Would you buy a used car from William Shakespeare? How about mustard?

Would you buy a bicycle if William Shakespeare sold it to you? How about trading up to a Cadillac?

Over the years, advertisers have counted on the novelty of Shakespeare, and his memorable characters, to sell their products. The brochure on the right parallels the literary achievement of Shakespeare with the automotive achievement of the Cadillac Motor Car Company, while the brochure on the left assumes his approval of bicycles as a mode of transportation (unknowingly prefiguring the 1999 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which bicycles featured notably).

One turn-of-the-century salesman even expounded on the idea of “Shakespeare as a salesman and advertising man,” producing lectures and a pamphlet (reprinted in The Rotarian) on how Mark Antony’s funeral oration in Julius Caesar was a prime example of persuasive salesmanship.

Even if you have your doubts about Shakespeare himself as an ad man, it’s hard to deny the appeal of a good Shakespearean allusion. The advertising brochure shown below, produced by J. & J. Colman (known today as Colman’s), features A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘s Bottom and the fairy Mustardseed – “I desire more your acquaintance, good Master Mustardseed” – to promote Colman’s mustard.

Inside, the short brochure includes no further references to Shakespeare, but a variety of suggestions on the multitudinous uses of mustard: as a restorative for all sort of health problems, as a substitute for tile fixative and silver polish, to repair a leaking radiator or diffuse the headlights of a car, and more. Or, if the reader was interested in mustard’s more conventional uses, they could consume it in the form of devilled beef or a Welsh rarebit.

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Mustard Uses Mustered has another literary connection: It is part of the Mustard Club advertising campaign, designed by the mystery novelist Dorothy L. Sayers during her career as a copywriter with the S.H. Benson agency in the 1920s. Sayers later drew on her experiences in Murder Must Advertise, wherein her amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover at an ad agency; she slipped in a sly allusion to her work when Lord Peter discusses the campaign he is developing while undercover: “It’s a really big scheme. It’ll be the biggest advertising stunt since the Mustard Club.” (Despite Lord Peter’s tendency toward literary references, however, there are no quotations from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Murder Must Advertise.)

Interested in learning more? The Folger exhibition America’s Shakespeare, on display April 7-July 24, 2016, looks at the many ways Americans have made Shakespeare their own, including advertising.

Folger Finds delivers delightful and insightful moments with the Folger collection. 

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