The illustrated supplement of L’Écho de Paris from 24 May 1890 (read it here) has an advert on page 4 that tries to sell the idea of advertising on trains. Train companies knew that people might get annoyed by them or, even worse, ignore them. So they had to pretend these posters were not just there to sell you something and make money. They were making the world a better place.
The three images all illustrate the supposed benefits of publicity posters, but mainly teach us three valuable historical lessons: Franco-British rivalry was exploited as a marketing tool, advertisers have always been good at insulting people’s intelligence, and nineteenth-century children looked disturbing.
‘Excuse me, Madame’, asks the elderly person in the first image (look here for better quality), ‘does one have to pay a supplement to travel in coaches with publicity posters?’ The question is left unanswered and it seems everybody in the picture is still waiting for an answer. In the second drawing a man in a top hat sporting a monocle wonders whether his son/brother/boyfriend won’t be bored to death during his day-long journey. ‘Oh, not at all!,’ the other man replies, ‘since the Compagnie de Lyon has had this great idea of putting op posters in their coaches, reading them breaks the monotony of my trip, not to mention the useful information they provide.’ The third illustration shows a mother pointing out a poster to a creepy adult-looking child. ‘Thanks to publicity on the train, our children will learn how to read while travelling, making us more practical than our British neighbours.’
Did they really think people had never heard of books or schools? Knowing perhaps that these cartoons were a bit weak, the company resorted to the age-old tactic of invoking a shared enemy to get people on board. Colonial rivalry between France and Britain had reached new heights at the end of the nineteenth century so beating the British at anything was a bonus; even if it was just at being practical. Judging from the illustration the posters on this train would teach children the phrases ‘best chocolate’ and ‘wisdom teeth’. What country wouldn’t be jealous of that level of practicality?