How (and why) did images of African Americans and of women in advertising change during the 1900s? The lesson plans in this unit draw on the rich Balch Institute Ethnic Images in Advertising collection to ask students to consider what ads from the past can tell us about the changing roles and perceptions of African Americans and women in American society.
In this unit, students will answer central historical questions using primary sources from the Balch collection. The unit begins with a lesson introducing students to the techniques and goals of advertising. The second lesson asks students to consider images of African Americans in historical ads, and the third lesson focuses on images of women in historical ads.
Analyzing visual images in a history class is exciting for teachers and students because visuals tend to be particularly engaging for students. Visual analysis can also be rigorous and demanding, because deconstructing an image, rather than simply responding to it, asks students to exercise the same analytical skills necessary for understanding a written document.
The goal of these lessons is not just to demonstrate that images of African Americans changed from demeaning stereotypes intended for a white audience to an expanded range of roles intended for a black audience or even a racially mixed audience, or to show that images of women changed in a similar way. An additional objective is to help students understand that we can use artifacts of culture (such as advertising) as evidence in constructing an analysis of that culture, whether it be historical or contemporary. Students who learn to analyze historical ads will be able to apply the same tools of analysis to the advertising that surrounds them today.
Please note that some of the historical documents included in these lessons depict African Americans and women in a demeaning and negative way; indeed, the nature of those depictions is the focus for much of this unit. For this reason, these lessons will be most successful in a context where students have practice addressing sensitive topics with respect and in a spirit of academic inquiry.
Building background knowledge
Posing a historical question
Analyzing primary sources
Answering the question in discussion or in writing, using the primary sources as evidence
Any history teacher can craft his or her own lessons using these steps and drawing on the Historical Society’s tremendous digital resources to find primary sources. These model lessons are intended to serve as templates.