Two Rhode Island advertising giants

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Statistics, tables, percentages – they make my eyes roll. At most, they rate a cursory glance. One such cursory glance almost caused me to miss some interesting items in an article by Marvin Pitterman (Rhode Island Jewish Historical Society “Notes” vol. 3 #1, November 1958). Pitterman, an associate professor of economics at the University of Rhode Island and a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association, analyzed data about the occupations of Jewish immigrants in Providence from 1850 to 1900. 

Among the 135 occupations listed, these numbers caught my wandering eye: in the 1900 column, there was one piano dealer, one telephone operator, 134 tailors, 311 peddlers and 134 jewelers. In 1895, Providence could also boast of a professional artist and an Etruscan artist, but neither appeared in the next survey. One other occupation stood out: one  advertising agent in 1878 – then he also disappeared. 

The proximity of these two occupations – artist and ad man – in the data reminded me of a comment by a friend, Donald Simon, who also worked in advertising and was an art teacher of excellence. Our conversation occurred a few months ago, after an article I had written about an ad war between two tailors appeared in this newspaper. Simon mentioned the name of a major figure in the field of advertising in Providence, indeed in all of New England, in the 1950s and 1960s – “Bo” Bernstein.

An article by Lynn Kelly in Ocean State Business, on Jan. 2, 1989, called Bernstein “the patriarch of Providence advertising” at a time “when retailing was king ... [and] the new market force, discounters, expanded overnight.”  The men and women he employed and mentored went on to become “the core of the industry,” according to Kelly. 

After a stint with an ad company in the 1930s, Bernstein started his own advertising agency in 1940, in office space in the Custom House in Providence. Early on, Bernstein acquired a reputation for creative, often unorthodox, ideas that succeeded, and his company did well.  

The “market force” contributing to Bo Bernstein & Co. becoming the largest advertising firm in New England occurred in the late 1950s. Zayre, the retail discounter, expanded with amazing speed from one store in Hyannis, Massachusetts, to more than 200 in several states.  Bo Bernstein’s agency was chosen to do their advertising. During the 1960s and the early 1970s, he employed more than 150 people in Providence and Boston. It was “a kingdom built on retailing,” Kelly stated. Although he had other lucrative clients, Zayre accounted for more than half of Bernstein’s billing. 

When the discounter decided to take its advertising in-house in the early 1970s, Bernstein lost a major client. The agency’s heyday had passed. Bo Bernstein retired in 1975. 

Bernstein was also a patron of the arts, and was well-known among artists. The cast bronze statue “Performers,” by New York sculptor Chaim Gross (1904-1991), in front of the Fine Arts Center at URI, was dedicated on May 5, 1972. The sculpture was purchased with a $50,000 gift to the university from Bernstein. 

Gertrude Meth, another influential person in the field of advertising, arrived in Providence in 1932. Hoping for a career in journalism after college, she began her career as a society reporter for the local newspaper in her hometown, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She soon understood that she would never receive other assignments, and decided to change careers. 

Meth found employment in advertising, first at a local department store, then as copy chief at the Gimbel Bros. flagship store in New York City.  But Meth wanted to advance into national advertising, and she knew she needed more experience in local markets to do so. The position of assistant advertising manager at the Shepard Company department store in Providence offered that experience.

In that era, the daily newspaper was the main site of department store advertising. Meth saw the potential of advertising on radio as well. Beginning in 1934, each weekday morning, strains of the waltz from “Die Fledermaus” heralded a program of shopping news and household tips. Meth’s radio program proved very successful. She remained with Shepard’s for 13 years, rising to advertising manager, before moving to the advertising department of Cherry & Webb.  

While at Shepard’s, Meth was asked why she did not hire any Rhode Island School of Design graduates. She replied that although they were very creative, she needed people who could produce layouts and drawing of clothes and household goods. As a result, in 1940, RISD instituted a course in advertising art, which Meth was asked to teach.  Her students worked part time as interns at Shepard’s to gain practical experience. 

After her marriage to Robert Hochberg, Meth continued her career, but she stopped working full time after the birth of her first child. She continued to work as a freelancer. When her children reached school age, Meth began another career. The Bryant & Stratton School of Business was looking for a director of public relations. Jeanette Jacobs, wife of the president of the school, suggested Mrs. Hochberg apply. 

Gertrude Meth Hochberg served in that position from 1949 to 1975, when she became the first woman vice president of Bryant University.  She retired in 1977. 

Gertrude Meth Hochberg earned tributes and recognition locally and nationally for many accomplishments in her career, her contributions to the civic life of Rhode Island, her advocacy on behalf of women’s issues, and her mentoring of young women and men. The Gertrude Meth Hochberg Women’s Center at Bryant University is named in her honor.

GERALDINE S. FOSTER is a past president of the R.I. Jewish Historical Association. To comment about this or any RIJHA article, contact the RIJHA office at info@rijha.org or 401-331-1360.