January 25, 2016

History, and Waterman’s Ads

  , not quite the same thing.

        Here’s the difference between history and advertizing.  Waterman’s had already been making use of the war in its ads during WWI, but the end of the war offered them a unique opportunity.  The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, and in anticipation of the great event, the Waterman’s advertizing department devised a scheme whereby they would beat everyone else to a photo of the signing, or at least the next best thing, a faked illustration of the signing.  The admen created a painting that was rendered as smaller lithographic prints, but also as a billboard-sized, 24-sheet poster.  Here’s the relevant portion of the full official painting of the occasion by William Orpen, “The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles 1919”, which they were trying to anticipate.  Please note that the only writing instruments you can see are the inkwells placed in front of each delegate, and presumably penholders lying flat on the table and out of view.  And the only person who is writing is the German delegate who is caught in the act of signing the treaty, and is shown with his head bowed and his back to the viewer, just a suit and a hairdo, watched over by a fawning, servile, hunch-backed attaché peering over the German delegate’s shoulder and looking very much like a valet.
        Waterman’s had at least once before offered a billboard-sized, 24-sheet poster.  An article in The American Stationer,
Nov 30, 1918, p.21, informed the stationers-readers that they were distributing a 20" x 9" map that illustrated “the war Zone in Europe”.  The map poster offered them one more chance to feature the war in their ads, even though the war was over, but this treaty poster afforded them one last chance to “exploit the historic news” of the war in their ads.  To Waterman’s, it wasn’t the signing that was the news, but rather “This poster was the news”.
        First of all, here’s the American perspective.  The poster was first used in their cover ad in Am. Stat.,
June 28, 1919, p.1, and in an internal ad in Printers’ Ink, Aug 14, 1919, p.13.  The long article in Am. Stat., July 5, 1919, p.30, crows about how they perpetrated their “scoop”, and an even longer illustrated article in Printers’ Ink, July 10, 1919, p.25, lays out “the story of how it was achieved” and the “elaborate preparations” that were required, so that the billposters did not hang the posters until the moment after they heard that the treaty was signed.  You can read all about their self-congratulations in those two articles.
        Now, here’s the Canadian perspective.  The poster was said to “faithfully depict the signing of the treaty…with historic accuracy”, but by their own admission “Uncle Sam is depicted in the act of passing a Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen to John Bull”, characters that are not exactly “historic” personages who attended the signing.  Their excuse was that they didn’t get written permission in time for the use of the likenesses of Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson.  Now, this may not have been noticed much in the US, but great exception was taken to it in Canada.
        The long article in Printers’ Ink relates a story of two English officers in Canada seeing billposters putting up one of the treaty posters in Montreal, and “It was their first inkling that peace was an established fact.  The poster had beat the newspapers to it”.  And then the author of the article, S. C. Lambert, went on to say, “The officers wrote in to Waterman, commending the enterprise of this advertising stunt”.  He also quoted F. D. Waterman as saying, “The poster has made us many, many new friends”.  Not just “many”, but “many, many”.

