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History in Advertising

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Please note that some of the historical documents included in these lessons depict African Americans and women in a demeaning and negative way; indeed, the nature of those depictions is the focus for much of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.

These lessons use an approach developed by the Stanford History Education Group. (See an intro to the model in this post on HSP’s Educators Blog.) They generally consist of the following steps:

  • 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.


20th century

African American


Big Ideas

US History


Historical Concepts (from the Historical Thinking Project)

1. Continuity and Change

  • History is a complex mix of continuity and change, progress and decline. Understanding this concept helps students avoid thinking of history as a mere list of events.

2. Historical Perspectives

  • “The past is a foreign country,” filled with diverse perspectives. Understanding this concept helps students comprehend the wide range of human behaviors and beliefs.

3. Primary Source Evidence

  • Primary documents must be read as evidence, not at face value. Understanding this concept helps students learn to use primary sources as evidence in constructing a historical argument.

Media Literacy Concepts (see the Center for Media Literacy for more information)

1. Purpose & Audience

  • Advertisements are typically created for the purpose of selling a product. Understanding this concept helps students to identify specific techniques used in advertisements for the purpose of reaching a targeted audience.

2. Perspectives & Values

  • Advertisements convey distinct perspectives and values. Understanding this concept helps students to see that advertisements do not stand apart from the culture in which they were created.


Historical Thinking Skills (from the Stanford History Education Group)


  • Students will learn to analyze the impacts of authorship, purpose, form, and audience on the interpretation of a source.


  • Students will learn to situate documents in context, understanding the impact of circumstances on content.

Close Reading

  • Students will learn to analyze author’s claims, evidence, and language.

Background Material for Teacher

End of Unit Assessment

Because the lessons in this unit are guided by central historical questions, a natural assessment entails asking students to answer those questions. These answers could be formal or informal, and could take the form of an essay or a class discussion.

After students have completed the lessons on images of African Americans and on images of women, they might respond to some larger questions about advertising: What can advertisements tell us about the historical moment in which they were created? Are advertisements mirrors of the culture that produce them, illustrations of an “ideal” world, or advocates for change?

As an extension, students might prepare a brief presentation to share their findings on these historical documents. Students could also conduct a small research project into contemporary advertising, finding images of African Americans and women in ads today and deconstructing the messages they send about society’s perception of their roles and comparing the purposes across time.


Plans in this Unit

What Ads Tell Us

African Americans in American Advertising

Women in American Advertising

Grade Level

High School


PA Core Standards

CC 8.5.9-10.A

CC 8.5.11-12.A

CC 8.5.9-10.I

CC 8.5.11-12.I

About the Author

Jessica Tyson is a high school history teacher from Oakland, California, on sabbatical in Philadelphia.


Blog Post

The Craft of Teaching with Primary Documents: It's All About the Question

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