Giving It All Away? Personal Advertising Specialties and Business Intimacies in the Early 20th Century

Wendy A. Woloson

"Advertising specialties," or "business souvenirs," were relatively new material forms at the dawn of the 20th century. (We know it today as "SWAG": stuff we all get.) Imprinted with company names and logos, these objects – such as celluloid card counters, wooden rulers, pigskin purses, chromolithograph calendars, and glass paperweights – functioned simultaneously as gifts and advertisements, artifacts belonging both to the commercial and emotional spheres.

Despite their trifling nature, advertising specialties were quite complex things. They blurred the lines between business and sentiment and helped reshape traditional conceptions of intimacy. They were gifts and not gifts. They were generous yet created obligation. They forged relationships on social terms that were in fact based in economic interests. Cheap and trivial, they could be, nevertheless, emotionally quite affecting. Advertising specialties were perfect embodiments of the new kinds of relationships created as a result of the market's advancing incursion into the domestic sphere. What was more, they borrowed liberally from traditional and more private forms of gift exchange. Although they were insincere and, many might say, false gifts, they were wildly popular: we still love our give-aways today. This paper draws from a variety of sources, including gift theory and contemporary trade literature, to discuss the nature and meanings of these objects and to explore how, by borrowing from, and confounding, the traditional forms of personal and commercial exchange, they transformed the meanings of both.