The History of Advertising Archives: Confessions of a Professional Pac-Rat


Richard W. Pollay (1987) ,"The History of Advertising Archives: Confessions of a Professional Pac-Rat", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 136-139.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987       Pages 136-139


Richard W. Pollay, University of British Columbia

We are all embedded in an environment dense with advertising that Dost citizens find intrusive or aversive. Yet many people, including myself, voluntarily seek, acquire and collect additional advertising items and information. Among collectors, dealers and museum personnel, we are known as "pac-rats', "pac" being an acronym for paper and advertising collector.

There are many pac-rats with varied interests. Some collect particular objects, such as postcards, toys, beer trays, paperweights, etc. Some collect diverse items for a particular brand, such as Planter's Peanuts or Coca Cola, or for a product class, such as railroad memorabilia. Some retain items for a specific era. Some collect anything with a particular these, or using certain characterizations, as in ethnic stereotypes, the Dionne Quintuplets, indians, movie star testimonials, etc. All collectors soon find the selves having to choose a specialization to provide a rationale and a limitation constraint to what they will collect.

While there may be no such thing as a typical collector, for the species is very heterogeneous in demographic dimensions, and perhaps psychographic dimensions as well, this confession and self description is provided in faith that it might illuminate the behaviors, motives, purchasing behavior of collectors, by providing a case history of one.


Advertising completely infiltrates my life. It is an intellectual preoccupation dominating most of my teaching, reading, research, and professional writing. It is a hobby of mine to collect unusual advertising items of previous eras, "advertiques." It is a dominant decor theme to my office and home, providing decoration for almost every room of the large home I share with tolerant others. For example, the kitchen is filled with food related ads and items, including many tools, dishes, cups, bowls, etc. The hall and front room display 19th Century patent medicine items with an indian theme. An upstairs room contains objects and ads for Acme firms around the world. The staircase contain a gallery of faces, "our satisfied customers," which also includes many ads, such as old trade cards. Like the proverbial iceberg, only a fraction of what I have is displayed, so closets and draws are full of additional items.

I watch television items related to advertising and marketing topics whenever I can. I read the trade press of advertising. From both TV and print, I copy ads that seem noteworthy, and collect a random sample for future research purposes. I wear advertising of my clothes in patches and pins, or silkscreened shirts. My pockets are often filled with unusual items such a pen knives, watches, coins and cards of a promotional nature. My photography even as a tourist focuses on signs and advertising, especially the uniquely North American, the ironic self-captioned snaps, and any Acme businesses which I see as the grass roots of American enterprise.

As a collector, I will buy books for libraries, unusual specialty items to show their diversity, patent medicine items (particularly 19th Century), anything for an Acme firm, quality items that can be incorporated as part of my wardrobe, examples of popular adoption of commercial themes, such as brand name needlepoints, and anything that illustrates a juncture of history or right serve as a prop for teaching by relevance to teaching cases or demonstration of basic principles, or the violation thereof.

As specific illustration, I have purchased within the month preceding this writing the following: a nineteenth century letter opener advertising itself as an advertising specialty item; a fruit crate label for "Visitor" brand lemons which I framed and put into the guest room of my Lodge at the Lake, a recreational retreat; a pair of home almanacs for Watkins products, a large product line of domestic and cosmetic item, richly illustrated with one showing the traveller salesman in a horse drawn carriage and the next year's showing his in a Model A Ford; a group of buttons and pins including one for Davey Crockett Bread which I wear on western styled clothes; a cutting board featuring a brand name of mushrooms; and a set of soup tureens whose design is based on old versions of the Tobacco and oyster can labels.

In support of scholarly activity, I maintain a large library of advertising books, periodicals, dissertations, working papers, tear sheet files. I shop second hand bookstores regularly looking for anything on advertising I don't yet have, including coffee table books, biographies of questionable veracity, etc. and have been known to spend an entire day scanning shelves of the largest bookstores in North America. I schedule a day into every visit to New York, for example, to do nothing but shop for books.


A behavioral pattern as diverse, and yet coherent, as this had to start somewhere. As a child, I recall a few s all collections. While others collected baseball cards or stamps or coins. I for a while had a small collection of matchbook covers, provided by my parents who both smoked and travelled. Later I collected decals from family trips, that covered a window of my room. But these early efforts were abandoned as I grew and I was indifferent to their disposal.