        That was the reception in the US, but a letter was written in ironic seriousness to a Canadian newspaper, and was forwarded to the Waterman Co., who sent it to Am. Stat., July 12, 1919, p.15, although the issue was not who was in the poster, but rather who was handing the pen to whom.  But the Am. Stat. editors treated it lightly and as a curiosity and an object of ridicule.
    Just Fawncy!
      To The Editor, Montreal Daily Star:
      Sir:—Oh, I say, is there nothing to stop the indecent haste of the blooming Yankees?
      Just Fawncy.  Within an hour of the signing of peace, blow me, if there aren't bill board posters and painted pictures, and what is more, lithographs up and out showing the scene, and blawst my eyes, Uncle Sam handing John Bull a blooming Yankee pen, as if to say, “Sign here, old top”.
      Algernon Furgueson.
      The above item was sent to the L. E. Waterman Company by Robert L. Griffith, commercial stationer of Montreal, and applied to the Waterman Company’s peace posters, which “Algernon” had no doubt observed in Montreal.
        But the editors of Printers’ Ink, July 24, 1919, p.146, took the issue a little more seriously, since advertising was their stock in trade.  They printed another more perceptive Canadian letter.
    Keep Uncle Sam Out of Canadian Advertising,
      A Tip Direct From [the Canadas].
       By R. M. Rhodes
      The Waterman poster coup in connection with the Peace Conference, as described in the July 10th issue of Printers’ Ink, has attracted wide interest, and the writer has heard many expressions of admiration for the enterprise of the Waterman company in putting over such a “news beat”.
      Like nearly every other campaign of its nature, it has developed one important lesson for advertising men.  The writer happened to be calling on an advertising agency friend a few days ago, a man who had expressed great admiration for the Waterman campaign, and the agency man handed out a letter.
      “This”, he said, “is a letter to us from the live-wire manager of the Canadian branch of one of our clients.  This man is trying to help us to do more effective Canadian advertising for his house, and he makes a point of writing us whenever he sees any Canadian advertising of American firms which he thinks either particularly good, or particularly unfortunate, from a Dominion standpoint”.
      The letter is such an excellent lesson in Canadian advertising that permission was obtained to print it, not as in any sense a criticism of this particular poster campaign, but as another reminder to the advertising men of the United States as to what to look for in advertising to the folks up above us on the map.  The letter follows:
      “The Waterman Fountain Pen people are making a special advertising campaign to duly emphasize on the minds of everyone the fact that a Waterman’s Fountain Pen was used to sign the Peace Treaty.
      “The one advertisement which they are widely using in Canada is we presume the same advertisement that is being used in the States.  It is a picture of Uncle Sam standing in the middle of a group around the Conference table, around which are gathered the representatives of the other countries.  He is about to hand a Waterman's Fountain Pen to John Bull, with a request to sign.
      “These pictures are about 12 ft. long and about 6 ft. high and they seem to thoroughly cover all the billboards, at least in Montreal City and vicinity.  The picture is in colors and very striking and in itself, of course, is an impressive advertisement, but if you could realize the effect this advertisement has had on the disposition of the people here, you would be surprised.
      “The unfavorable comments heard at every hand regarding this advertisement are a very interesting study in themselves, particularly to an advertising man.  We should hardly be surprised if there was a demand made on the Waterman people that they discontinue and tear down these advertisements.  The objection to them is that the statesman in the centre group should certainly not be Uncle Sam.  If the Waterman people had for their Canadian advertisement put John Bull in the centre, handing the fountain pen to the other statesmen, they would have had the same effective advertisement in Canada that they probably have in the States with Uncle Sam in the centre of the group.
      “Now, a small point like this in the United States would never be noticed, but in Canada this is not a small point in the minds of the people.  It is a very important principle and one that is not ignored.
      “The advertisement as it stands doubly emphasizes the fact before the minds of everyone that the Waterman company is probably a straight American firm and not ‘living’ in Canada, but rather ‘trading’ here.
      “This advertisement has aroused so much antagonism and it is such a study of Canadian thought along this line that we feel it will certainly be interesting and possibly instructive to you.

        The ad line below the poster reads, “Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen signed the Treaty that Ended the War”.  In order to try to ensure this claim, Waterman’s gave every delegate a pen designed for the occasion, with “gold plates for engraving”.  They claimed that “many of these dignitaries agreed to use the pens that were given them”.  They even claimed to have received a cablegram from an unidentified source “verifying the fact that Lloyd George did [in fact] sign the peace document with a Waterman’s pen”, but not necessarily the presentation pen.  A “report” was to be prepared “giving the names of all who did so”, and “This information will be on file in the Company’s main office, in case there are skeptics”.  Uh, that would be me, since probably not 
a single Waterman’s pen was used to sign the treaty.  More likely, they were left as mint, unused souvenirs, kept in their original boxes and wrappings in safety deposit boxes in banks, the original limited edition.  Even more likely, the officials were not allowed to keep these unofficial presents, or gratuities, and the pens ended up in the archives of their respective countries.  And alas, the treaty was probably signed with penholders using the inkwells depicted in the painting.

George Kovalenko.