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Pioneers of Promotion: How Press Agents for Buffalo Bill, P.T. Barnum, and the World’s Columbian Expedition Created Modern Marketing, by Joe Dobrow, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2018, $32.95

When American settlers began migrating to the Western frontier, some saw it as an untapped cornucopia of resources and possibilities, while a few enterprising individuals saw it as a blank slate on which to create a whole new mythology.

In Pioneers of Promotion Joe Dobrow shifts the spotlight away from the usual Western legend makers, such as William F. Cody and Ned Buntline, and sheds new light on the geniuses behind the stars. One case in point was John M. Burke, an Irishman whose gift of gab—and pen—brought Cody to the stage in 1872 alongside fellow scout Texas Jack Omohundro and Buntline. All three, for all their other talents, displayed none as actors, even when portraying themselves onstage, though the gunplay and their hyped-up celebrity made their abysmal delivery irrelevant. From there it was Burke, forsaking his own adventures to promote Cody, who masterminded what became Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, becoming the international ambassador sans portfolio for the frontier image.

Similarly, P.T. Barnum, circus master of the “Greatest Show on Earth,” claimed he owed more of his success to Francis “Tody” Hamilton than any other man. As Barnum’s advertising and press agent, Hamilton thought of his primary mission as “to see what the bloom of the show’s reputation was not disturbed by the rude hand of criticism.” While Barnum preferred statistics to words in his self-promotion, Hamilton got farther with words. “To state a fact in ordinary language,” he declared, “is to permit a doubt concerning the statement.” His remedy, much to Barnum’s benefit, was to deluge the reader with superlatives, reputedly memorizing more adjectives than any man on earth and inventing 10 percent of them.

Another unsung hero of promotion was reporter and journalist Moses P. Handy, whose involvement in such gatherings as the 1876 Centennial Exhibition and the 1887 Constitutional Centennial climaxed with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The latter was touted as the greatest show on earth of its day, but with its celebration of the Gilded Age’s latest inventions, it coexisted with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, playing nearby, and Barnum and James Bailey’s circus, though Barnum died before the spectacle had run its course. In the process the West’s image had been established, disseminated worldwide and marketed for all it was worth.

The author describes in well-researched detail lives as swashbuckling in their own milieus as those of the men they promoted. Dubrow finds irony in the scant treatment his protagonists receive even today on the Internet, a medium for which their activities laid considerable groundwork.

—Jon Guttman