When near the end of my graduate school days, and recently married, I honeymooned in New England and noticed a peculiar patent medicine cardboard poster with the key slogan of "Step right up and get a bottle of (sic) your druggist." This captured my attention, and being newly married and about to start a teaching position in Marketing, I had both office and apartment walls to fill with decorations. So I bought it. (I neglected to buy the companion ad for the horse elixir, an apparent repackaging of the family elixir, Much to my persistent subsequent regret.) I started teaching in the Midwest and noticed that anachronistic patent medicines still graced the shelves of any stores, specially the smaller rural or ethnic markets. I bought a few of these off the shelves, only to note that despite diverse labels, many were sold by the same distributor/ manufacturer. Writing to them, I received a large variety of items that they still marketed, having bought up licenses of old fashioned products to "milk" them in the marginal markets. To identify myself to sellers, I created a business card for "Dr. Pollay's Pill and Potion Parlour - Palliatives and Panaceas for Palpitations, Petulance and Piety."

As I was teaching both Marketing and Social Psychology at the time in a business school, I was interested in the local histories of the patent medicine peddlers whose techniques of persuasion might provide insight, I thought, into contemporary tactics. Thus I began to read casually about pioneering peddlers, medicine shows, and larger caravans and carnivals. This continued, largely in parallel to my reading for scholarly and teaching purpose. I also began, modestly at first, to purchase those items that made good conversation pieces and teaching vehicles. The reading and collecting continued for nearly a decade with little professional i port, being a related hobby but not leading to much publication, display or impact on others in any way.

The first major reinforcement of this activity, aside from the curiosity of colleagues and friends, came from the Vancouver Art Gallery. I was asked to "hang" a show on advertising though the ages to accompany other shows they had scheduled featuring pinball machines and press photography, thus giving over the gallery entirely to popular culture items. This was both a honor and an exciting activity, for I undertook the curatorial effort with enthusiasm and creativity. Rather than just hanging objects on the walls, I created a variety of environments to recreate the sense of proliferated commercial media. I also produced the show as if it were sponsored, a satire on the intrusion of tobacco and alcohol sponsors into sports and the genesis of the fictional Acme Delivery Company. Opening ceremonies were conducted like a grand opening sale, with students acting as sales force to confront gallery patrons and displayed items bearing catalog numbers.

This experience, an exhilarating change of pace from routines of professing, came at an opportune moment for I was about to embark on my first sabbatical with little certainty if I wanted to dedicate my life to academic activities at all, despite the appearances of success in my first decade at it.

My first sabbatical was therefore a critical moment. As it began I could easily imagine dropping out of academic life and doing something different - anything different. I had the fortunate opportunity to attend Harvard as an International Visiting Scholar where I could study business history and make use of the deep resources of Baker Library. This lead to a rededication of effort, a credibility as a scholar with historical interests, and the basis for a reference book annotating the available literature of advertising, Information Sources for the History of Advertising (1978). Returning to my own campus, I created the History of Advertising Archives, as a repository for my growing library and collections, and in hopes that it would someday attract donations of corporate advertising records, which are poorly preserved by any other institutions. (Neither agencies, nor clients, nor trade associations, keep historical records of any quality on advertising). The creation of this institutional form provided a legitimization for a renewed effort at collecting, especially of those items of interest to scholars and researchers.


Initially I would acquire any items quite readily at local garage sales, flea markets, estate sales, second hand stores, and antique dealers. By the initial indiscriminate collecting soon became infeasible. Collecting of advertising related items became quite popular in the early 70s and drove prices upwards. My own inventory became bulky. I recognized that some of what I had bought DO longer interested e, and that ny collection had no focus. All collectors discover the need to specialize as their collections grow, and I did too.

Thus over time, my purchasing became far more selective. To avoid outrageous prices, I started to avoid the obvious, such as Coca-Cola or Disney items which had become rapidly inflated in price. I buy with an eye toward the aesthetics of design, particularly the typography and printing quality. I am willing to buy reproductions, since I consider this a soot point as advertising is produced in multiples to begin with, although I am demanding as to quality or printing and manufacture and avoid shoddy goods. I seek items that are good conversation pieces, permitting me to tell a story from advertising's history. (Interestingly, any collectors are very ignorant of this history and don't recognize these items for what they are.) I buy items which are easily stored, or durable. I buy unusual items for their very uniqueness. I buy items that can be put to good use, such as a Campbell Soup instant lunch appliance which heats my coffee. I like items whose branding or slogans is self-captioning, ironic or particularly appropriate, such as my coffee cup shaped like a battery labelled "Energizer." I also like items that are cheap. I am willing to pay fair value, but must watch my cash flow. In general I only buy when several of these criteria are met. Recent acquired illustrations include a "Ritz-watch" whose childlike pun appeals; a "Takosa Biscuit" pin, a early 20th Century competitor to Uneeda Biscuits, the cornerstone to Nabisco; and a WWII playing card featuring a Coke ad and silhouettes of airplanes to train air raid wardens.

