a Man photoplay '24

You can’t go wrong with advice from Lionel Strongfort, Perfect Man.

Have you ever deplored the modern trend of thin models and declared that back then “bigger curves were thought of as normal and healthy”? Well hold onto your Spanx, because plenty of 1910s gals wanted to “reduce” too:

Reduce Your Flesh mot pic mag '17

Come on ladies, sweat away that superfluous chin flesh!

And they wanted their figures to be sleek all over. That’s right, my friends–let us behold together this old-timey ad about shapely ankles. That’s right, an honest-to-goodness shapely ankles ad. Puh-raise God for vittory!

The Perfect Ankle pics and picgoer '25

The shapeliness is achieved by…I dunno…a mold?

Now, all this feminine svelteness is useless if you have a crummy complexion, and back then a nice complexion involved creams or light makeup (which was becoming more accepted). This was when fair skin was still prized, rather than thought of as “pasty” (Irish/Scandinavian me would’ve fit right in):

Skin Like a Lily mot pic mag '15

Not to be confused with Pretty White or Low Blood Sugar White.

And don’t forget to remove any unwanted hair from that dainty lilylike skin! You could simply use…holy Buster’s porkpie, what is that?!

Sabo Painless Hair Remover mot pic mag '15


After the trauma surely caused by using that device, you’d need to unwind with a nice cup of tea:

Mazawattee Tea pics and picgoer '25

“Sweet Little Victorian Grandma Approved.”

And maybe once you were relaxed enough you could drift off to dreamland with your head on a pillow emblazoned with your favorite actor’s face:

Pillow Tops mot pic mag '15

Curses, I can’t decide between Arthur Johnson or Francis X. Bushman.

People always say “times have changed,” and I believe it’s true. But there are always some things that don’t change. The next time you lament the ludicrous amount of ads that shove their way into our daily lives, you can comfort yourself with the fact that your great-grandparents had to wade through plenty of advertisements too.

p.s. I had so much fun with this article that it just might be the start of a new series. Cheers!

6 thoughts on “Some Fantastic Old-Timey Magazine Ads

  1. I have some of those “song poem” sheet music scores! It was really just a hair shy of a scam. You would send in your poem, and the company would contact you. Your poem was wonderful! It would make a fine song with an excellent chance of commercial success. For a small fee, the company would score the poem to music and submit it to publishers. So you would pay the fee and that’s exactly what they would do. You would get back a handful of neatly hand-printed musical scores with your words set to music, and your score would be sent, along with thousands of other word poems, to a music publisher who would promptly deposit the entire package in the trash, because the musical settings were invariably mediocre. They were done in boilerroom operations where musicians would sit there all day grinding out scores as fast as they could to keep up with the incoming mail. I have a half-dozen of these and surprisingly one of them is actually pretty good, but for the most part those “song poem” shops were places where dreams went to die.

  2. Oh my gosh, to see song poems be the first thing…..Lea S……proceed immediately to THIS article….about the song-poem industry. Jaw dropping. A complete shadow world to the entertainment/music business. I’ve got a gigantic collection of these (highly rare) records, and would be happy to share them with anyone who is so intrigued.

    But first, start here:

    You will also appreciate the excellent writing.

    That being out of the way……these ads you posted are mind boggling, hilarious, beautiful…..even psychedelic!!! They’re going right into my screen saver! Thank you!

    But best of all was the writing! To narrow it down to one real out-loud laugh is too difficult, but will you accept this one as a typical hilarious specimen?

    “You can’t go wrong with advice from Lionel Strongfort, Perfect Man.”

    or maybe: “Curses, I can’t decide between Arthur Johnson or Francis X. Bushman.” Bwaaa!!!!

    • That’s a great article you shared–thanks! Bet you anything that those “story writing” and “learn to write photoplays” ads were from similarly shady companies.

      And good grief, I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing “Lionel Strongfort, Perfect Man” on that ad for the first time. Hilarious!

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