Hilaire Belloc

On advertisement

Harmonides of Ephesus says in one of his treatises upon method (I forget which, but I think the fifth) that a matter is very often more clearly presented by way of example than in the form of a direct statement and analysis. I have determined to follow the advice of this great though pagan authority in what you will now read or not read, according to your inclination.

As I was sitting one of these sunny mornings in my little Park, reading an article upon vivisection in the Tablet newspaper, a Domestic [Be seated, be seated, I pray you!] brought me a letter upon a Silver Salver [Be covered!].

Which reminds me, why do people say that silver is the only perfect spondee in the English language? Salver is a perfectly good spondee; so is North-Cape; so is great-coat; so is High-Mass; so is Wenchthorpe; so is forewarp, which is the rope you throw out from the stem to the little man in the boat who comes to moor you along the west gully in the Ramsgate Harbour; so is Longnose, the name of a buoy, and of a reef of rocks just north of the North Foreland; so are a great many other words. But I digress. I only put in these words to show you in case you had any dissolving doubts remaining upon the matter, that the kind of stuff you read is very often all nonsense, and that you must not take things for granted merely because they are printed. I have watched you doing it from time to time, and have been torn between pity and anger. But all that is neither here nor there. This habit of parenthesis is the ruin of good prose. As I was saying, example clearly put down without comment is very often more powerful than analysis for the purpose of conviction.

The Domestic brought me a letter upon a Silver Salver. I took it and carefully examined the outside.

They err who will maintain through thick and thin upon a mere theory and without any true experience of the world, that it matters not what the outside of a letter may be so long as the contents provoke terror or amusement. The outside of a letter should appeal to one. When one gets a letter with a halfpenny stamp and with the flap of the letter stuck inside, and with the address on the outside typewritten, one is very apt to throw it away. I believe that there is no recorded case of such a letter containing a cheque, a summons, or an invitation to eat good food, and as for demand notes, what are they? Then again those long envelopes which come with the notice, “Paid in bulk,” outside instead of a stamp—no man can be moved by them. They are very nearly always advertisements of cheap wine.

Do not misunderstand me: cheap wine is by no means to be despised. There are some sorts of wine the less you pay for them the better they are—within reason; and if a Gentleman has bought up a bankrupt stock of wine from a fellow to whom he has been lending money, why on earth should he not sell it again at a reasonable profit, yet quite cheap? It seems to be pure benefit to the world. But I perceive that all this is leading me from my subject.

I took up the letter, I say, and carefully examined the outside. It was written in the hand of an educated man. It was almost illegible, and had all the appearance of what an honest citizen of some culture might write to one hurriedly about some personal matter. I noticed that it had come from the eastern central district, but when you consider what an enormous number of people live there during the day, that did not prejudice me against it.

Now, when I opened this letter, I found it written a little more carefully, but still, written, not printed, or typewritten, or manifolded, or lithographed, or anything else of that kind. It was written.

The art of writing … but Patience! Patience!…

It was written. It was very cordial, and it appealed directly, only the style was otiose, but in matters of the first importance style is a hindrance.

Telephone No. 666.
The Mercury, 15th Nishan 5567.

Dear Sir,

_—Many people wonder, especially in your profession,
[what is It?] why a certain Taedium Vitae seizes them towards five o’clock in the afternoon. The stress and hurry of modern life have forced so many of Us to draw upon Our nervous energy that We imagine that [Look at that ‘that’! The whole Elizabethan tradition chucked away!] we are exceeding our powers, and when this depression comes over Us, we think it necessary to take a rest, and Let up from working. This is an erroneous supposition. What it means is that Our body has received insufficient nutriment during the last twenty-four hours, and that Nature is craving for more sustenance.

We shall be very happy to offer you, through the medium of this paper, a special offer of our Essence of The Ox. This offer will only remain open until Derby Day, during which period a box of our Essence of The Ox will be sent to you Free, if you will enclose the following form, and send it to Us in the stamped envelope, which accompanies this letter.

Very faithfully yours,


It seemed to me a most extraordinary thing. I had never written for Ullmo and his Mercury, and I could do them no good in the world, either here or in Johannesburg. I was never likely to write for him at all. He is not very pleasant; He is by no means rich; He is ill-informed. He has no character at all, apart from rather unsuccessful money-grubbing, and from a habit of defending with some virulence, but with no capacity, his fellow money-grubbers throughout the world. However, I thought no more about it, and went on reading about “Vivisection.”

Two days later I got a letter upon thick paper, so grained as to imitate oak, and having at the top a coat-of-arms of the most complicated kind. This coat-of-arms had a little lamb on it, suspended by a girdle, as though it were being slung on board ship; there were also three little sheaves of wheat, a sword, three panthers, some gules, and a mullet. Above it was a helmet, and there were two supporters: one was a man with a club, and the other was another man without a club, both naked. Underneath was the motto, “Tout à Toi.” This second letter was very short.

Dear Sir,

—Can you tell me why you have not answered Our letter re the Essence of the Ox? Derby Day is approaching, and the remaining time is very short. We made the offer specially to you, and we had at least expected the courtesy of an acknowledgment. You will understand that the business of a great newspaper leaves but little time for private charity, but we are willing to let the offer remain open for three days longer, after which date—

How easy it would be to criticise this English! To continue:

—after which date the price will inevitably be raised to One Shilling.

—We remain, etc.

I had this letter framed with the other, and I waited to see what would happen, keeping back from the bank for fear of frightening the fish, and hardly breathing.

What happened was, after four or five days, a very sad letter which said that Ullmo expected better things from me, but that He knew what the stress of modern life was, and how often correspondence fell into arrears. He sent me a smaller specimen box of the Essence of The Ox. I have it still.

And there it is. There is no moral; there is no conclusion or application. The world is not quite infinite—but it is astonishingly full. All sorts of things happen in it. There are all sorts of different men and different ways of action, and different goals to which life may be directed. Why, in a little wood near home, not a hundred yards long, there will soon burst, in the spring (I wish I were there!), hundreds of thousands of leaves, and no one leaf exactly like another. At least, so the parish priest used to say, and though I have never had the leisure to put the thing to the proof, I am willing to believe that he was right, for he spoke with authority.


MLA Citation

Belloc, Hilaire. “On advertisement.” 1907. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 29 Oct 2008. 01 Oct 2023 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/belloc/advertisement/>.

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