“Defacing the Beauties of Nature”

October 28, 1865

Thomas Nast

“Defacing the Beauties of Nature”

Business, Advertising; Business, Government Regulation; Business, Health; Patent Medicine; Women, Beauty;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

Palisades, The;

No caption.

This cartoon compares a woman's use of cosmetics to marring the pristine beauty of a mountainside with product advertisements.  The prevalent use of outdoor advertising, particularly painted signs on natural land formations, generated considerable controversy in the late 1860s.  Here, the scene out the window is probably the Palisades, the cliffs along the lower Hudson River.  The advertising copy on the cliff is a blatant reference to Drake’s Plantation Bitters, a popular patent medicine, which advertised with the mysterious trademark “S. T. 1860 X.” 

J. H. Drake and his partner, William P. Ward, insisted that “S. T. 1860 X” did not stand for anything, but was a gimmick to capture public attention.  It worked.  There was much discussion over what the trademark meant, with the more popular answer being, “Started Trade in 1860 with Ten Dollars.”  A more unlikely suggestion was that “1860” substituted for “c-r-o-i” to spell “St. Croix,” the home to the rum that made up much of the product.  In 1867, public reaction against Drake’s painted signs on the sides of the White Mountains prompted the New Hampshire legislature to enact the first law in the nation regulating outdoor advertising.  The act prohibited the defacement of any natural setting of scenic beauty with commercial advertisements. 

Having migrated from England, outdoor advertising was used in New England at least by the eighteenth century, notably in lottery announcements posted on fences, walls, and trees.  In the early decades of the nineteenth century, circuses used 18-inch broadsides, patent medicine manufacturers painted product information on boulders and fences, and clothing stores tacked up large signs on the sides of buildings.  In 1830, the first traveling advertisement appeared as a wagon covered with product endorsements made its way through the streets of New York City.  By that time, the streets of major cities were littered with promotional bills, especially for theaters, museums, patent medicines, clothing stores, and hatters. 

The 1840s witnessed the arrival of the walking billboard in the form of a man or boy wearing a sandwich board with advertisements on each side.  It was also the time when P. T. Barnum promoted his American Museum with bigger and livelier posters, prodding other businesses to follow suit.  In the 1850s, clothing stores in major cities bet on the effectiveness of repetition by erecting a series of roadside announcements of their establishments from as far away as 50 miles.  Outdoor advertising proliferated so much in the 1850s that newspaper editors condemned it as “a nuisance” and “a mania.”  By the end of the decade, patent medicine companies began painting product information, several feet high, on cliffs, barns, abandoned buildings, and other natural or man-made edifices. 

During the Civil War, federal and state governments were one of the most prominent outdoor advertisers through their use of military recruitment posters.  Patent medicine had been a big business before the Civil War, but it skyrocketed afterward as servicemen brought home a taste for the tonics, which were often spiked with alcohol, opium, or other addictive substances.  In 1870, the first national painting service, Bradbury and Houghteling, was established, and it quickly gained a reputation for being able to paint signs on rocks and other places previously considered inaccessible. 

An advertisement for St. Jacob’s Oil painted on a rock at Niagara Falls provoked national attention, and, as mentioned above, Drake’s marketing on the cliffs of the White Mountains triggered the nation’s first legislative prohibition (1867) on outdoor advertising.  In the late-nineteenth century, some legislatures outlawed whiskey advertisements in public.  Also, the advertising industry policed itself through the Associated Billposters of the United States, which censored the more lurid advertisements, such as for burlesque shows.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Defacing the Beauties of Nature”
December 4, 2021

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