A few years ago, I explored the idea of designing a dress inspired by vintage Yiddish ads. While the dress never panned out, I became captivated by ads in old American Jewish newspapers. As a child, my Saba (grandfather) read Yiddish and English newspapers over his immigrant father’s shoulder in their small apartment in Astoria, Queens. Reading through these ads (which are now all digitized) not only connects me with my grandfather’s past, but also provides a window into what my ancestors’ “newsfeeds” would have looked like a century ago.
Scrolling through Jewish ads became a hobby for me during these stay-at-home months — it has certainly been a nice change of pace from doomscrolling. With Passover approaching, here are my five favorite ads that American Jews would have seen around seder time 100 years ago.
This 1924 ad in a Chicago Jewish newspaper encourages folks to “prepare for Passover by seeing the recently released The Ten Commandments!”
Before seeing this ad, I had no idea that Cecil B. DeMille directed a silent version of The Ten Commandments 33 years prior to directing the epic version with Charlton Heston in 1956 that we all know today.
Fun fact: To make the splitting of the sea scene more realistic on screen in 1923, a chunk of Jell-O was sliced and filmed close up. This was then combined with footage of the Children of Israel walking through the split sea to create a better illusion of two walls of water. (Jell-O, curiously enough, was one of the early American products to be marketed to the Jewish community. Jell-O even produced a recipe pamphlet in Yiddish the very same year as this movie ad.)
You gotta love the formality of this ad from 1895. It begins by addressing its intended audience (even though it is printed in a Jewish newspaper): “The Jewish Public are respectfully informed that I shall, as heretofore, furnish MATZOTHS, Kosher Sausage, Beef, Tongues, etc. for the coming Passover…”
This ad, which is one of the earliest Passover ads, comes from a monthly publication by a Reform congregation in Charleston, North Carolina. This synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, is one of the oldest Jewish congregations in America. While Jewish communities in the 1800s were primarily Reform (this community in Charleston was one of the founding Reform synagogues), they took Passover foods very seriously.
Fun fact: Ads for Passover products in America were in full swing by the 1890s in contrast with ads for Hanukkah food products, which didn’t become more prominent until the 1920s and ‘30s.
Passover cooking is basically one long commercial for eggs, so it was amusing to see that eggs were actually advertised for Passover way back in 1916.
This ad in the Chicago Jewish newspaper The Sentinel stated, “On no other occasion is the selection of food products so important as on Pesach” before ensuring that Rose Brand Eggs are “Strictly Fresh” and can be found at all “Progressive Grocers.”
Fun fact: Eggs can help foods to rise. Chef and food writer Susan Barocas explains how before baking soda and baking powder were introduced, baking with eggs and egg whites was the main way to make food rise, which makes it no surprise that, when we can’t use yeast, eggs would be indispensable during Passover.
Apparently, Passover used to be a very fashionable holiday. There were hundreds of ads for Passover fashions, including this 1931 ad for women’s hats in a Minnesota Jewish newspaper which states, “Rough straws are Smartest for Passover.”
A 1931 dress ad in that same newspaper issue stated, “…when buying Passover clothes, put yourself in the hands of experts…Enjoy the smartest New York styles. Whether you are tall, short, or medium—youthful or matronly—we can fit you…” There was also an ad for high heeled shoes entitled “Smart footwear for Passover.”
Fun fact: Irving Berlin, the Jewish immigrant-turned-American-composer, wrote a famous song in 1933 called “The Easter Parade,” which also became a movie in 1948 starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. I discovered that there were actual Passover parades, similar to Easter parades, as early as the 1900s. The Hebrew Standard describes the 1906 Passover Parade in New York City, writing, “Grand Street was jammed and the ladies outvied each other in their dresses and display of diamonds.”
Given that this year’s seders will still look different than all others without the usual hubbub of guests, I found this ad particularly nostalgic. Even though travel has currently taken a bit of a hiatus, this ad reminds us of how Passover seders used to be big family reunions.
This 1936 ad in a Los Angeles newspaper explains how passengers can head to their Passover reunions and “Ride the All American Way.” This trip includes “FREE MEALS!” and the promise of a safe, sound, and spacious bus.
Fun fact: In The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture 1880-1950, Jenna Weissman Joselit describes how the Passover seder was one of the most popular events to be filmed for home movies, on par with first birthday parties.
All images in piece courtesy NLI Historical Jewish Press