Explaining the Origins of the Advertising Agency: Teaching Ideas and Exercises

Explaining the Origins of the Advertising Agency
By Tim P. Vos

Using Primary and Secondary Sources

Palmer ad for agencySecondary sources typically play a more significant role in historical and sociological institutionalist scholarship than in traditional journalism and media histories. That’s because scholars of one substantive area – such as journalism, advertising, or public relations – need to become acquainted with a vast array of institutions, including their practices, procedures, rules, norms, symbol systems, and cognitive scripts, that intersect with their substantive area (Skocpol, 1984). This is not to suggest, however, that primary sources are somehow less significant in institutionalist research than in other histories. In fact, the two often work together in fruitful ways. In Explaining the Origins of the Advertising Agency, we see several instances of an unexpected finding in a primary document that required significant follow-up in the secondary literature.

Many of the advertisements that Volney Palmer placed for his new ad business identified himself as V.B. Palmer, Esq. Esq., of course, was short for esquire, a designation used today to refer to lawyers. If Palmer was indeed a lawyer, that would suggest a set of institutionally-situated ways of thinking and acting. But what did Esq. mean in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s? Did it even have a fixed meaning? The secondary literature played no small role is trying to answer these very questions. As it happens, the meaning was ambiguous during this period. Esq. was becoming a designation for lawyer, but this was far from uniform. The secondary literature produced circumstantial evidence that seemed to fit with Palmer’s biography. For example, in a time in which nearly all lawyers got into the legal profession because their fathers were lawyers, Volney indeed came from a family of lawyers. So, with the secondary literature supporting the suggestion that Palmer might have been a lawyer, the search turned to finding confirmation. Bar association records did not include membership, so the confirmation would need to come from elsewhere. Eventually, the use of searchable databases turned up ads of Palmer offering legal services. The secondary literature indicated that anyone offering legal services in large cities during the 1840s would have been required to be a member of the bar.

The secondary literature, then, provided answers to a number of subsequent questions. Did lawyers use their legal training to work in business and industry? It turns out they did. And what sorts of things did lawyers do? Turns out they did fairly predictable things – negotiated contracts, executed agreements, facilitated exchanges of money and generally transacted business. The literature, in other words, began to provide clues to the practices, procedures, symbol systems, and cognitive scripts Palmer would have brought with him to his new venture. As the article explains, Palmer’s skills as a lawyer allowed him to create contracts for ad placements, a necessity when conducting business at a distance.

The first definitive history of Volney B. Palmer and his work in founding an advertising agency was completed in the 1970s by Donald Holland (1974, 1976). Since that time, the ubiquity of searchable databases and internet search engines has made many more primary sources accessible. In fact, a simple internet search turned up a link to an auction house for historical documents. It was here an important discovery occurred. V.B. Palmer’s signature appeared on a banknote for the Tidewater canal company. None of the histories of Palmer and his early advertising work mentioned his involvement in a canal company. The serendipity of that discovery led to various searches in secondary literature on the canal business and eventually to a variety of public and private records. Even in the internet age, the trail led to reels of microfilm on the Tidewater canal company and two other canal companies. As the article concludes, Palmer’s involvement in the canal business would be central to understanding the origins of Palmer’s first advertising agency. The agency was a means to get urban manufacturers to market their goods in the countryside, and thereby to collect tolls as goods were shipped to communities along the very canal routes that Palmer helped finance and build.

Palmer-Canal Note 2 1840Each discovery in the primary literature resulted in subsequent searches in the secondary literature. The secondary literature raised issues that required news searches in the primary literature. This iterative process is well-known to many media historians, but here, based on the assumptions of sociological institutionalism, the ultimate sites of investigation became the practices, procedures, rules, norms, symbol systems, and cognitive scripts of a number of institutions: the newspaper business, coal trade, canal business, real estate business, and legal profession. Take for example, Palmer’s early promotion of the advertising agency as a means for engaging in systematic advertising. A simple search on the term, systematic, pointed to an institutionally-located discourse, a discourse Palmer used in promoting his coal business, and that a new breed of businessmen used to promote a new way of doing business on an economy of scale (see, Vos & Li, 2013).


Palmer Coal Flyer July 1841Holland, D. R. (1974). Volney B. Palmer: The nation’s first advertising agency man. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 98(3), 353-381.

Holland, D. R. (1976). Volney B. Palmer (1799-1864): The nation’s first advertising agency man. Journalism Monographs, 44, 1-40.

Skocpol, T. (Ed.). (1984). Vision

and method in historical sociology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vos, T. P., & Li, Y. (2013). Justifying commercialization: Legitimating discourses and the rise of American advertising. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 90(3), 559-580. doi: 10.1177/1077699013493787

Exercise 1: What Did It Mean To Be an Agent?

