How to become an “advertisement writer” – 100 years ago

In my possession I have a wonderful volume called The Woman’s Book: contains everything a woman ought to know” written by multiple authors and first published by TC and EC Jack in 1911. Incredibly, you can still buy copies – some in collectible condition – on Amazon UK, and as I write this there is even one available on Amazon USA for a mere USD $160!

The edition of book I have is from 1918 and was given to my grandmother in 1920 when she was a very young bride. She then passed it on to my mother in 1948. Sadly the book is no longer in good condition but is still readable. And its contents are fascinating.

Perhaps most interesting of all is the then-emergence of women in the workplace, and in the book’s chapter about “Literary and Secretarial Work” the profession of “Advertisement Writing” is listed as a front runner. Here are some excerpts from the text which I’m sure you’ll find as amusing as I did; pro copywriters, 2011, take note…

So what was the job market like for “advertisement writers” in 1918??

“The art of advertising has made great strides within recent years, and with this progress has come an increased demand for really good advertisement writers. It is not often that a woman turns her attention to advertisement writing as a means of income – a woman who can use her pen with any small measure of success has literary aspirations, as a rule. Well, she need not altogether give up these literary aspirations, but while she is hankering after the unattainable, the money to ‘keep the pot boiling’ is slow to come, and one must live.”

And why were women thought to be so suitable?

“The truth is being rapidly brought home to large advertisers that certain phrases of advertising are better dealt with by women. Many costumiers, milliners and drapers have their advertisements designed by women, because they have realised the fact that it requires a woman writer to bring out the best selling points in advertising all those things so dear to the heart of womankind in general…”

What the job required (nothing much has changed, either)

“Writing advertisements is not such an easy matter as one would imagine. It requires a peculiar knack of constructing forcible and sales-compelling phrases. It requires the faculty for concentrating upon the essence of an argument and giving only the details that tell. An advertisement writer should be adept at writing good headlines, and at the display and arrangement of type. She should have a thorough technical knowledge in addition to her literary aptitude and also understand the relative values of display and illustration, being able to adapt her copy to suit the class of readers to whom it is intended to appeal. “

What about remuneration?

“The salaries for those filling staff appointments vary from 30s (currently GBP £1.50 or USD $2.40) to GBP £4.00 or £5.00 (currently USD $6.50 or USD $8.00) a week, the first-named salary being essentially that of a beginner, £3.00 to £4.00 being the most usual figure for the tried and trusted worker.

And the principles of working as a freelance writer haven’t changed much, either

“A woman who wishes to take up advertisement writing as a career must possess some power of initiative from the very beginning. Take the “free lance,” for instance. Commissions from advertisers will not come to those who sit down quietly waiting for the “plums” to fall into their lap. An advertisement inserted into the “Want” columns of a suitable paper might sometimes be productive and result in perhaps one or two single commissions, but a living is not to be made by chance work of this kind.”

“When a lady is thoroughly well qualified as an advertisement writer, possessing a certificate or other similar proof of efficiency from the institution at which she pursued her studies, she should set about getting work by watching carefully the advertising of the large firms in her neighbourhood – not only their paper and magazine advertising, but also their booklets, catalogues, or other printed matter. She should study well the various kinds and degrees of their merchandise, and think out good ideas for a striking advertisement, a good booklet or other literary matter.”

“The ideas must, of course, be novel ones.”

“Then she should write to the firm in question enclosing her suggestions, and asking them for an appointment. She should do this in the case of several of the chief firms of her neighbourhood and if she receives only one or two replies from firms who wish to adopt her suggestions her trouble will be amply repaid.”

The bit I like best is how they regarded the work of the advertisement writer as “literary…” hardly the perception of ad copy these days unless you use the word literally!

What do you think? Have times changed as much as we imagine, or have they actually changed somewhat less than expected?

Please comment!

Now, for some superb, modern “advertisement writing:”

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand




  1. That’s a real treasure you’ve found! I particularly like: ‘Writing advertisements is not such an easy matter as one would imagine.’ and ‘Commissions from advertisers will not come to those who sit down quietly waiting for the “plums” to fall into their lap.’

  2. Thanks for sharing this Suzan.

    Enjoyed everything and I don’t know but this part ‘What about remuneration?’ made me reading it not twice but three times!

    Anyway, good write up and shared!

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