Last month I attended a holiday event in Holly’s 135 upstairs. As I was offering a short presentation to a dinner crowd, I was asked about a large mural on the wall behind me. Partly obscured, it appears to say, in large, bold letters, H.G. Mead & Co.
I should know that sort of thing, but didn’t. It’s peculiar to see a large advertisement on the inside of a building. You’d figure it was once on the outside of the building next door, the presumably older building that now houses Cru Bistro. Surely it was once taller than whatever was at 135. The letters are big enough that passengers at the train station could have read it.
It took a while, but using some old advertising-based print sources at the McClung Collection, I think I figured it out. The sign is even older than I thought. Homer G. Mead opened a wagon, carriage, and agricultural machinery dealership in the middle of this block in the 1880s.
Considering Mr. Mead moved around the corner, to Jackson Avenue, around 1890, and subsequently went out of business, this big sign can be safely estimated to be about 130 years old.
I’d never heard of H.G. Mead & Co. before. It went out of business before any of my grandparents were born, years before the invention of the radio or the airplane, even before J.P. Morgan created Southern Railway. But here it is, still proudly announcing its location.
Advertising assures immortality. Paint on brick is durable. Newspapers, saved by public libraries and often photographed for microfilm or digitized, are even more so.
Every Christmas since 1993 I’ve written about the holiday in Knoxville 100 years ago, and two-thirds of my story always comes from old advertisements. They tell us what people were buying, what people were eating, what people were reading, the new technologies they were excited about, how they were spending their evenings. They suggest a good deal of the style and spirit of the era. Advertisements give us a richness of detail, unavailable from any other source, about how Knoxvillians of the past lived.
I’ve used advertising so much in my research that I’ve come to the conclusion that if you don’t advertise, people of the future may not know your business ever existed.
What will people of 2116 know about Knoxville in 2016? A little less, I suspect, than they’ll know about Knoxville in 1916. Non-print data fades, often in sudden and unexpected ways. In recent months and years, I’ve learned more about “link rot” than I wanted to know. We still don’t have any idea how much, if any, of the text and images of the Internet as we know it will survive us.
But link rot, or something like it, was happening to most forms of non-print media even before the Internet—especially when new communications technologies were involved. In the 1920s, movies were the major cultural phenomenon. Americans, especially Knoxvillians, watched movies more then than now.
Today we can see only about one-quarter of the movies our ancestors saw. It’s estimated that 70-90 percent of all the silent movies ever made no longer exist. Included in the lost-film list is the first movie ever shown at the Tennessee Theatre, The Fleet’s In. It was a major release of 1928, starring Clara Bow, and Paramount sent scores of copies to cinemas across the world. But after its profit potential faded, no one felt any motive to keep one copy of it in a safe place.
On the other hand, pretty much all the newspaper advertisements from the era—including big display ads for The Fleet’s In—still exist in readable form, in multiple places.
Locally, most of the local radio and TV ads ever aired since broadcasting began in Knoxville in 1921 are no longer accessible. They just don’t exist anymore. From the same 95-year era, you can still see pretty much all the newspaper ads.
The Internet enables saving many old things, but makes things even more ephemeral. Daily announcements are automatically deleted. You can tell where any rock band is playing next month, but where they played last night becomes, quickly, a mystery.
Very much of what we know and love about Knoxville today might expect a similar fate.
That is, if newspapers weren’t still there.
So, for immortality, advertise. There are some other reasons, too.
Early last year, well over 1,000 people donated money to start a newspaper. We couldn’t have launched the Mercury without them. But what will sustain the paper in the long run has to be advertising.
Starting a local paper like that, zero to 60, was a move that would have seemed ambitious in any era. You may remember Metro Pulse in 1991. It was just a flimsy little letter-size paper packed with casual freelance submissions. Only slowly did it evolve into something more important.
Back then, we could build an advertising base slowly, because some of us had day jobs and were willing to write for little or nothing. To build up its advertising base to make it a full, thick, big-paged paper that had a full-time staff and came out every week—and won awards for superior journalism every year—took three and a half years.
With the Knoxville Mercury, we needed to skip that awkward adolescence. We had no choice. We were unemployed, and this is what we do.
The Internet’s wonderful, and maybe in the new year somebody on the Internet will come up with a way to pay for local journalism. For now, the viable business model for in-depth local journalism, here in Knoxville and almost everywhere in 2016 America, is still print advertising. Our advertisers tell us it still works.
And we know for sure that it works for supporting journalism. Knoxville has had advertising-based local journalism without a pause since 1791.
So Happy New Year, and take note of those advertisers you see in this issue, and others in months to come. Support them, and thank them, because they’re keeping local journalism alive.