Vos and others agree that Palmer was the first person who can rightly be called an advertising agent. But Palmer was also a real estate agent, coal agent, and agent for a variety of other endeavors. So, what did it mean to be an agent in the late 1830s and early 1840s?

Step 1: Based on this time period, identify other types of business or professional activities that involved a position referred to as an agent.

Step 2: What does the secondary literature say about the history of the role of agent in each of these business and professional settings in the late 1830s and early 1840s? What responsibilities and duties came with being an agent?

Step 3: Use searchable historical databases to identify persons who are labelled as agents during this time period. What did they appear to do? How are they described?

Step 4: Pick out a few names of those individuals and search

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their names in the database. What other things are these individuals involved in? What, if anything, does this suggest about the life and work

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of agents?

Based on this investigation, can you identify practices, procedures, rules, norms, symbol systems, and cognitive scripts that come with being an agent? What might this say about what it meant to be an advertising agent?

One thing you’ll discover from searching in these databases is that newspaper agent was a common position during this period. What does your investigation tell you about the history of newspaper agents? What were the similarities and differences between newspaper agents and advertising agents? What does this say about the business side of newspapers during this period?


Exercise 2: Looking for Logics of Historical Explanation

In Explaining the Origins of the Advertising Agency, Vos argues that the logic of historical explanation often goes unarticulated. Nevertheless, logics of explanation are discernible if we carefully engage in close readings of historical works. The article identifies three particular logics of explanation: institutional, structural, and ideational (while also identifying functionalist approaches that ultimately do not rise to the level of explanation). These logics are described briefly in the article and also described in depth in Craig Parsons’ (2007) book, How to map arguments in political science (Parsons also identifies a psychological logic of explanation). For this exercise, let’s use the penny press as an example.

Step 1: Based on the description offered by Vos and/or Parsons for an institutional logic, list all the plausible institutional factors that might explain the rise of the penny press in the 1830s. This of course will require that you do some reading in the secondary literature about the penny press; but just as importantly, you will need to know about the general history of the period. Once you start exploring the literature, you might, for example, get a sense of how the institutional growth of advertising would create an infrastructure for a business model that relied on advertising revenue rather than revenue from subscriptions or patronage.

Step 2: Based on the description offered by Vos and/or Parsons for a structural logic, list all the plausible structural factors that might explain the rise of the penny press in the 1830s. For example, how might urbanization have provided the necessary conditions for the penny press during this period? Or what sort of technological innovations might have played a role?

Step 3: Based on the description offered by Vos and/or Parsons for an ideational logic, list all the plausible ideational factors that might explain the rise of the penny press in the 1830s. For example, how were ideas about class and enfranchisement changing around this time and how might that have created a fertile environment for the penny press to thrive?

Step 4: Assess whether some factors are more plausible than others. Does the secondary literature support the plausibility of these various factors? If you identified the rise of literacy, for example, did the penny press take hold in areas of high or low literacy? Schudson (1978) argues that literacy expanded far more in rural New England than in the major urban areas where penny papers actually appeared. So, perhaps literacy did not play a significant role in explaining the penny press.

Step 5: If your brain storming turned up factors that you think are plausible, but have not really been discussed elsewhere, perhaps it is time to start looking for primary documents to see if any of these factors check out. In other words, you might have a research project on your hands.

An alternative approach to this exercise is simply to take one historical study and examine it closely for logics of explanation.

Step 1: Pick an article that has

appeared in American Journalism in recent years (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/uamj20/current#.Uol2VOIiSSp). Read it first to understand the author’s thesis.

Step 2: Identify statements that purport to offer an explanation for a particular historical outcome. Note that some articles are primarily descriptive, so explanation might be difficult to locate.

Step 3: Determine if the explanation is based on “elemental bits,” as Parsons puts it, or on a functionalist logic. If it’s a functionalist argument, how could it be reconfigured to make it institutional, structural, ideational, or psychological? What are the explanatory factors that are offered? Would you categorize them as institutional, structural, ideational, or psychological?

Step 4: Once the statements and factors have been identified, assess how they fit together as an argument. Is the logic of the argument consistent or thorough? What additional evidence might be necessary to round out the argument or to test the argument?

Step 5: What factors or logics of explanation are not mentioned? Could these factors be fruitfully explored to flesh out the arguments made in the article?

The point of the exercise is to help us think more explicitly about how logics of explanation enter into our historical thinking and scholarship. The exercise also demonstrates a couple of other things. First, it helps develop a research style that draws on both secondary and primary sources and creates a rhythm for using each kind of source to think about the other. Second, it helps root our research in the broader historical currents of the contemporaneous period. In other words, it helps make any history we write more contextual.


Parsons, C. (2007). How to map arguments in political science. New York: Oxford Press.

Schudson, M. (1978). Discovering the news: A social history of American newspapers. New York: Basic Books.