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Walt Whitman—Patriotic Poet, Gay Iconoclast, or Shrewd Marketing Ploy?

Walt Whitman was a distinctive and provocative poet of the 19th century. At the height of his fame, as he faced old age, Whitman became an advertising icon. He didn’t seek it out, and he wasn’t even consulted. He didn’t profit from in, either. And the products that were sold bearing his name or face had little to do with the poet himself. It started with cigars. Whitman didn’t smoke.  

During the Gilded Age, new industrial technology, particularly in chromolithography and tin-stamping, caused an explosion in product branding and advertising with colorful product labels, tin boxes, and tin signs. This new era of marketing meant familiar literary characters and beloved authors could be used to drum up excitement for an unknown products.

So when cigar maker Frank Hartmann bought the Spark Cigar Factory in Camden, New Jersey, in the late 1880s, the celebrated local bard was an obvious mascot. By 1890, his company introduced its Walt Whitman brand of cigars. But Hartmann wasn’t the only entrepreneur to have this idea: At least a few companies in the cigar manufacturing center of Binghamton, New York, started offering their own Walt Whitman cigars around the same time. The branding arrived as Whitman was facing his mortality and doubting whether Americans were truly touched by his life’s work. When Whitman disciple Horace Traubel presented the poet with an 1890 envelope advertising Walt Whitman cigars, he reported that Whitman exclaimed, “That is fame! … It is not so bad—not as bad as it might be: give the hat a little more height and it would not be such an offense.”

But that was just the beginning. Whitman’s name, image, and/or quotes were used to sell calendars, coffee, applesauce, gum, hotels, whiskey, and a slew of other products. Collectors Weekly talked to ephemera collector Ed Centeno about Whitman and his allure with advertisers, and looks at the life of the poet, too.

(Image: courtesy of  Ed Centeno)

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