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From Advertisement to Fine Art

Written by Avant Print & Frame

November 30, 2021

Cadwallader Washburn Kelsey transformed marketing with the introduction of the filmed automobile commercial. The firm of Calkins & Holden set the bar high with development of automotive advertisement that crossed into the realm of fine art. 

In the closing years of the 19th century when the Duryea Motor Wagon was given top billing at Barnum & Bailey Circus over the albino and bearded lady, the contrivance was viewed in the context of curiosity. Montgomery Ward said that it was a fad children saw before it passed. 

By the dawn of the new century people were viewing the automobile in an entirely different context. In 1901 there were more than fifty automobile manufacturers in the United States, and they were having trouble meeting the ever-increasing demand.

The automobile may have given a glimpse of the future. But marketing materials for the four wheeled wonder reflected a confusion about what the automobile was, what it could be used for, and why someone would buy a car instead of a team and wagon. And promotional materials were firmly rooted in the 19th century. 

They were often wordy with few illustrations. An advertisement for the 1901 Porter Stanhope featured one small artist rendering of the car followed by almost 2,000 words of text. And numerous companies felt that the simple novelty of the automobile was more than enough to spur sales. 

But Ernest Elmo Calkins, owner of a small advertising agency, was a visionary with very big ideas. In 1903, after more than a year of extensive study and research, began applying artistic standards and text carefully crafted to illicit a positive response for clients. 

His company was reorganized as Calkins & Holden 1908. The following year it became the first advertising agency to work exclusively for automobile companies. That was also the year that the company accepted Pierce Arrow as a client. 

Calkins & Holden didn’t break the rules for automobile marketing. They wrote the rule book, set unprecedented standards, and in the process helped transform Pierce Arrow into America’s leading manufacturer of luxury automobiles. 

To convey the sense of luxury envisioned by Pierce Arrow, Calkins & Holden hired some of the world’s finest illustrators, many of whom were internationally acclaimed artists. Counted among these talents were Edward Borein and Ludwig Hohlwien. 

Borein painted western life scenes and was often compared to Frederic Remington. Hohlwien was a German poster painter of renown. Other artists retained to create promotional pieces included Newell Convers Wyeth, an illustrator of books by Robert Louis Stevenson, and John E. Sheridan noted for his colorful and detailed covers for Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and Ladies Home Journal. 

Retaining services of this level of talent was no easy task. Creation of illustrated advertising pieces was viewed as demeaning, work worthy of a snake oil salesman. And automobile advertisement was deemed the crassest of all. 

Calkins & Holden accomplished this minor miracle with the assistance of Pierce Arrow. The automobile manufacturer treated illustrators associated with the ad agency as royalty. The company would often send a new car with chauffer to the agency and pick up illustrators for a weekend at a resort in New England, a trip to New York City, or to an exclusive gallery showing in Detroit or Chicago. 

The Pierce Arrow was a car with snob appeal. During the teens it even outsold Rolls Royce in British commonwealth countries. Its lowest price models sold for more than ten times the price of a new Ford, and several times more than the most luxurious Cadillac. Promotional materials produced by Calkins & Holden reflected this rarified world of the super-rich and royalty. 

Some of the promotional posters had little or no text except for “Pierce Arrow – Buffalo, New York” in script. Illustrations showing the company’s cars in exotic or recognizable luxurious locations dominated. 

Long before the last Pierce Arrow rolled from the factory, the posters created by Calkins & Holden were being collected as fine art. Today they are prized by auto enthusiasts as well as collectors of early 20th century art. 

If you are fortunate enough to find one of these Pierce Arrow posters, give it the fine art touch it deserves. Contact Avant Print and Frame in Kingman, Arizona for a frame that accentuates Pierce Arrow luxury for your home or office. 

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