Trade Cards: A Short History

No one is either so refined or so vulgar that he will not admire a pretty advertising card and save it.¹

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with the upheaval and trauma of the Civil War receding, the United States resumed its growth with renewed energy. Industry, fueled by innovations in technology, underwent dramatic expansion. Great factories, along with aspiring small producers, turned out increasing numbers of products at ever cheaper prices, providing a host of new goods and services to a vigorously growing population, further enlarged by a new generation of immigrants. To entice America’s expanding categories of consumers, manufacturers and businesses of all types developed new ways of advertising their goods and services. Among the more interesting advertising strategies were trade cards—small pasteboard cards colorfully printed with a company’s name, address, and an eye-catching image to stick in the customer’s mind. These trade cards were the antecedents of twentieth-century forms, such as bubblegum and baseball cards.

Trade cards enjoyed their heyday from the 1870s until about 1900, fueled by the development of color lithography, or multicolor printing. Advertising was, of course, not a new way to attract customers. Signboards and handbills had long been in use, and promotional business cards in various formats had been printed in Europe as early as the seventeenth century. Advertising also appeared in newspapers, books, and journals, but until the middle of the nineteenth century, print advertising (originally limited to black and white only) was given very little space. Business cards incorporating advertising elements—sometimes known as trade cards—were common, but they, too, were mainly printed in black and white, with the occasional addition of a second color.

By midcentury the development of new technology, capable of reproducing multicolor artwork more quickly and less expensively, opened fresh opportunities for printers. In the 1850s, Louis Prang, an enterprising German immigrant to the United States, began publishing prints, maps, sets of small pictorial “album cards” intended for collectors, and advertising trade cards, still mostly in black and white. But in 1873, for an exhibition at the Vienna International Exposition, Prang created a full-color printed advertising trade card that won a prize. When he returned to the United States, he began printing a variety of these color-lithographed items.

By the mid-1870s multicolor trade cards had fully emerged as a popular form of advertising for a wide variety of manufacturers and retail establishments, stimulating a vigorous, competitive business for the printing industry. The cards were commonly designed with blank areas on their fronts or backs into which advertisers could insert their promotional copy. Such “stock cards” were carried around by traveling salesmen, who took orders from a variety of businesses, making it possible for several different firms to promote their products with cards of the same design. Over time, larger businesses began to commission exclusive designs with artwork relating specifically to their products or services.

Trade cards proved extremely popular with the public. Distributed by businesses of every kind, from thread to stoves to tobacco and medicine, they were often inserted into product packaging as a prize or bonus. Color printing was still very much a novelty, and the cards were valued for their radiant images. Thanks to the Victorian penchant for preserving keepsakes, many people began to actively collect trade cards, frequently mounting them in albums and scrapbooks. Cards were often issued in sets pertaining to a single subject—famous buildings, great composers, birds and animals, even women’s hair styles—and collectors swapped cards with one another to complete their sets, the likely source of the term “trading cards.” Most cards measured approximately 3½" x 4½", although both larger and smaller sizes were not uncommon; some had novel features such as die-cut shapes or movable parts, increasing their appeal to collectors.

The illustrations on the front of the cards could be elegant, witty, or sentimental, depending on the advertiser’s perception of his customers’ preferences. To promote the vast range of new manufactured products, well-known figures from all walks of life were frequently featured on cards. As with many of today’s advertising campaigns, images on trade cards might be totally unrelated to the product they were advertising, instead appealing (or pandering) to the customer’s taste, prejudices, or sense of humor.

The passion for trade cards lasted about twenty-five years, ending just as the twentieth century began. By 1900, new developments in printing technology enabled large-scale color printing in magazines and other publications. As color printing became commonplace, the novelty of trade cards quickly faded. The once-valued and frequently browsed albums were stored away in attics, and with a few exceptions the age of the trade card came to a close. By the middle of the twentieth century, a handful of scholars, hobbyists, and collectors began taking a renewed interest in the cards, captured by their charms or convinced of their historical importance to understanding the evolution of commerce, advertising, printing, and social history. 

Most of the cards seen here are part of the Waxman Collection in Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Nearly all—the majority dealing with food and related subjects—were at some point removed from Victorian albums and scrapbooks. Because the production of food and its consumption are so central to everyday life, the range of topics covered—from agriculture to medicine to household maintenance—is immense. The nature of middle-class Victorian life comes constantly into focus. We see new technologies, celebrities, current events. We find evidence of the public fascination with P. T. Barnum’s famous elephant, Jumbo, and the hugely popular operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Collectively, trade cards provide an amazingly rich portrait of an era. Beyond all this, the cards also shed light on the history of advertising and printing at a time when both industries were rapidly evolving and expanding. They offer us a revealing look at America in a period of growth and national pride, set against the nineteenth century’s unshakeable faith in perpetual civic and self-improvement. In these little pasteboard cards we catch a glimpse of a young country beginning to find its modern identity and place among the nations of the world.

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¹ “The Advertising Card Business,” The Paper World  (May 1885), 10:55, cited in Robert Jay, The Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century America, University of Missouri Press, 1987, p. 3.

Note: Illustration captions that contain words or phrases in quotation marks are almost always drawn from the card being discussed. Quoted material is frequently invisible, as it may have been drawn from the side of the card not shown.