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Advertising, the gender system: Changing configurations of femininity and masculinity in early advertising in the United States

David Joseph Maxcy, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Early advertising in the U.S. is considered from a critical perspective which understands economic life to be a cultural process. Advertising correlates the world of industrially-produced commodities with crucial social distinctions such as class, race, and, especially, gender. Nineteenth-century, patent medicine advertising formed an important prehistory of the modern advertising institution, particularly through the ways in which medicine advertisers drew the emergent mass media into the structures of the modern marketplace. Furthermore, medicine advertising systematically presented gender distinctions by correlating feminity and masculinity with a symptomatology of disease. Modern advertising directly inherited many of its communicative techniques from medicine advertising. It also took over a gendered way of speaking about goods. From 1900 through the 1920's national advertising spoke to middle class women primarily through remedy appeals, situating women's commodities within the world of family care and nurture. Through the same period advertising spoke to middle class men primarily through utility appeals, locating men's products within the wider world of city, business, and industry. However, this provided an ambiguous context for masculine consumption at the very moment that middle class men were being turned toward the home and commodity consumption as a primary field for masculine identity formation. Through the period, advertisers responded to this cultural situation through increasing reliance on desire appeals, in which gender distinctions are concentrated in a triangular relationship between the reader, the product, and an ideal-typical model consumer, this configuration presented primarily through visual imagery. The turning of masculinity towards the feminine field of consumption represent a massive figure-ground shift in U.S. popular culture.

Subject Area

Mass media|American studies|American history|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Maxcy, David Joseph, "Advertising, the gender system: Changing configurations of femininity and masculinity in early advertising in the United States" (1994). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9420662.