Victorian Trade Cards
Trade cards were one of the most prevalent form of advertising in the U.S. from around 1875 to 1900. They had their origin in England in the 1700s with tradesmen advertising their wares. The advent of lithography in the 1870s made it possible to mass-produce them in color. The Philadelphia 1876 Centennial Exhibition sparked the beginning, as many were passed out at that event. The cards were purchased by businesses from printers and then given to customers.
Many Victorians collected them, often putting together large scrapbooks. Though worth little until a few decades ago, they are now heavily collected again. The sheer number printed, the small size, the strong colors, and the interesting content have insured that many survived. The color is a big draw as the chromolithography process provided a purer and sharper color than today’s color printing. The printing process was time consuming. Each color used in the image was separately drawn onto a stone or plate and applied to the paper one at a time. Those with more colors were more expensive to produce, but are generally more desirable today.
Trade cards give a great insight to the popular culture of the late Victorian age in America. In an age when almost every image was black and white, trade cards were a colorful depiction of everyday life, made better by the product being sold. Domestic scenes were popular. Many show stereotypes that are politically incorrect today. Stereotypical images were shown of Blacks, Chinese, Jews, Irish and others. Women were primarily shown in the home. Famous people were sometimes shown. Like advertising today, many trade cards used either humor or pretty women to sell their product. Unlike today, there was a high level of children and flowers. Victorians were fascinated by children.
Trade cards disappeared around the turn of the twentieth century due to the increased use of newspapers, magazines and postcards.
Most trade cards have a picture on one side and an ad on the other. Sometimes the back is blank, as the front also contains the ad. Most of the pictures are in color, though some are black and white. The ad on back was similar to a magazine ad of the day. Sometimes the ad on the back is more interesting than the picture. Many were custom cards designed for specific products. Others were stock cards which left room for the buyer to put their business name and location. The majority of trade cards are smaller than a standard postcard, though some can be much larger. They were usually printed on paper or very thin cardboard.
Some collectors collect all trade cards that interest them. Many who buy trade cards are cross collectors. For example, an owner of an antique sewing machine would be interested in the trade card showing their machine. Some collectors specialize in various categories such as medicines, sewing, food products, stoves, clothing and farm equipment. This was the age before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The claims made for the medicines advertised were outlandish and humorous.
Most of the medicines advertised by trade cards went out of business after 1906 as their claims could not be proved. Many of the medicines either contained a high level of alcohol, or more dangerous ingredients. Most trade cards had the address of the business. This has led to many collecting them for their local interest and history. Some of the companies advertised such as Heinz, Coca Cola and Quaker Oats still exist today. Another category of trade cards is metamorphic cards which humorously change the image when the card is folded. Some cards show before and after using the product. Others show a second image when held to the light. Die cut trade cards are not rectangular like the others, but cut to fit the image like Acorn Stoves below.
Collecting trade cards is easy and generally affordable. There are thousands available at any given time on eBay and other internet sites and they can be found in antique stores and shows. When at a show, look for a three ring binder, as many dealers display them inside the binder. The majority fit into a four pocket plastic sleeve for a three ring binder. An archival quality plastic sleeve is recommended to protect the cards. Several hundred trade cards can fit into one 3” three ring binder.
Most trade cards sell for under $10. The most affordable ones are often in black and white, or have limited graphics or simply cute images of children or flowers. Many of those are worth under $2. The more expensive ones have many colors, interesting graphics, historically interesting scenes, and/or are often cross collectibles to other categories of collecting. These can sometimes go for hundreds of dollars. Another advantage of collecting trade cards is there are few reproductions. Also reproductions can usually be spotted by looking at the card with a magnifying glass to see if the modern print is used.
Many collectors avoid or pay much less for trade cards that have been trimmed, have damaged backs or have tears or other damage. This is due in part because so many have survived in excellent condition, so there is less need to buy ones with condition problems unless the one you are looking for is hard to find. Damaged backs are more common than some of the other issues because so many were glued into scrapbooks during the late 1800s. Interestingly, trade cards can be removed from scrapbooks with little damage to the back. Procedures which include dipping them in cold water can be found on the internet. Many trade cards removed from scrapbooks have a wavy look to them, so the procedure is not always perfect.