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John Donnelly & Sons records

Collection MS-2012-004: John Donnelly & Sons records


  • 1884 - 1978

Scope and Contents

The records of the advertising company John Donnelly & Sons are mainly composed of a series of scrapbooks holding newspaper clippings, photographs, and correspondence related to the company’s activities and to advertising in general. The collection also includes awards and honors bestowed on the company and its employees, a small series of business and financial records, and photographs of the Donnelly family. Because the majority of the records consist of newspaper clippings, firsthand evidence of the business’s workings is rather limited. Business records include one ledger (1915-1925), Advertising Club of Boston materials, and advertising materials such as pamphlets, fliers, the company’s centennial book, and a billboard desk toy. The company’s charitable works are recorded by photographs and correspondence in a series of scrapbooks dedicated to Donnelly’s public service. The professional life of Edward C. Donnelly Jr., who led the company from 1927 to 1972, is well-documented in this collection. In addition to the lack of major business correspondence or financial records, there is a gap in the scrapbooks covering the years 1954-1958.

This collection documents the history of the firm John Donnelly & Sons as well as the history of the Donnelly family itself. Scrapbooks often contain items of personal interest to the compiler, such as wedding, divorce, and death announcements, in addition to industry and firm-related news clippings. Clippings are occasionally annotated with the compiler’s opinions. Scrapbooks also contain many editorials and cartoons regarding bill posting and billboards, featuring entertaining rhetoric and images. Focusing mainly on Boston and New England, the scrapbooks also capture a great deal of information about the cultural and political life of the area, in addition to vividly depicting the changing tastes of the American consumer over the years.


Restrictions on access

Collection is open for research; a portion is available digitally. Some materials are quite fragile; take care in handling.

Restrictions on use

These materials are made available for use in research, teaching and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. The original authors may retain copyright to the materials.

Historical note

John Donnelly & Sons was founded in Boston in 1850 by bill poster John Donnelly and became one of the most prominent outdoor advertising companies on the east coast. The company created many of the Boston area’s most iconic signs, including the Shell and Gillette Company signs, but had relatively humble beginnings.

John Donnelly’s first clients included clipper ship operators advertising for eager passengers to speed to the Gold Rush in California, and P. T. Barnum, who was then promoting the famous opera singer Jenny Lind’s first American performances. In the 1870s, business expanded due to theater owners, burlesque houses, and circuses. John Donnelly died in 1878. His widow Mary Ann Donnelly managed the business until 1882, when his son Edward Calvin Donnelly turned 21 and assumed leadership. In 1891 Edward C. Donnelly helped found the Associated Bill Posters Association to increase industry standardization. In the 1890s the firm began to expand out of Boston into neighboring towns.

When Edward C. Donnelly died in 1927, he left the business to his sons, Edward C. Donnelly Jr. and John Donnelly. Then a freshman at Harvard University, Edward C. Donnelly Jr. left school to run the family business. John Donnelly joined as vice-president in 1934. In 1935, billboard legislation proposed by Edward C. Donnelly Jr.’s father-in-law, Governor James Michael Curley, embroiled the business in scandal. Curley set forth a bill that would remove the veto power over billboards from Massachusetts city and town governments and instead place it in the hands of a statewide director of advertising, widely understood to be in Curley’s control. The bill failed, but John Donnelly & Sons and their political connections would remain a controversial topic throughout the 1930s. Meanwhile, the business was expanding from posters and billboards into electric and neon signs. In the 1940s, a new manufacturing division for steel and aluminum manufacturing and radar products was formed. This division supported war efforts, including producing parts for the atomic bomb. The company also continued to expand its geographic reach, with offices in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia by 1950, and later in Chicago and Miami Beach.

National and local legislation regulating or banning billboards reduced business in the 1960s and 1970s. Although John Donnelly & Sons prided itself on serving local community interests and actively removed signs in scenic areas, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 and the ban on billboards in Newton and Brookline contributed to the company’s gradual decline. Edward C. Donnelly Jr. died in 1972, and in 1978 the company was liquidated. The division of Donnelly Electric and Manufacturing Co. was acquired by its president and became DEMCO, which remained in business until the 1990s.


Beatty, Jack. The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958). Reading, Mass. : Addison Wesley, 1992.

“Curley hits out at Fuller blast.” Boston Globe, July 27, 1935.

John Donnelly & Sons. Advertising in Public 1850-1950 : A Century of Creative Service. Boston: John Donnelly & Sons, 1950.

“John Donnelly & Sons, a Good Neighbor since 1850.” Massachusetts Selectman, April 1972.

John Donnelly & Sons records, MS.2012.004, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

McLean, Robert. 1978. “Ad-ventures: End of an Era.” Boston Globe, August 16, 1978.

“Sees State Grant to Donnelly Firm.” Boston Evening Transcript, July 29, 1935.

Warton, Carl. “Donnelly Display of Outdoor Art Wins Public Esteem.” Boston Herald, October 9, 1938.

