A Brief History of Trade Cards - Part 2

The Golden Age of Trade Cards was circa 1876-1900, the last quarter of the 19th century. Trade cards were some of the first colored printed examples of advertising. Virtually all printed matter beginning with the introduction of the letter press in the 1450s was produced with black ink on wooden hand presses. The first advertising trade cards were produced by shopkeepers in London in the early 18th century. These were used to establish the location of their shops as numbered street addresses did not come into existence until the 1760s.

The early advertising cards were executed in copper-plate engravings. This printing technology continued through the early 19th century. Engraved cards were produced on hand presses. The copperplate engravings resulted in fine detail and was the process of choice in England and the United States.

The invention of lithography in 1798 by Alois Senefelder was one of the most revolutionary developments in the history of printing. The wide spread introduction of lithography in the early 1820s transformed the potential use of cards as an advertising medium. Lithography has been further developed in 1837 to allow full color printing from multiple plates. This process was chromolithography and was the most important technique in color printing until the introduction of CMYK four color printing in the early 20th century.

The Golden Age of Chromolithography closely aligned with that of Trade Cards, but extended beyond 1900 to the beginning of WWI. Chromo trade cards and prints (also called chromos) were replaced with chromo postcards. The Golden Age of Postcards was circa 1898-1918. The end of chromolithography, for the most part, was WWI. There are a number of reasons for the demise of chromolithography at that time, even though the printing process resulted in some of the finest and most beautiful colored prints ever produced. I will discuss this in a later article.

The introduction of colored trade cards occurred at the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876. This was the first official World’s Fair in the United States and was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Officially named the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine. It was held in Fairmont Park and nearly 10 million visitors attended the exhibition and 37 countries participated in it.

One of the leading trade card lithographers of this period was Louis Prang (1824-1909). Prang was born in Prussia and emigrated to the United States in 1850, settling in Boston. He worked as an apprentice to his father, learning engraving and calcio dying and printing, in the 1840s. He made wood engravings for illustrations in books when he arrived in Boston, and in 1856 created a firm to produce lithographs. The firm became quite successful and produced Civil War maps and prints. Prang traveled to Europe in 1864 to learn about cutting-edge German lithography and began creating high quality reproductions of major works of art. He began creating greeting card and is called the “father of the American Christmas card.”

Louis Prang created a chromolithographic portfolio for the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 that has been declared by printing historians as the finest printing achievement ever. Prang collaborated with Thomas Moran to create a portfolio of original watercolor paintings by Moran of Yellowstone National Park. This is a complicated story, but the bottom line is that the chromos had 25 or more different colors. Each color was from a separate hand carved stone and the registration had to be exact. This was a very labor intensive process. Prang produced about 500 of these portfolios. Tragically 350 were lost when Prang’s Boston factory burned to the ground. The remaining portfolios are very rare and most of the ones that are complete are in institutions. Prang’s Yellowstone chromos illustrate the pinnacle of his success as a printer.

Following the Civil War, New York City became the lithographic center of the country. Trade cards, as popular as they were, represented a small segment of these firm’s business. Fine art prints, posters, book illustrations inserts, catalogs, maps, calendars and many items too numerous to mention were the mainstays of their production. The interest in chromo trade cards began to decline in the 1890s. They were no longer the viable and more expensive advertising medium with the explosive growth in newspapers and magazine publishing with constant increases in circulation and readership, resulting in less expensive costs per thousand. The trade card era came to an end at the turn of the century.

Congress was searching for a way to increase revenue and authorized Private Mailing Cards to be effective July 1, 1898. The cost for mailing a PMC would be one cent, half the postage cost of a letter. Private Mailing Cards required that the message had to be written on the front side and that the back was reserved for the address only. This regulation was changed in 1907 so that the message and address were both written on the back side. This allowed for the entire front side of the card to be used for illustrations and/or advertising. They became the main form of communication. A penny postcard could be sent with a personal message for one cent. Postcards were the most popular collectibles in the world during this period, and chromo postcards were the most collectible of all.

Trade cards preceded postcards and were some of the first examples of colored printing. They were very popular forms of advertising. There were more trade cards produced for sewing machine companies than any other mechanized equipment. The second most common were made to advertise agricultural equipment and products. Thread companies produced the most varied subject matter on trade cards. Many of these trade cards were issued as sets. They were given away by agents or salesmen, were distributed by shops, and were circulated at fairs and expositions.

Trade cards were designed by mostly unknown artists. The graphics and images are unique and are a reflection of the social history of their time. The early 19th century trade cards were predecessors of modern advertising. They offer a glimpse into a period of America’s history that predates the telephone, radio, television, computers, smart phones and social media. Take a trip down memory lane by enjoying these small and beautiful cards from the 19th century.

THANK YOU - Jack and Susan Davis


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