Throughout the 20th century, in rich illustrations, photography and words, the Peoria, Ill.-based manufacturer built up its brand name by showing how its machines were taking part in America’s infrastructure development.
The ads “tell not just the history of Caterpillar but the history of the industrialization of the country during the 20th century,” explains Mark Johnson, a 37-year veteran Caterpillar employee, who has amassed a collection of more than 540 vintage Caterpillar ads.
One such ad shows a boy playing with model construction machines while adult operators manning real-life tractors and scrapers are visible in the background building a highway. The tagline reads: “It doesn’t take long to grow up.”
Johnson’s collection began in 1996 as a hobby that grew as he visited antique stores with his wife and bid on eBay auctions over the Internet.
“The highest I ever paid for an ad was $35, and I could buy these without my wife getting too upset,” says the 62-year-old retired mechanical engineer, adding, “There’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding.”
As such, Johnson’s collection sticks to Caterpillar ads placed in major consumer publications, though he has kept a few from business journals. One such ad, from the November 11, 1937, edition of ENR, details the benefits of diesel engines, which were still relatively new at the time. In all, the trove of ephemera begins in 1915 and ends in 1980.
“You’ve got a period of history in our country from when it was basically a horse-driven, rural, agricultural economy up through when we put a man on the moon,” Johnson says.
During September, Johnson will exhibit a series of more than 100 pieces of his collection at the Peoria Public Library. The series this year will cover ads from 1946 to 1959.
“This will be the third of four years displaying his collection,” says Trisha Noack, the library’s spokeswoman. “This is the world headquarters of Caterpillar, so you have many people here interested in Cat,” she explains. Other visitors may be curious to see the ads for their fine-art value, as well.
“You’re seeing the history of the community but also how the art styles changed,” Noack adds. The period on display this year will detail how Caterpillar took part in the construction of the Interstate Highway System.
Not all these ads may seem politically correct today—such as those showing dead bodies on the side of the road, Johnson notes.
“Many of these ads were focused on trying to convey the message to folks that they needed to support the federal and state governments spending money to improve the safety of the transportation system,” Johnson says. “It was basically a sort of public relations.”
Next year’s exhibit will show samples from the collection's later years spanning 1959-1980. Open the slideshow to see a selection of representative Caterpillar ads through the decades.