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F.H. Gillingham & Sons: A Lens for the Evolution of Advertising

A shift of the word “scroll” from noun to verb, from reed brushed ink on papyrus to sponsored posts on Instagram. Though media form and format evolved over time, the concept of advertising remains the same. Consider this: the thirty- second video or audio segment that may only serve as a delay before the music or video you intended to view, plays - a modern representation of an advertising tradition dating back thousands of years.

Researchers have found Ancient Chinese poems that suggest an oral method used by early laborers of various trades. The divine gift of writing was bestowed upon the people and used by the merchants of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome to promote goods for sale.

Marketing was revolutionized with the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s, then again 500 years later, when the first televised commercial aired.  Following, was first digital advertisement, appearing in the early 1990’s. Most recently, businesses have made use of social media, a practice that began in the early 2000’s with ads on an emerging Facebook.

The advertising evolution is one that can be tracked locally, right here, in Woodstock, Vermont. Chronicled by The Vermont Standard, and our very own historian, owner Jireh Billings, F.H. Gillingham and Sons has newspaper ads and other promotions dating back to the 1880’s. The barrel that has become our signature; was originally an advertisement for “Our Best” flour.

Another you might recognize is the label on our very own maple syrup. The border and typeface are reminiscent of what were often full-page advertisements for the store. The page border style and logo were early brand recognition techniques Gillingham utilized, a method that originates back thousands of years.

Though from quintessential early Woodstock, in the time of horse and buggy, Gillingham was able to keep pace with the marketing tactics used by big city advertisers. He often made use of comparative advertising, also a popular advertising method of the time, and still employed by many companies today. A tool that aims to boost a business’s image by comparing their products and the prices at which they are sold to that of the competition.

“When you see a price quoted that looks cheap just come to us and see what our boys are asking for the same goods. Usually you’ll find our price, at the same time, to be 5 to 10 per cent less.” Along the same vein is price comparison, F.H. often proclaimed that the store’s inventory was not only of the best quality and most variety, but also the least expensive available.

As the decades marched on, the store followed suit; in times of war and cultural shifts and in times of prosperity and promise. Times of economic difficulty are arguably the most interesting advertising eras to analyze, as companies were having to justify the sale of products to individuals who often couldn’t afford them.

In the mid 1940’s, American intervention in WWII started the familiar wartime economic ripple effect and Woodstock was feeling it alongside much of the country. The advertising Gillingham’s used during this time was with an emphasis on low prices. The ads were often full page, and there was an emergence of the use of color.

It was also the beginning of the store’s usage of promotional tools like a yearly calendar. The calendar often featured a full color or black and white art piece, typically of local landscapes or people. These also often came with a description of the image and housekeeping tips and recipes. The store's 1946 edition of the calendar, had a heavy war time theme.

Also during this time Gillingham employed the use of catalogues, often used as a holiday gift guide promotion. This included a variety of inventory with black and white renderings and sometimes photographs with a personalized Gillingham-style descriptions for each item.

The 1950’s brought on a societal and political push for refinement and a focus on the importance of family. With this shift, the store's calendars focused more on recipes and housekeeping tips or “kitchen wisdom” for housewives.

The ads in The Vermont Standard followed the same trend, with home improvement and maintenance products like Lowe Brothers paint products and Lava soap.

Promotional catalogues and booklets came out more frequently and with themes beyond the seasons like “Better Living” and others. The catalogue also incorporated mixed media visuals like illustrations paired with photographic images.

The 1960’s was a colorful decade in all definitions of the word. During this time, Gillingham’s used more full page color ads than ever before and placed an emphasis on personal care items like “Presto ‘Walk ‘n Wear’” portable hair dryers. There was also a trend for season specific sale days, highlighting items useful for specific times during the year.

The store also began sending out promotional advertisements for Christmas and other occasions.

During the decade of love, calendars started coming out with removable postcards, probably a reflection of the boom in tourism during this time.

The 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s saw a fine-tuning of the promotional tools Gillingham originally employed. The store continued to make use of popular trends and emerging technologies, with a heavy focus on mail order catalogues.

Today, as my smartphone-fluent fingers delicately fold over the yellowed, century old pages of The Vermont Standard, I cannot help but notice how far we have come as a society. The evolution of technology and media is a reflection of those changes. We are no longer bombarded with advertisements claiming the benefits of the latest corset or the latest over-the-counter cure for formerly life-threatening illnesses. Humanity is still learning and progressing, but our aim at F.H. Gillingham & Sons is to be one place you can count on through it all. Come see for yourself, in person or online and follow us on Facebook and Instagram!


Submitted by Hannah Sundell - team member extraordinaire. We wish Hannah great success, as she moves on to another chapter in life in pursuit of her graduate studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. We will miss her dearly and look forward to her visits back north, as her beloved family lives in New Hampshire.





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