The McCann Time Capsule: Our First Women Copywriters and Their Career Paths
In 1924, Printers’ Ink, the leading advertising-trade magazine at the time, published a survey examining the positions of the 617 women employees working in 47 New York ad agencies. The survey found that there were then 22 female copywriters in addition to women in other positions (e.g., 5 space buyers). McCann New York in the mid-1920s already had several female copywriters on staff who were considered prominent enough to be included in an employee photo book (see above photo, clockwise, starting top left, Dorothy Barstow, Marjorie Malsbary, Ruth Cornwall, and Joanna McDermott).
For most of the women copywriters the path to advertising seemed to start with journalism. But once they were hired, they then took on other responsibilities as well, including in account service and in key roles in the emerging field of radio.
- Dorothy Barstow had been a magazine writer who worked at the Federal Advertising Agency before joining The H. K. McCann Co. in March 1921. She was already prominent enough in the industry to merit a short piece in Printers’ Ink when she was hired, and when McCann internally announced her joining it was as part of the same item about a new male copywriter. The agency said, “They have both had wide experience in copy work and we count them as real added strength to our organization.”
In the 1920s, Barstow also doubled as an account executive on the Daggett & Ramsdell and Chesebrough (Vaseline brand) accounts. She also traveled extensively on client business in the mid-1920s—to the Chicago office “continuing the study of agency organization plans and the methods used in planning and handling campaigns,” and to the Cleveland office to work on The Cleveland Metal Products Company. Barstow, who became one of the agency’s (and the industry’s) leading radio producers of sponsored programs in the 1930s and 1940s (e.g., “Real Folks,” “Dr. Christian” and “Death Valley Days”), also married agency founder Harrison King McCann in 1939.
- Ruth Cornwall, who would be identified as the agency’s Director of Radio in a circa 1930 brochure about the medium, also came to McCann through journalism. After graduating from Vassar in 1916 and then working and traveling extensively overseas (e.g., Turkey, Egypt, China, India) she wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine on Turkey. A McCann VP, impressed when he read it, then offered her a copywriting job, and for five years she wrote magazine and newspaper ads in the New York office. She worked on the Borden account.
In 1928, Cornwall switched into the growing advertising agency area of sponsored radio programming, and she became a scriptwriter famous over the next two decades for writing an estimated 700-1,000 “Death Valley Days” radio scripts and then bringing the true west series to TV in 1952. The Pacific Coast Borax Co. client insisted that she spend her summers each year in California’s Death Valley traveling around, interviewing old prospectors, visiting saloons and the like in order to capture and tell true stories of the Old West. “Death Valley Days” introduced the western programming genre into radio.
- Joanna McDermott had a more unusual advertising career path at the time, one that included taking college courses and switching into creative from a totally different administrative department. She had first joined the agency in January 1918 as an assistant in what was called the Specification Department and moved up to head the Order Department’s Forwarding Division. In January 1923, it was announced that “Miss Joanna McDermott, late of the Order Department, has been made a member of the Copy Division. Miss McDermott progressed in two years from the position of ‘newest arrival’ in the Order Department to the post of Supervisor, and we predict her success in copy writing.”
As McDermott rose in her career, she also had taken advertising courses both at Columbia and NYU. As with Barstow and Cornwall, in addition to copywriting, she also joined an account team, in her case on Beech-Nut Packing Co. She also traveled, including to the Cleveland office, “to aid in the preparation of copy for the 1926 Perfection Stove advertising.” In January 1921, even before she had moved into copywriting, McDermott was elected to membership in the League of Advertising Women, the predecessor to Advertising Women of New York/ She Runs It. As our agency noted at the time, “The League is composed of women who have attained prominence in the field of advertising and election to its membership is considered a distinct honor.”
There were other female copywriters at the time. Marjorie Malsbary resigned in May 1925 and was succeeded by Mary Barstow, who left the company six months later. There were also women managers in other departments and they both succeeded men and were succeeded by them. In McCann San Francisco in 1920, A.J. Bruhn (later in the 1940s manager of the McCann Hollywood office) succeeded a woman as Space Buyer and Media Analyst; he had headed the Printing and Engraving Department, and was succeeded in that role by Carolyn Nelson.
But regardless of their professional status, women earned less money than men in ad agencies in that era. As noted by Stephen Fox in “The Mirror Markers,” his book on the history of advertising, the 1924 Printers’ Ink survey of women employees in New York agencies found that space buyers earned a top salary of $5,000, compared to $7,500 for men; and women copywriters earned salaries ranging from $2,300 to over $10,000, which was less than men.