Mapping Consumers in the Black South African Press

Mapping Consumers in the Black South African Press is a digital map of testimonial advertisements in two South African newspapers of the 1930s. This project offers new ways of understanding consumer culture and advertising in South Africa.

The 1930s were an important period in the history of South African newspaper, advertising, and consumer culture. This was the period when white-owned consumer products companies began sustained advertising campaigns in newspapers for black South African readers. Scholarship about newspapers and advertising in South Africa has focused on advertising campaigns rather than consumers themselves. Testimonial advertisements in these papers offer a window onto who the consumers of these products were, how they imagined themselves as consumers, and how advertisers wanted to represent the ideal, “modern” African consumer.

The main feature of the site is the map, which displays each testimonial advertisement as a pin. Pop-ups for each pin list the testimonial-writer’s name, address, gender (if evident) the product they advertised, and a short excerpt from the text of their advertisement. While the original proposal for the project was to geo-rectify a contemporary map of 1930s South Africa, this goal was not accomplished. Instead, the map uses mapbox.dark tiles. Mapping Consumers also has contextual documentation to help visitors understand and use the site. An “About” page in the top navigation bar has information about the project specifications, examples and images of typical testimonials, information about the maker, and links to download the geoJSON files on which the map is built. A sidebar lists all the pins by the testimonial-writer’s name, and a search bar allows users to search for names of writers.

The project shows two significant things about black consumer culture in segregation-era South Africa. First, by visualizing the geographic location of consumers, many of whom lived in rural areas, the map suggests that urbanity and modernity were not synonymous in South African history. By centering individual testimonial writers as the point of entry for users of the map, Mapping Consumers also encourages historians to think of newspaper readers as active participants in twentieth-century South African history, not only passive consumers of advertising. Second, because Mapping Consumers draws on data from two different newspapers, it allows a comparison of their circulation and readerships. These two papers are not easily accessible (one exists only on microfilm), and so this map provides a new comparative perspective.

Katie Carline

2017-2018 CHI Grad Fellow Cohort

PhD Candidate, Department of History