A Brief History of Advertising
The copper plate, pictured above, was an advertisement for the Liu family needle shop during the Song dynasty (circa 960-1279) in ancient China. According to the Johns Hopkins University, it is the earliest known pictorial advertisement. By this, it’s evident that the history of advertising stretches further back in time than the Industrial Revolution or the printing press. In fact, papyrus scrolls, stone tablets, and wall and stone etchings exist today from ancient Greece, Egypt, China, India, Arabia, and the extinct city of Pompeii. Furthermore, according to The History Channel, Roman gladiators even had product endorsements much like athletes of today. Many of the vehicles which modern professionals advertise with, such as logos, posters, brochures, jingles, and public announcements, all have roots in ancient civilization.
Historical evidence suggests that China is where printing began. According to HistoryGraphicDesign.com, when printing began in the Tang dynasty (circa. 618-906), block printing spread from China to India and was used for individuals to carry religious texts, mathematics, dictionaries, and artist references. Movable type came into play in the 11th century, after which printed books became widespread among the people of the Song dynasty. The earliest known printed book is a Buddhist scripture, created in 868 and found in a cave along the Silk Road. Marco Polo’s 13th century visit to China may have led to European knowledge of book printing, thus inspiring Johann Gutenberg to create his version of the printing press with moveable type.
From here, it is possible to consider the printing press as one of the precursors to the Internet, as Gutenberg’s printing press brought about the wide and rapid spread of ideas. While Gutenberg didn’t invent the movable-type printing press, his version of the press was the first to print any book of substantial length – the Bible. From 1454-1500, over 9 million copies of 40,000 book titles spread throughout Europe, and Venice, Italy became the capital of printing. The availability of ancient and modern works to those of all social status and class led to a literacy and information boom, similar to what modern consumers experience with today’s rise of digital technology. Chron.com, an online publication and subsidiary of the Houston Chronicle, points out literacy as the connection between the printing press and the Internet.
Fast forward just a few more centuries, and advertising as we now know it begins. From the oldest advertisement in the world found in Thebes, Egypt (dated at 3000 B.C. and resides in the British Museum) to the first newspaper advertisement in a 1704 issue of the Boston Newsletter, humans have used every available mode of communication to sell goods and services and spread notices over the course of millennia. A person can only imagine what the next 1,000 years will bring.