Calendars have been a part of human history for centuries, and their use has evolved from tracking time and seasons, to becoming both a decorative item, and a tool for advertising.
Societies utilized various systems to track time and to plan before settling on the current seven-day week, 12 month system. The Gregorian calendar, used in the United States and by most of the world, was introduced in the 16th century and became the standard.
Early calendars have their origins not just as tools of timekeeping, but also to track seasons and other environmental changes in order to ensure healthy harvests.
However, in many ways, early calendars look nothing like the calendars we use today.
Early calendars were not designed to only be used for one particular year and then discarded. Instead, they were used more as a reference material, to work out what day a date would be in the future.
Disposable, yearly calendars became widely available with the industrial revolution and the introduction of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg, making their printing cheap and available to the masses.
Alongside their practical use, calendars then developed into a decorative item.
Art calendars became widely popular in the second half of the 19th century. These calendars were on cardboard, with a print of a painting, drawing or photograph taking up much of the board. Advertisements were often printed around the image, with a small calendar glued beneath the image.
Companies began offering their complimentary calendars as a way to promote their business. They were used as a way of advertising which unlike advertisements in newspapers or magazines were less likely to be discarded right away. Free calendars became a staple promotional item for businesses, as they could potentially hang in homes or businesses for an entire year, advertising for the year.
While today we may be used to wall calendars being flipped over every month to reveal new images, these calendars only had one image its entire year. The more attractive the calendar, the more likely consumers would be to display it on their walls, giving companies an incentive to create colorful and vibrant illustrations for their calendars.
In the local area, all kinds of businesses used promotional calendars; department stores, florists, banks, even funeral homes.
While most display picturesque scenes, during World War II, many companies, such as Belk and the Bank of Elkin, opted for patriotic art on their calendars, featuring American flags and scenes of victory.
Calendars without illustrations were also being produced during this time. One popular calendar, still in production today, is the Ramon’s Brownie Calendar, or ‘Brownie’ calendars. The first of these calendars was printed in the 1880s by Brown Manufacturing Company in Tennessee, originally as a way to market their pharmaceuticals. Even after the company was bought out and their medication manufacturing was being phased out, the calendars were still in demand.
Like many other calendars in the early 20th century, Brownie calendars featured weather predictions for the entire year, as well as phases of the moon.
These calendars were popular throughout the country and were being sold in Mount Airy as early as the 1930s. They are a staple product of Tilly’s Grocery in Cana, Virginia, where the calendar has been sold for decades.
Calendars have come a long way from their early origins. They have even come a long way from the calendars of 20th century advertising calendars Mount Airy and Surry County. Despite many making the move from paper calendars to electronic, calendars continue to be used in the day-to-day lives of everyone.
Katherine “Kat” Jackson is an employee at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Originally from Australia she now lives in King and can be reached at the museum at 336-786-4478.
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