Commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg Through Consumer Spending

The following is a guest blog post by Jill Ogline Titus, author of Gettysburg 1963: Civil Rights, Cold War Politics, and Historical Memory in America’s Most Famous Small Town. In this fascinating work, Jill Ogline Titus uses centennial events in Gettysburg to examine the history of political, social, and community change in 1960s America. Examining the experiences of political leaders, civil rights activists, preservation-minded Civil War enthusiasts, and local residents, Titus shows how the era’s deep divisions thrust Gettysburg into the national spotlight and ensured that white and Black Americans would define the meaning of the battle, the address, and the war in dramatically different ways.

Over the past 158 years, Americans have commemorated the anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg through veterans’ reunions, monument dedications, cemetery visits, and special programming on the battlefield. Less visibly, but perhaps more expensively, they have also commemorated it through “patriotic” spending. As the US economy expanded in the post-World War II era, Americans were encouraged to see consumer spending as a patriotic duty. Purchasing consumer goods was presented as a contribution to national prosperity, an expression of good citizenship that helped provide for one’s neighbors (through strengthening job security) as well as one’s own family.  

As the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg unfolded in July 1963, local businesses seized the opportunity to market their goods and services to centennial visitors, as well as historically minded Americans following the anniversary events from home. Advertisements covered the costs of a special centennial edition of the local newspaper, the Gettysburg Times, featuring historic newspaper accounts of the battle, official proclamations from governors of states that contributed troops in 1863, and a crowd-sourced segment devoted to highlighting local residents’ Civil War ancestors. The 546 advertisements filling the issue provide a fascinating window into Gettysburg’s mid-century tourist economy and demonstrate the range of Civil War narratives in widespread circulation in the 1960s. On a deeper level, they also reveal the extent to which consumerism itself shaped efforts to draw meaning and lessons from the battle. By the mid-20th century, many Americans enthusiastically subscribed to the belief that history not only provided a window into modern national character, but that consumer goods were a means to “reclaiming” essential American values. As entrepreneurs, businesses, and corporations employed narratives of the battle for financial and public relations gain, they played a role in shaping contemporary public memory of the Civil War through strengthening the fusion of the reconciliationist interpretation of the conflict with Cold War calls for national unity.  

While some advertisements in the centennial edition were indistinguishable from those that might have run in any small town newspaper, the majority were clearly designed to appeal to a centennial audience. A sizable number of the advertisements were historically themed, but not specific to the Civil War; many, such as the ad for Bear’s Department Store, aimed to awaken a generalized nostalgia for the past and prompt visitors to associate products or services with old-fashioned small-town values of honesty, integrity, and quality craftsmanship. Peoples Drug Store drew on the Whiggish interpretation of history as constantly moving toward greater enlightenment to promise potential customers that “as America has progressed, so have we.” Likewise, Teeter Stone, Inc. employed an image of a rocket launch alongside text that thanked the “pioneers of yesteryear who sacrificed and suffered” to lay the foundations for 20th-century Americans to attain “unbelievable achievements in every field.”

Others, however, made specific connections to the battle and the broader history of the Civil War. Dengler Brothers Grocery informed readers that the two armies came to Gettysburg by chance, not choice, but promised, “you can choose – and eat hearty at bargain prices!” Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania capitalized on the fact that the flame crowning the Eternal Peace Light was fueled by natural gas, marshalling one of commemoration’s central themes – “Strength Though Unity” – to stress gas’s role in the American economy. Many advertisements employed both Union and Confederate flags and the phrase “we pay honor” to assure visitors of different regional and political loyalties that they were properly respectful of the valor of “both sides.” While many lionized the armies of 1863 for fighting for “a cause in which they believed,” none attempted to define that cause: testimony to the enduring power of white reconciliation in the popular mind. Gettysburg Glass Company’s advertisement went so far as to claim that the battle “brought unity to our country,” a sentiment that would have no doubt perplexed Civil War soldiers.

Taking a page from the playbook of the Civil War Centennial Commission, the official government body charged with supporting anniversary activities across the nation, many advertisers embraced the narrative that the Civil War laid the groundwork for the United States to grow into a global superpower capable of defending the “Free World” against Soviet tyranny. Given the extent to which free enterprise and technological superiority were championed as central components in the nation’s arsenal, as Robert Penn Warren warned in his 1961 meditation on the Civil War’s place in the American narrative, The Legacy of the Civil War, it clearly became easy to fall into thinking “of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car.”

Jill Ogline Titus is associate director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College.