Juliann Sivulka


On her book Ad Women: How They Impact What We Need, Want, and Buy

Cover Interview of February 16, 2009

A close-up

In the 1870s, Mathilde Weil volunteered to secure advertising for a German society paper owned by the brother of her friend.  Although the advertising manager could not offer any advertising for her publication, he could favor an order for another New York newspaper.  Knowing nothing of the business, Mathilde Weil offered the order to the paper with the question: “How will you recompense me for the same?”  She soon realized that there was a better living in selling advertising space for several newspapers and magazines than writing for them.  For the next two decades, she was not just a widow, but became the first known ad woman in America, buying and selling advertising space in the new industrial age.  In the 1880s, proving her business ability, Mathilde Weil established a general advertising agency, the M. C. Weil.

This is just one of the stories of women who succeeded in an entirely new profession, the advertising agency, that began to take form in the United States after the Civil War.  From stories of female copywriters, designers, editors, and marketers to the ascent of women to boardrooms as heads of multi-billion dollar firms and ad houses, this book introduces the reader to adwomen who worked in marketing, advertising, retailing, publishing, and public relations.  Ad Women throws light on some of the pioneers, the well-known personalities, and the not so-well known women who made it happen.

Unfortunately, these women who had an impact on the industry and on audiences, who influenced the advancement of other women, and who had a distinct vision of the future, left few records of their professional lives.  But articles in trade journals, account files, personnel records, and personal papers provide some insight into them.  Although the sources are fragmentary, and for the most part limited to white middle-class women, they do open a window to how ad women working in mass-consumer industries closely collaborated with publishers, mass media, manufacturers, and retailers.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the singular recognition of women as primary consumers resulted not only in agencies but in other mass-produced consumer industries hiring a new ensemble of businesswomen to promote their products aimed at the women’s market.  Over the course of the twentieth century, the women’s viewpoint had become a dynamic aspect of modern consumerism, stimulating the buying and selling of brand-name, packaged goods and services.  Virtually every widely accepted product had been promoted through advertising.  Advertising’s financial support of newspapers and magazines also powered the publishing and later broadcast industries – our primary sources of ideas, news, and entertainment. With women a more powerful force than ever before in the marketplace and workforce, the feminine viewpoint became the nexus connecting consumption, manufacturers, and advertising in modern America.  But the making of American consumer culture was a complicated, interactive process that meshed information and demands from buyers and other data on consumer preferences to production, marketing, and advertising – a culture in which ad women had significant impact on what we want, need, and buy – that the world came to see as the very heart of American life.