I still buy largely from the informal markets: garage sales, church rummage , second hand stores, etc. Lately, as another example, I have been buying T-shirts and caps from these places.

I occasionally attend the larger "shows" or "conventions" of dealers or collectors. The ere existence of these shows the size of the collectors marketplace, and any one show has so much material that a high degree of selectivity and a trained searching eye is essential to get through the available inventory. I trade at these places in an anonymous manner, but even if I identified myself and the institutional reason for my interest, this would mean very little to the sellers. It would convey DO status of i port to the , for there are any private collectors with far greater reputations and collections. (A local man in Vancouver has over ten thousand Coke items, such as boxes of promotional records, rooms of toys, etc.) The shows on the West coast are relatively modest compared to those on the East coast where there is both ore original inventory and a greater number of collectors. There is an annual trade gathering in Maryland, for example, which is open to the public but is primarily a wholesale market where antique dealers buy in bulk from one another. Imagine, hundreds of exhibitors and buyers all dealing in volume transactions involving old paper and advertising ephemera which they then filter out to their regional markets. This is where a find such as 200 posters from the 1920s can be marketed.


Why engage in this behavior? The behavior seems bizarre to any, a relatively unique monomania. To some the behavior is sufficiently unusual that they are shy to ask what motivations and satisfactions precipitated and perpetuate the collecting and display, for they perhaps presume irrationality. But in fact there are many motivational factors that are shared with commonplace behavior of others.

Initially, the acquiring was a casual, off-hand activity of no particular import, little more than an impulse purchase of items of curiosity value because of my professional involvement in marketing. This became something of a hobby/research project because local sources permitted the acquisition of rare items and knowledge about patent medicine selling, a cornerstone to the history of marketing and advertising. The effort to learn about this topic taught e just how poorly advertising materials were retained by anyone, and how valuable they were as documents for social and economic history. This was evidently even ore acute for advertising OD radio and television, for no one was preserving these ephemeral electronic events. So a need and opportunity was recognized, and with it cthe a sense of responsibility. I was in a unique position to do scholarly work on advertising's history and its social import, being better trained in managerial and behavioral fields than conventional historians. Thus r began to be ore serious about collecting some things, while continuing to acquire other items just for my own amusement.

The process of searching and shopping has its own rewards. Since many items are rarely seen, and are typically amassed with diverse assortments of other objects, there can be delight in discovery, finding the treasure amidst the fresh. This is a pleasure when it is the reward for search effort, or when its just a serendipity when least expected. The item may be a bargain for being underpriced compared to ones own assessment of its rarity and interest value, but it need not be a "steal" to be satisfying. Finding unusual types of items, or items that complement existing holdings is also rewarding. The purchasing process is typically a social one, with bargaining and banter common between buyers and sellers. While this marketplace socializing is common around the world, it has become rare in America, making it all the more to be valued.

There is rarely the satisfaction of closure that stamp or coin collectors typically seek and experience. There is not a finite universe of items such that one sight complete full sets, nor is there a well established sense of rarity and value. Some pac-rats do try to approximate this and assemble and publish catalogs listing the universe of it bed they know to exist. I have seen these for advertising postcards, beer trays and cans, country store displays and dispensers, Coca-Cola ephemera, etc. these are valuable primarily to dealers to get a sense of prices. This can be specious, however, for at least one of these catalogs published greatly inflated price estimates in order to increase the apparent value of the inventory held by the author and offered for sale through the catalog.

The owning and having can be satisfying in several ways. Some collectors take great deli bed in polishing, packaging, organizing and assembling their inventories, literally fondling their finds. I personally find this a chore done out of necessity and responsibility, and cannot see to find the time to organize the collection in a way that it deserves, despite ny retrieval needs as a curator of the History of Advertising Archives. The fact of ownership does provide a strong sense of identity to one's self and to others. Even the oddity has the virtue of provoking conversation and interest, among professional colleagues and personal friends. For some part of my life, between marriages, it proved a means of meeting and capturing the interest of friends and lovers. Now it serves as a means of establishing in a concrete way my interests and expertise, and permitting publicity for the History of Advertising Archives in visual as well as verbal ways.

The sharing of the collection, such as in this paper and presentation, provides any rewards. It aids my teaching by giving e props to provoke student attention and thought. Visitors can be shown displays, each of which may be worth more than a and words. Artifacts and advertiques prove valuable to set designers, museum curators and art directors. All of this sharing is in keeping with the intention of the primary donor to the archive, the Acme Delivery Company, a transport of delight.


