Selling Dreams: Early Advertising in SG

Selling Dreams: Early Advertising in SG

Advertisements are fascinating cultural documents that both shape and reflect people’s desires and ideals. This exhibition features advertising material from the 1830s to 1960s in the National Library collection, and explores the hopes, dreams, aspirations and insecurities of society over the years.

Modelled after a department store, the exhibition highlights advertisements promoting a myriad of products, services and brands that once saturated Singapore’s busy consumer market. Through this colourful showcase of the National Library’s publications, magazines, newspapers and ephemera, you will gain a deeper understanding of advertising and its impact on society, while learning more about Singapore’s past.

Join us as we uncover the nation’s early years through advertisements from the National Library’s rich collection

National Library Buiding - 10.00am – 9.00pm - Free admission

Apart from promoting goods and services, advertisements often tug at our heartstrings by appealing to our hopes and fears, needs and wants, and ideals and aspirations – in other words, they sell us the notion that our dreams can come true.

This exhibition aims to uncover the desires and aspirations of people as revealed through Singapore’s early advertisements. Drawing from the National Library’s rich collection of print materials from the 1830s to 1960s, on display are ads from newspapers, magazines, periodicals, ephemera and other publications. The exhibition is modelled after a department store, where visitors can discover ads for various goods and services across 10 ‘departments’.

Happy ‘shopping’!


In Singapore, newspapers and printed publications were the most prevalent advertising media from the early 19th century to the 1960s. Published in various languages, printed media from this period contain extremely rich advertising materials.

Singapore has a rich advertising history. Advertising agents first appeared locally around the 1910s. The 1920s economic boom fostered a thriving advertising industry. Before World War II, there were already at least 20 advertising firms in Singapore and Malaya, some of which were full-fledged agencies, such as Warin Publicity Services founded by William Joseph Warin in 1932.


Throughout the 19th century, meat and produce consumed in Singapore were sourced locally and from around the region. However, in the early 20th century, food technology such as aerated water, preservatives, refrigeration and, in particular, tinned food became mainstream. By the turn of the century, residents in Singapore were able to procure meats, fruits, dairy, and vegetables from overseas that were previously unavailable locally. This explosion of new foods in the market meant that these new imported ingredients could now be incorporated into local dishes.

Advertising for food products became common, particularly in publications such as Her World, which catered to women, who were traditionally in charge of home cooking. Most of these ads sought to build brand trust by emphasising family-friendliness, economy, and health in an effort to position their products as household staples, to ensure an enduring consumer base.


With limited access to medical services, traditional medication, home remedies, and self- medication were common throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in Singapore. Until the 1950s, there was little to no advertising regulation, which allowed medical advertisers to make bold and, sometimes, outrageous claims about the efficacy of their products. Brands routinely promised quick fixes and cure-alls alongside public health warnings, playing on both the public’s desire for good health and fear of illness.

Besides curing illnesses, the medical industry promoted a healthy lifestyle as the way to stay healthy. There was no shortage of ads for supplements, tonics and tablets that promised to keep the body functioning healthily. Other promised benefits were youthfulness, fitness and vitality, with advertisers claiming that those who did not take advantage of supplements were missing out on a better life.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modern utilities and amenities such as gas, electricity and piped water revolutionised domestic life across the world. Singapore was no exception. Along with such modern amenities, a vast array of appliances appeared on the market, radically changing the way people cooked, cleaned and entertained themselves at home.

The introduction of electricity into the home created a consumer market for household goods and entertainment, resulting in a flood of new appliances from the United States, Europe and, later, Japan. These products started to become heavily advertised from the early 20th century.

Home appliances were often marketed as essential to the ‘modern home’. The ‘ideal household’ was an idea that existed long before home gadgets, but in early 20th-century advertising, it came to refer to a home fully equipped with modern conveniences and entertainment.


The first motorcar brought in to Singapore was a single-cylinder, 5-horsepower Benz. The Katz Brothers, a general goods importer, imported the car on behalf of a Mr B. Frost of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company in 1894. At the time, cars were considered the latest technology, but production was limited and prices were exorbitant, making them available to only the wealthiest members of society.

Cars would eventually enter the mainstream consumer market in the 1920s, after the introduction of assembly plants that were capable of mass-producing vehicles, significantly reducing manufacturing costs.

As a result of more affordable car prices, advertising for cars changed to reflect the idea that with smart financing, almost anyone with a middling income could potentially own a car. The dream of car ownership had become much closer to reality.


By the turn of the 20th century, Singapore was home to several luxury hotels of international renown such as Hotel de l’Europe, Adelphi Hotel and Raffles Hotel. They belonged to the league of grand hotels – luxurious accommodation with excellent cuisine and impeccable service – that started in Europe, America and other parts of the world in the late 19th century, catering to wealthy leisure travellers. Housed in magnificent buildings with modern amenities, these early premier hotels were also centres of social life for the who’s who in Singapore.


Innovations in technology and shifts in leisure trends at the turn of the 20th century ushered in a new era of entertainment in the West, which Singapore quickly embraced. The cinematograph, or films, arrived in Singapore shortly after its first screening in Paris in 1895. Movie theatres soon sprouted and advertisements of cinemas and movies proliferated in print media in the following decades.

Another innovation in entertainment in the early 20th century was the amusement park. Singapore’s three amusement parks, New World (1923), Great World (1932) and Happy World (1937, later Gay World), were highly popular leisure spaces where people from all social classes could enjoy a myriad of entertainment, from traditional theatre performances to boxing matches and cabarets.


Retail advertising in Singapore from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries was dominated by a few department stores such as John Little, Robinsons and Whiteaway Laidlaw. The department store was a mid-19th century innovation that came about as a result of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. It created a new retail culture in which shopping, once a mundane task, was elevated to a social and leisure activity. Department stores in Singapore and Malaya emerged around the same time, modelling themselves after their British counterparts. The ads of these stores often boasted of their endless array of merchandise, as well as their luxurious and modern amenities. They enticed consumers with material richness and a pleasurable shopping experience.


Before the early 20th century, Singapore’s various communities followed the dressing conventions of their cultures, which were an integral part of their identities. The 1910s witnessed major changes in the fashions of Europe, America and China. Singapore, being at the crossroads of East and West, showcased these fashion trends as reflected in local advertisements of the same period. The ads also revealed the unique phenomenon of the ‘colonial outfit’ – Western dress adapted in design and material for Europeans in tropical colonies. In the post-World War II era, parallel to Malaya’s independence and growing national identity, advertising and print media showed new style trends where indigenous costumes, in particular, the sarong kebaya, became in vogue and entered the hallowed halls of high fashion.

Click here to check the programmes

Posted in Updates | Posted on January 31, 2019