A is for Alphabet: Advertising with Alphabet Books

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Letter "A" from The Oliver Alphabet: with Illustrations, by Oliver Chilled Plow Works An alphabet book is a classic tool of instruction used to teach letters to young children. They are deceptively simple, but alphabet books can help children to learn letters, make text connections, build vocabulary, predict outcomes, and draw conclusions.

Because alphabet books are so effective at driving home a lesson, advertisers sometimes emulated the format to promote their own agendas. Hagley Library holds a number of such promotional tools masquerading as alphabet books.

Children might enjoy the illustrations, but the content of the Oliver Alphabet was aimed squarely at adults with money to spend. The Oliver Chilled Plow Works produced this pamphlet as a novelty in 1889, touting the merits of its famous farm plow. “C is the Chilled Plow for which Oliver’s name / shall go down through the ages encircled in fame.” Each letter reinforces the larger point, to trust the Oliver brand and accept no substitute.

ABC, by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (Cover) Don’t think that every alphabet book was so blatant, however.  ABC, by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, took great pains to address children directly. “Because this is your Book of Health, / We thought you’d like a part / In finishing it up, and so / We count on you for Art.” This pamphlet served as a coloring book for children, and each letter is accompanied by simple maxims to help children stay healthy and safe. Not one word is targeted at adults in this pamphlet, yet the unstated goal is clear: Metropolitan Life was seeking to ingratiate itself with involved and protective parents, who hopefully would purchase life insurance from such a caring provider in return.

Even religion was employed in some instances toward a larger end. The G.C. Hanford Manufacturing Company produced its Noah’s Ark Primer in 1913, promoting faith and letting families know that Hanford shared their religious values. Each letter focuses on various aspects of the story of Noah, but following each can be found a direct plug touting the merits of Hanford Balsam, an external antiseptic. After learning about Noah’s son Shem for the letter S, for instance, the pamphlet claims “On man or beast, Hanford’s Balsam is to heal a sore. Use it after others fail.”

Your Highway ABC Book, by National Highway Users Conference (Cover)

Finally, politics also came into play.  Your Highway ABC Book was produced by the National Highway Users Conference in 1935. The Conference was a powerful lobbying group in Washington, formed by General Motors and other interested companies looking to promote highway-friendly legislation. Z stands for Zero--that’s what YOU will get, Unless you protect motor cars from restriction. This Progress in Transport--the Country’s best bet-- Will serve you for years--IF YOU’LL VOTE YOUR CONVICTION.

Good, young children may not comprehend the messages conveyed by many of these peculiar alphabet books. But children have impressionable minds and a pesky habit of growing up...so there’s no harm in starting early!


G.C. Hanford Manufacturing Company. The Noah’s Ark Primer. Syracuse, N.Y.: The Company, 1913. (IMPRINTS Pam 2012.0284) View 1912 digital version in the University of Washington's Digital Collections.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Company  ABC. New York: The Company, [191-]. (IMPRINTS Pam 2009.289) View item in Hagley Digital Archives

National Highway Users Conference. Your Highway ABC Book. Washington, DC: The Conference, 1935. (IMPRINTS Pam 2006.364)

Oliver Chilled Plow Works.The Oliver Alphabet: with Illustrations. South Bend, IN: South Bend Iron Works, 1889. (IMPRINTS Pam 87.45) View item in Hagley Digital Archives

Max Moeller is the curator of the Imprints Department at Hagley Museum and Library.