Newspaper Ad Analysis

Assignment Purpose

These kinds of assignments show that you’re able to consult primary sources (old newspapers) and analyze them according to our readings and discussions. We’ll use the Chronicling America project from the Library of Congress.

Your Job

Go to the Chronicling America Advanced Search Page, and search for food related words in newspapers from New Mexico from between 1880 and 1920 (you can choose the range of years; a narrower range means more similar ads; a broader range means more diverse kinds of ads. Choose what seems more interesting to you). You need to select New Mexico from the list on the left, and manually enter a date range.

There is no specific set of words phrases you need to search—that’s up to you. Choose terms like food, canned, pure, nutrition, formula, diet, health, natural, scientific, and so on (please don’t limit yourself to these!). You can also search for specific brands or foods.

I recommend using the “all of the words” text box on the search form, but you can try different search methods to see how they affect your results (different combinations of words may work better with certain search methods).

Browse through your search results by clicking on the page thumbnails; you’ll notice your search terms are highlighted in red. Be sure to scan the whole page for relevant ads and content, not just stuff that’s highlighted—you’ll find a lot of interesting material that you didn’t directly search for!

Play around with searching for different sets of terms and how the results compare to each other.

Scan through at least several dozen different articles or ads (they’re small!)—the more you look at, the easier it will be to write your essay—until you notice some kind of pattern or general feature that seems worth commenting on. Given your search terms (whatever they are), pretend you are going to discuss your findings with, say, a classroom full of students who have also looked at similar ads from similar newspapers. That’s the audience you should have in mind while writing.

Short Essays

Write a ~600-word essay about what you found and how they relate to course readings and discussions. You should not simply describe a random collection of ads or articles and what they say; comment on a set of sources that tells you something about how people were marketing or discussing food at the time.

Questions to Address

Keep in mind that maybe not all of these will be relevant to your ads/articles):

  • What kinds of products are being sold?
  • What sensibilities are the ads appealing to?
  • What common themes run through the ads you saw?
  • How cohesive are the ads? Do they use similar techniques?
  • Who is the audience (think about social status, race/ethnicity)
  • How much do they support or contradict the arguments made in the readings?
  • If you compare ads from two different sets of terms, how can you explain their similarities or differences?
  • How do the newspaper pages in general (not just the ads/articles you’re focusing on) give you a different impression of America in the early twentieth century?

Tips for success

  • Describe what you searched for. The first thing you should do is describe the terms you used to search for articles. Put this as a separate statement ahead of your essay. Example:
    • SEARCH: “pure food” (all words) between 1900 and 1910.
    • SEARCH: “canned fresh fruit” (any words) between 1890 and 1900.
  • Have a specific point to make. Don’t just describe the ads. (One ad said this; another ad said this; etc). Better to say something like: The ads with terms X, Y, and Z commonly appealed to “science” as a way of establishing trust. Look for general themes and explain how they relate to the readings.
  • Use choice quotations. Avoid long quotations, unless they perfectly illustrate what you’re talking about. Usually short phrases convey the gist of why a longer phrase is interesting. Don’t feel obligated to use complete sentences, but don’t take phrases out of context.
  • Cite your ads. When you directly reference or quote an ad, use a parenthetical citation to indicate exactly where you saw the ad, including the name of the paper, date, and page number.
    • One ad from Carnation promised to offer “the finest nature in a can” (Albuquerque Journal, 09/13/1903, p.3).
  • Be selective. You can’t fit everything worth saying into your essay. Choose carefully what points about your ads that you think are most significant. That’s part of what you’re being graded on. HINT: Let our readings and discussions be your guide for what to include.
  • Revise, revise, revise. Once you have a complete draft of everything you want to say, you are about 50% done. Set it aside (and budget time for this!), then come back and economize your prose. Remove simple sentences that force you to be unnecessarily verbose.
    1 (initial idea): There was a cat. The cat was black and it chased a mouse, which was eating cheese.
    2 (revised prose): The black cat chased the cheese-eating mouse.

Revisions are hard! But they are the only way to make your writing shine.


It is always worthwhile to talk about these things in class; don’t hesitate to ask. Email is OK, too, especially for quick questions.