Victorian marketing at its finest

Published 9:19 am Thursday, April 14, 2016

A trade card displays a miniature drill outfit with Colonel Sparling. (Photo courtesy of the Dowagiac Area History Museum)

A trade card displays a miniature drill outfit with Colonel Sparling. (Photo courtesy of the Dowagiac Area History Museum)

We take marketing for granted today as we are inundated with commercials on television, radio, websites and billboards.

Advertising likely goes back to the competing vendors in the markets and bazaars of ancient times, but it has evolved along with technology and societal norms.

Locally, two Dowagiac firms employed high quality and sometimes innovative advertising strategies to keep interest in their products growing.

As with much of Dowagiac history, this story begins with the Round Oak Stove Company.

When I give tours to adult groups, I usually tell them that several factors led to Round Oak’s success, including the founder Philo D. Beckwith, a superior stove priced right for the average consumer and strong marketing.

Though early marketing appears pretty basic—newspaper ads and basic trade cards—he had O.G. Beach successfully selling the stoves across the country. Beach proved to be the first of dozens of salesmen Round Oak employed in the company’s 75-year history.

It was not until the 1880s, though, that the company advertising hit its stride, which is likely due to the technological advances in printing processes. Round Oak released full-color lithographic trade cards that decade that show the beauty of the stoves perfectly while having a little fun in advertising.

A well-documented card came out in 1886 featuring polar bears with a Round Oak heating its icy dwellings — one bear dances around the stove while another is so hot he is cooling down in the cold waters, probably melted by the stove’s heat. Other 1880s cards show beautiful Victorian sitting rooms with stoves and families enjoying the warmth.

Round Oak continued issuing trade cards into the 1910s while expanding its advertising offerings.

Round Oak’s stroke of genius was the introduction of Chief Doe-Wah-Jack around 1900 to serve as the company mascot and logo.

There was no Potawatomi chief by that name in known history. The long held theory is that Round Oak invented the mascot because of the advent of the telephone and the difficult-to-pronounce town name of Dowagiac. This provided the phonetic spelling of the city’s name for prospective customers.

This was at a time when American Indian culture was of interest to American society and this proved to be a popular choice — Chief Doe-Wah-Jack remained a fixture of Round Oak advertising until the1940s.

Chief Doe-Wah-Jack showed up on catalogs, trade cards, stickpins, mugs, ashtrays, watch fobs — just about anything that could carry the Round Oak name. Posters and calendars featuring the Indian mascot now grace the walls of countless homes across the country.

Round Oak really did pump out beautiful advertising and it helped make Round Oak a household name for decades. My very favorite Round Oak ad is a circa 1900 poster that shows the devil (with one human foot and one hoofed foot) being kept warm by a Round Oak stove while writing a letter to the company requesting six more stoves— “What is Life Without Them” he asks at the end.

The Dowagiac Manufacturing Company produced grain drills (seed planters) from the 1870s to the early 1920s in the factory south of Harding’s. The company also had two interesting marketing campaigns around the turn of the century.

In 1893, Dowagiac Manufacturing had a booth at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It featured its products and included a specially made salesman’s sample of a grain drill — a miniature drill about a third the size of a normal drill.

After the exposition, the company sent it to county fairs, state fairs and other festivals along with a team of ponies to pull it and a company spokesperson — local little person Col. Sparling.

The drill appears in some marketing cards of the era and the museum actually owns the drill and it is on permanent exhibit.

The second fun marketing stunt of the Dowagiac Manufacturing Company is too good to summarize in a quick paragraph — let’s look forward to the story of Harry Adonis next month.

In the meantime, stop by the Dowagiac Area History Museum to see some amazing local advertising.


Steve Arseneau is the director of the Dowagiac Area History Museum. He resides in Niles with his wife, Christina, and children, Theodore and Eleanor.