Visualizing Character: American Advertising Personalities in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Franco-American, an American soup manufacturer, unveiled a new advertising personality called the “Little Chef.” Ads featuring the fresh-faced boy often touted the pure ingredients used in Franco-American soups, and invited readers to visit their “kitchens.” “My standard is high,” began one 1909 ad. “I select all food materials before they enter the Franco-American kitchens, and test all our products before they go out,” the boy proclaims. His eyes gleaming, he brings his finger to his smiling lips, to get a taste of the dish he’s prepared. “In this way,” he explains, “the Franco-American reputation for Quality never diminishes.” The boy’s angelic smile invites the reader into his space, providing visual reinforcement for the ad’s textual references to purity, and the intimate conversation crafted by the first-person perspective of the copy. Word and image work together in this ad to construct a humble and virtuous public persona for Franco-American. Historians of capitalism have shown that middle-class understandings of virtue and reputation—what contemporaries called “character”—were central to the development of the credit, banking, and insurance industries in the early nineteenth-century United States, and remained an important factor in successful salesmanship through the end of the century. This paper explores the ways that this concept of character was visualized through branded personalities like the Chef at the end of the nineteenth century. Corporations used such figures in an attempt to build an imagined emotional connection between consumers and producers, cultivating the fiction of personal interaction in a highly impersonal market. Visual media—and especially brand characters—became the conduits through which corporations built, maintained, and quantified their reputations and goodwill, or what today's practitioners would call "brand value."