“It’s 1878 in Brooklyn, New York and my Great, Great Grandfather O.J. Gude, starts an outdoor advertising company with $100 in capital and goes on to pioneer the first use of the electric bulb in a billboard sign in May, 1892. Soon The Great White Way will be born and O.J. will embark on his own rags-to-riches story.”
Seen through the lens of advertising and technology the birth of exceler8 has come about as a result of some interesting twists and turns. As far as this story goes its beginnings lie in a tradition very familiar to our young nation. A young man, a tailor by trade, makes his way to our shores from a far away place and settles in the new world. This young man is from Hanover Germany and he comes as many do to the shores of New York. Here he marries a young woman who gives him a fine family of sons and daughters, one of which they give the name Oscar. Still a boy, Oscar looses his father and continues life with his mother, brothers and sisters. He becomes a man and goes out on his own in search of his dreams. He pours his sweat and ingenuity into many things but the first proposition to take hold is with distributing advertising circulars in New York City for a washing powder.
The year is now 1878 and the place is Brooklyn, New York. My Great, Great Grandfather O.J. Gude, starts an outdoor advertising company with $100 in capital (The O.J. Gude Company) and goes on to pioneer the first use of the electric bulb in a billboard sign in May, 1892 just thirteen years after Thomas Edison invents the first light bulb. The sign hangs on the side of the Cumberland Hotel where Twenty-Third, Broadway and 5th Avenue cross paths. The sign was 50 by 80 feet and used 1,457 lights that flashed its story MANHATTAN BEACH – SWEPT BY OCEAN BREEZES.
A great marketer, H. J. Heinz, is staying in a hotel across the street and notices the sign. He knows immediately that he has to use the new sign technology for his company. He contacts O.J. the next day and soon an electric sign with a huge green Heinz pickle dominates the same spot. O.J.’s business is off and running. Later the hotel would yield way to the Flatiron building where many more O.J. Gude installations would appear.
But Times Square is where O.J. really makes his name. O.J. Gude becomes known as the “Sign King of Times Square” and the “Napoleon of Publicity” and his electric “Spectaculars,” the name still used today for the mammoth signs on Times Square, quickly became prolific and so associated with the bright light that bathes Broadway that O.J. is credited with coining the term and helping to create the ‘The Great White Way.’
By 1919 O.J. Gude’s name adorns over 10,000 billboards across the U.S. but he is remembered most for his early work with electric advertising signs. One of his most famous signs was the Wrigley’s gum spectacular placed on Broadway. “In 1917, when Gude put up a two-hundred-foot-long spectacular, on the west side of Broadway between Forty-third and Forty-fourth, featuring twelve gleaming “spearmen” who went through spasmodic calisthenics, it was as big an event in American pop culture, in its way, as the opening of “The Jazz Singer,” ten years later,” according to an article in The New Yorker.
“Gude was the Botticelli of Broadway.” according to an article in Newsday. “In 1917, he created what many consider his masterpiece: a Wrigley’s Spearmint gum sign eight stories high and 200 feet long. Using 17,500 lights, Gude summoned a curlicued fantasy kingdom of peacocks and fountains sure to make onlookers think “Wrigley’s” whenever they hankered for a good chew.”
O.J.’s dominance in the outdoor advertising space and use of cutting edge technology with proven advertising methods he perfected with his many regular billboards made him a classic rags to riches millionaire by the turn of the century.
O.J. made his mark in a time of great change, where modern technological advances were having life changing impacts on people and societies the world round. Marketing, advertising, design, and publishing, then as now, were all places where we got to see that technology pushed to its limits. We’re still at it: pushing technology and people in the pursuit of the next true innovation that will fulfill The American Dream. O.J. declared of his Times Square Spectaculars that his outdoor advertisers “forced their announcements on the vision of the uninterested as well as the interested passerby.” Today the form of marketing we champion (things like social media and conversational marketing) couldn’t be more different in it’s method but the effect is one and the same: innovation and results. Like O.J. we hope to harness our creativity, tools and application of new technology in the same way that O.J.’s work symbolized American ingenuity.
I wonder if O.J. envisioned that almost 100 years would transpire before a descendant of his became involved again in the application of the leading edge of marketing and technology? From that imagined moment springs forth the very mission that we’ve set out to fulfill at exceler8 and LOCAL Na8ion. I hope you come along with us and make it a ride to remember.
– Julian E. Gude