Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore


By the 17th century, many European towns and cities had regularly printed publications that resembled modern newspapers. For centuries, newspapers were the predominant medium for advertising and generated the majority of their revenues from advertising. Likewise, in Singapore, newspapers and printed publications were the most prevalent advertising media from the early 19th century to the 1960s. The plethora of print media published in various languages during this period contains extremely rich advertising materials, a selection of which is featured in this exhibition.

Singapore can also boast of an illustrious advertising history. Advertising agents – specialists who sold advertising space for newspapers and created advertisements for clients – probably emerged in Singapore around the 1910s. The 1920s economic boom fostered a thriving and cosmopolitan advertising industry. Before the Second World War, there were at least 20 advertising firms in Singapore and Malaya, some of which were full-fledged agencies with branch offices in other Asian cities and associated with agencies in London and New York. A sizeable pool of commercial artists worked in the industry, creating artworks that gave the ads a flavour of the era. Among the leading pre-war agencies, Warin Publicity Services stood out thanks to its high media exposure, offering us fascinating insights into the colourful world of early Singapore advertising.

The Japanese Occupation put an abrupt end to the flourishing scene, but many practitioners managed to resume business after the war. In the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore advertising entered a new era as international advertising firms expanded their empires into Southeast Asia and leveraged key local agencies as partners.

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Early Print
Advertising Media

From the publication of the first local newspaper in 1824 to the outbreak of the Second World War in 1942, over 150 newspapers were published in various languages in Singapore. These early newspapers, which contain a large number of advertisements, are perhaps Singapore’s richest advertising archive.

The readership of early English papers comprised mainly European merchants and officials – newspapers in the late 19th century had a circulation of no more than 400. In pre-Second World War days, the ability to read and afford reading materials were the preserve of the well-to-do and educated minority. Therefore, the ads promoted goods and services appealing to society’s elite, and provide clues to their values and lifestyles. After the war, with higher literacy and spending power, print media became more accessible to the masses. Ads were aimed at a much wider audience, especially the local-born population.

Other publications were likewise exploited for their advertising potential. Business directories, periodicals and magazines targeted at the business community were natural advertising platforms. Travel guides and ephemera were filled with ads of establishments eager to attract affluent tourists. Even cookbooks and souvenir publications were used as alternative forms of advertising, endorsing a wide variety of products.


Singapore's Early
Advertising Industry

The earliest advertisements of Singapore’s advertising agents appeared around the 1910s. They were either agents for newspapers or providers of copywriting services.

Modern advertising agencies were set up from the 1920s onwards. Pre-Second World War Singapore had a vibrant ad industry dominated by several full-fledged agencies headed by Western expatriates. Some were regional firms with headquarters in Hong Kong or Shanghai. They actively advertised their services in publications read by the business community. In many early ads, the creating agency would insert a short form or acronym of the company name. Likewise, some artists left personal signatures in the ads they created. This served as a subtle form of advertising for the agency or the artist.

Most agencies ceased operation during the Japanese Occupation. Some managed to resume business after the war, joined by newcomers to the industry. The post-war ad scene remained a playing field for firms run by expatriates with links to Britain, Australia, United States and Hong Kong. The 1950s and 1960s saw the expansion of some British, American and Australian advertising firms into the Asian market. Several major local agencies partnered with these advertising giants and were eventually merged, becoming part of the leading international firms.


W.J. Warin and His Ad Agency

Warin Studios (later Warin Publicity Services) was a leading ad agency in 1930s Singapore. Its British founder William Joseph Warin (1894–1950) first came to Malaya in 1915 as a rubber planter. When the rubber industry was hard hit by the Great Depression, Warin decided to switch his career to advertising and set up Warin Studios in 1932. The agency’s business took off quickly and it was renamed Warin Publicity Services (WPS) in 1937. Among its clients were major corporations and import houses in Malaya. Warin recruited Russian-born commercial artist Vladimir Tretchikoff from Shanghai, who later attained international fame.

The agency’s ads usually feature colourful, attractive illustrations, thanks to Tretchikoff’s highly individualised style. The company’s signature ‘Warins’ or ‘WPS’ always appear in its ads, proudly identifying their provenance.

In 1938, Warin decided to take a backseat in the agency’s business and handed its operations to a manager. He had been building an English-style inn at Cameron Highlands – Smoke House Inn (now The Smokehouse Hotel) – where he hoped to spend his semi-retirement. However, his plans were disrupted by the Japanese Occupation, during which WPS ceased operation and he went to Calcutta to work for the British. He returned to Malaya after the war but died in 1950.


Vladimir Tretchikoff

Vladimir Tretchikoff (1913–2006) was art director of Warin Publicity Services from 1934 to 1941. His family was among the Russian émigrés who fled the 1917 Revolution to Harbin, China. In 1930, he moved to Shanghai and did commercial art in the advertising department of an English-language newspaper. When Warin was recruiting an art director abroad, Tretchikoff won the position and came to Singapore in 1934.

By then, Warin was already a successful agency with many important accounts. Tretchikoff created numerous ads that graced the pages of premium publications. They could be recognised by his signature style – artful illustrations in keeping with the Art Deco style of the era. He also proved himself a versatile artist – his humorous caricatures were regularly published in The Straits Times. He received his first international accolade when his painting, Last Divers, was selected for exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939.

When the Japanese invaded Singapore in February 1942, he fled to Batavia (Jakarta) and managed to continue painting. After the war, Tretchikoff settled in Cape Town, South Africa, where he pursued a career in fine art. He attained global fame for his paintings such as The Chinese Girl and Miss Wong.



Desker & Co.

The Straits Times, 5 August 1865
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Fresh meats were highly sought after in Singapore in the 1800s, as there was only the occasional shipment of fresh meat from overseas, which had to be sold and consumed quickly to avoid spoiling from the lack of re-frigeration.

Getz Bros & Co.

The Straits Times, 18 January 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Before the advent of the modern supermarket, resident and business owners in Singapore sourced their provi-sions directly from importers such as Getz Bros. & Co.

William J. Bernard

The Straits Times, 20 September 1947
Singapore: Straits Times Press

The Fresh Food Refrigerating Co.

The Straits Times, 16 April 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Cold Storage

The Straits Times Annual, 1970
Singapore: Straits Times Press

While Cold Storage may have had its origins as a busi-ness primarily catered towards Europeans living in Sin-gapore, it soon expanded its clientele to include the local audience. Even in the 1970s, supermarket shop-ping remained largely the province of the middle and upper classes, as illustrated in this ad that promises value for money when one shops at Cold Storage.