Biographical note

John Donnelly was born in Ireland in 1829 and founded the outdoor advertising company John Donnelly & Sons in Boston in 1850. When he died on January 18, 1878, he left his widow Mary Ann with eight children and a business to run. She managed the firm until 1882, when son Edward Calvin Donnelly turned 21 and assumed responsibility. His brothers Charles, Frederick, and Bernard also joined the company in various capacities. Edward married Mary J. Mahoney and the couple had four children: Mary Aline (born 1906); Edward C. Donnelly Jr. (born 1907); and John and Catherine (twins, born 1910). Edward C. Donnelly Sr. was active in many civic and charitable organizations, including the Boston Chamber of Commerce, the Clover Club, and the Catholic Union. He was also a director of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, a meeting of which he was attending when he died on January 18, 1927. Mary J. Donnelly became the temporary manager of John Donnelly & Sons and continued to serve as a trustee until 1950. She was active in many Catholic organizations, acting as founder and president of the St. Philomena Guild and president of the League of Catholic Women. In 1948 she was designated a Dame of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem by Pope Pius XII.

After Edward C. Donnelly Sr.’s death, Edward C. Donnelly Jr. left Harvard University to direct John Donnelly & Sons. As a member of a prominent Irish Catholic Boston family, Edward C. Donnelly Jr. traveled in the same social circles as Governor James Michael Curley. In 1934, Curley named him Lieutenant Colonel on his personal military staff. Even closer ties developed between the families and on June 8, 1935, Edward C. Donnelly Jr. married the Governor’s daughter, Mary Curley, at the Cathedral of Holy Cross, where the ceremony was officiated by William Cardinal O’Connell. The marriage proved unhappy and in 1943 the couple divorced. Edward C. Donnelly Jr. later remarried twice and had six sons. In addition to heading John Donnelly & Sons, which had grown into one of America’s largest outdoor advertising companies, he supported many charities, most notably March of Dimes, the Red Cross, Community Chest, and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Under his leadership, John Donnelly & Sons provided free billboards and advertising to community service messages. He was also active in many professional organizations, serving as chairman of the board of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, as president of the Advertising Club of Boston, and as director of the Advertising Council. He died on October 15, 1972, in Miami.

John Donnelly (1910-1959) attended Georgetown University and Boston College, graduating from the latter in 1934. He joined John Donnelly & Sons as vice-president after graduation and served as director of eight of the subsidiary corporations, and as vice-president of the division of Donnelly Electric and Manufacturing Co. During World War II, he also served as chief of graphic arts in the war bond division of the U.S. Treasury Dept. During his college days at Georgetown he met Alicia Tumulty, daughter of President Woodrow Wilson’s private secretary, and married her in 1936. She died in 1952, and he was remarried in 1954 to Georgia O’Neil. He died on June 14, 1959. Following his death, Richard Cardinal Cushing announced that the Loew’s Theater at 205 Massachusetts Avenue in Boston, which had been recently purchased by the archdiocese, would be renamed the Donnelly Memorial Theater in honor of Edward C. Donnelly Sr., Mary J. Donnelly (d. 1957), Catherine Donnelly (d. 1953), and John Donnelly. This collection documents not only the business activities of John Donnelly & Sons but also the extensive Donnelly family network.


Beatty, Jack. The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1874-1958). Reading, Mass. : Addison Wesley, 1992.

Bureau of the Census. 1930 Census of Population and Housing. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931. (accessed May 17, 2012).

"Deaths and Funerals: Catherine Donnelly, Civic, Social, Church Leader, Dies Suddenly." Boston Globe, August 16, 1953.

"Deaths and Funerals: Mrs. Mary Donnelly, 87, Dies; Catholic, Business World Leader." Boston Globe, July 29, 1957.

"Deaths and Funerals: John Donnelly Dies at 49, Outdoor Advertising Firm Official." Boston Globe, June 15, 1959.

Lyons, Louis. "Freshman, Taking Father’s Place, Startles Elders with Speech," Boston Globe, April 28, 1935.

John Donnelly & Sons. Advertising in Public 1850-1950 : A Century of Creative Service. Boston: John Donnelly & Sons, 1950.

"John Donnelly & Sons, a Good Neighbor since 1850." Massachusetts Selectman, April 1972.

John Donnelly & Sons records, MS.2012.004, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

"Miss Mary Curley to Wed on June 8," Boston Globe, May 19, 1935.

"New Archdiocesan Theatre Named 'Donnelly Memorial,' " The Pilot, September 12, 1959.

Warton, Carl. "Donnelly Display of Outdoor Art Wins Public Esteem." Boston Herald, October 9, 1938.


53.25 Linear Feet (36 containers)

Language of Materials



This collection contains awards, business records, photographs, and scrapbooks related to the outdoor advertising firm John Donnelly & Sons. Scrapbooks compose the largest series and consist mainly of newspaper clippings regarding both the company’s activities and advertising in general. Materials date from 1884 to 1978.


This collection is arranged in four series: I. Awards; II. Business records; III. Photographs; IV. Scrapbooks. Within each series, materials are arranged chronologically and then alphabetically.


Because the current accessioning system was not used until January 1986, it is not possible to know exactly the dates of acquisition of materials received before that time.

Existence of digital copies

Portions of this collection are available digitally. Links are included in the inventory.

Related Materials

Advertising Federation of America Records, [ca. 1910-1970s], Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.

Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

  • Original scrapbook binding for Community service scrapbook 1941 October-1944 May.
  • Frames from framed photos.
John Donnelly & Sons Records
Adrienne Pruitt
June 2012
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the John J. Burns Library Repository

John J. Burns Library
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill MA 02467 United States
617-552-2465 (Fax)