In a time when the Saturday Evening Post was one of the most widely circulated magazines in America, and the Don Drapers of the world controlled Madison Ave. advertising firms, Caterpillar drove a decades-long campaign to promote infrastructure and yellow iron to the American public.
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 giant 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 and bid on eBay auctions.
“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 the month of September, a series of more than 100 pieces of Johnson’s collection will be exhibited at the Peoria Public Library. The series will cover ads from 1946-1959.