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A New and Wonderful Invention: The Nineteenth-Century American Trade Card

The rapid development of new consumer markets in the post-Civil War U.S. brought forth a need for an effective national advertising medium, a need met by "a new and wonderful invention," the lithographed trade card. Today, these colorful cards offer a glimpse of the society, culture and economy in which 19th century Americans lived.

A New and Wonderful Invention

When making a purchase at the local store in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, shoppers were likely to have small cards advertising products such as "Stimson's Sudsena, A New and Wonderful Invention Making Its Own Magic Suds" slipped into their package. Brightly colored, with eye-catching illustrations on the front and promotional text on the back, these "trade cards" were produced by the hundreds of thousands and inserted into packages at the factory, handed out by retailers with every sale, or mailed to prospective customers.

Industrialization, urbanization, and commercial expansion following the Civil War altered the social and economic landscape in America, contributing to the rapid development of new consumer markets. Manufacturers began to vie aggressively for consumer spending. The trade card, itself a "new and wonderful invention," met the need for an effective national advertising medium, heralding the arrival of an extraordinary variety of manufactured goods newly available to the American public.

As one of the most popular forms of advertising in the nineteenth century, and an indicator of consumer habits, social values, and marketing techniques, trade cards are of interest to scholars of business history, American studies, graphic design and printing history, and social and cultural history. Baker Library holds thousands of trade cards, representing the full range of products and businesses advertised through this medium from the 1870s to the end of the 1890s. To provide better access to the collection, the Historical Collections Department of Baker Library is now cataloging and digitizing an initial group of 1,000 trade cards that are representative of Baker's collections and of the genre itself. The project is one of the first five projects funded by Harvard University's Library Digital Initiative, an effort by the Harvard University Library to create an infrastructure to support the "collecting" of digital resources at Harvard. Additional funding for the trade card project has come through the generous support of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and Arnold Communications, Inc.

The Development of the Advertising Trade Card
From the early "tradesmen's cards" of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the "business cards" of the early nineteenth century, advertising materials printed in one color on paper and pasteboard had been used to inform customers about goods and services. As industries developed and communication between regions increased in nineteenth-century America, a greater variety of merchants and manufacturers began to make use of advertising cards. Technological advances in printing and machine manufacture throughout the century resulted in the greater availability of printing presses and lower costs for printing. The development of the lithographic process permitted greater use of illustrations, and the introduction of chromolithography in the mid-nineteenth century led to the extensive use of color in commercial advertising. The 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia provided the first large-scale opportunity for commercial lithographers to display their products, as well as for a wide variety of businesses to hand out advertising cards promoting their goods and services. The popularity of color advertising cards spread rapidly, and by the early 1880s the chromolithographed trade card was being distributed widely by businesses ranging from small shops to large manufacturers.

New Markets, New Methods

The great majority of trade cards printed in the late nineteenth century advertised household items, promoting everything from patent medicines, cosmetic products, and packaged foods to wringers, sewing machines and lawn mowers. Often trade cards introduced the public to the idea of using factory-made products, such as cooked canned meats, which had never been made or used at home. Various new marketing techniques were employed to promote the growing range of products. Testimonials, premium offers, and trademarks appeared on cards, stimulating brand-name recognition and continued use of a particular product. Special novelty cards and cards issued in series were produced to encourage card collecting, in turn promoting product consumption.

The Art of the Trade Card

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Beautiful women; adorable children and animals; flowers and fairies; patriotic, domestic, and foreign scenes; and ethnic caricatures were among the wide variety of images depicted in trade card illustrations. Literary cards were also popular and drew upon the works of Shakespeare and Jonathan Swift. The growth of new industry and technology was much celebrated in the nineteenth century and urban scenes illustrated the growth of cities, the facilities of manufacturers and retailers, and the latest innovations in transportation. With the availability of new products came a growing demand for creature comforts and conveniences, and manufacturers often emphasized in the illustrations the great improvements in home life that would result from acquiring their product.

Public Appeal
Chromolithography, a new development in printing technology, allowed for printing in bright and bold colors never before possible in advertising. As some of the first mass-produced color items available, trade cards had tremendous appeal. The public responded with great enthusiasm and collecting trade cards became a craze in the 1880s. Cards were exchanged with friends and collected and pasted into albums. Highly decorative albums were compiled, making use of colorful scraps, trade cards, and other collectible cards. The popularity of the trade card peaked around 1890 and then faded by the end of the century as other forms of advertising, primarily in mass-circulation magazines, replaced the trade card as a means of advertising products nationwide.

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