Just how bizarre is this collecting compulsion, this materialistic monomania? The identified motives range from curiosity, delight in discovery, satisfactions of closure, pride of ownership, creation of identity, social interactions, generosity and sharings, publicity and a sense of responsibility. In and of themselves these certainly not unique.

Nor, I assert, is the monomania. Many people live lives dominated by a central interest or motif. Some personalities are totally identified with a recreational activity or sports team. Some are totally committed to a job, career or firm. Some lives revolve around drugs, like alcohol. Some are centered around pet ownership, maintenance, grooming, etc. More abstractly, some lives display consistency in repeated displays of fear of failure, insecure assertions of masculinity, compulsive cuteness or clowning, etc. Of all occupations, I would guess that academics have the highest frequency and of monomania. We all know colleagues whose minds are on their fields of interest for virtually every waking hour, and often these are among the most successful as academics.

What may make the behavior unique is its obvious manifestation in material forms. But we know materialism to be a very strong trait in American culture. It is not unusual for people to own or display souvenir items, memorabilia, or treasured possessions. Nor it unusual for people to buy well beyond their obvious needs, as evidenced by the enormous inventories of goods sold every year to people with crowded closets, attics, basements, garages, storage sheds, bookshelves, desk drawers, cupboards, etc.

Although I cannot be the final arbiter, it seems that what makes my behavior most unique is the valuing of objects that others take for granted or treat with disdain for being advertising. I'd like to think that uniqueness is also the result of creative inventiveness. There is always something new being bought or created, or the use of old props in new ways. My willingness to make my life dense with advertising is not as intolerable to others as it would seem. Many varieties of personalities find themselves comfortable with me and in my environments; even those like my wife who are averse to advertising in both principle and practice.


I continue to purchase items, although less frequently and with more exacting criteria. The collection of books and research files of ads already serves as a resource for other scholars interested in historical dimensions of advertising. Bona fide scholars access these and the data bases derived therefrom at cost and with the help of the archives staff. This library is destined for donation to a library, archives or museums. The collection of artifacts and advertiques has a more uncertain future. It is used occasionally as a source of props or creative stimulus for art directors. Many displays are possible so material is lent to museums. Currently, material is on loan to the new Portland Museum of Advertising and to the Canadian Medical Association for displays. A wore permanent display is possible either self-standing, or at the University, or at home. My home is already so rife with artifacts on the walls that conversion to a museum would be relatively straight forward.

Those interested in seeing the existing displays, accessing the data or the library, or borrowing items are encouraged to enquire in Vancouver, BC. The History of Advertising Archives is fully cooperative with all reasonable requests, and can do so thanks to a grant from the Acme Delivery Company.


This highly diversified but integrated company is unusual as it has no lawyers or accountants, pays no taxes, and indeed has no cash income. Its most active department is marketing and advertising. Business cards, stationary, rubber stamps, decals, stickers for packages and signage all work to make concrete among affiliates, an international community of colleagues and neighbors, the concept of "Acme Deliveries."

"Acme Deliveries" include chance encounters, serendipity, synchronicity, courtesies, insights, generosity and lucidness in the midst of confusion. Originally created as a fictional firm for sponsoring events in an art gallery show, the acknowledgement of all the volunteered assistance and emotional support was a "thank you for the Acme Delivery." From that time, this community of friends, family, artists and colleagues had a new phrase in their vocabulary, and I created the advertising materials to keep the concept reinforced, believing it beneficial to society to promote as any events and ideas as possible that are either graced, blessed or inspirited.

The result is the advertising of the abstract. What seems banal is in fact subtle. It is also like a sheep in wolves clothing. What appears to be predation is typically play. At its best it is the sacred masked as the secular. It is this admixture that makes it so unusual, for it blends what normally stands in antithesis - the "new goods" message of advertising and a "good news" philosophy of Christian charity and compassion. This dialectic reflects my personal ambivalence, being both an admirer and a critic of advertising. I admire the art and creativity, but wonder about the adverse consequences of heavily commercialized culture.

Since my reflections on the cultural character of advertising, "The Distorted Mirror," seem to some to be a curse on the profession and its academics, let me correct any misunderstanding and leave you with my blessing: "May you experience many Acme Deliveries and may these be well appreciated by you and those with who you share." When you are next in Vancouver, I look forward to providing you with a small Acme Delivery - a guided tour of the collections of the History of Advertising Archives and my personal hospitality.



Richard W. Pollay, University of British Columbia


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14 | 1987

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