Advertising and Graphic Design, 1916-1919

In the summer of 1915, Purcell wrote a letter to Charles O. Alexander, an industrialist he had met through his wife’s family and director of sales at the Alexander Brothers Leather and Belting Company in Philadelphia. In his letter, Purcell said he wanted to meet with Alexander about what he hoped would “develop in the future into something of mutual interest.”[1],[2]

As Purcell and Elmslie renovated the Alexander Brothers executive offices in 1916, Purcell gradually assumed the duties of advertising manager there, a role he officially held from 1917-1919. During this time, he developed Charles Alexander’s existing advertising campaigns, taking them to new levels of inventiveness, and gradually took on more and more of the company’s design duties, including designing letterhead, direct mail pieces, brochures, a new company trademark, and also (with Elmslie), factory buildings for the company’s next incarnation: the International Leather Belting Corporation.

In 1919, on the heels of a nationwide economic slump and the company’s too-rapid expansion into new markets, the Alexander Brothers Company faltered, and Purcell’s employment there abruptly ended on August 31. However, the advertising work he completed shows his characteristic energy, exhaustive attention to detail, commitment to modernism, and ability to inspire a team of talented artists and collaborators, including graphic artists John Norton, Charles S. Chapman, and Charles Livingston Bull. They, with Baltimore printer Norman T.A. Munder’s high-quality craftsmanship, made the Alexander company’s image and advertising into artwork that was ahead of its time.

Leather belting was widely used in the 19th century to transmit power to industrial machinery. The Alexander Brothers company began producing belting in 1867, and Charles Alexander (the founder’s grandson) implemented its first comprehensive sales plan in 1910. This involved printing circulars and letters “on a double sheet of high-grade, deckle-edge paper with plenty of red ink spread around on them” and copy that focused on the quality of the product. Sales were targeted to dealers in industrial products – the company did not sell directly to factories.[3]

Purcell followed this model. Each year’s advertising included monthly folders or fliers, small calendars for promotional giveaways, and weekly circulars mailed on behalf of the dealers. Letters in the archive show Purcell’s significant contributions to the 1916 and 1917 advertising campaigns (though they partially predate his official affiliation with the company’s advertising department) and his enthusiastic ownership of the materials produced for 1918 and 1919.

Examples from this collection include advertisements, brochures, calendars and company Stationery for the Alexander Brothers Leather and Belting Company, its subsidiary the Charlotte Leather Belting Company, and its offshoot, the International Leather & Belting Corporation.

[1] Mark Hammons, “Purcell and Elmslie, Architects” in Minnesota 1900: Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi, 1890-1915, ed. Michael Conforti (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994), 269.

[2] William Purcell to Charles O. Alexander, 12 August 1915.

[3] Charles Alexander, Why We Sell More at Higher Prices (Baltimore, Norman T.A. Munder, 1919).

This exhibit presented by the Northwest Architectural Archives.

Advertising and Graphic Design, 1916-1919