A Brief History of Trade Cards - Part 1

Trade cards were small, illustrated cards used to promote goods and services. They evolved from cards of the late 1700s used by tradesmen to advertise their services. The development of color printing and chromo lithography in the 1870s transformed printing and advertising. Trade cards were some of the earliest examples of color printing. Companies were able to produce color images on a mass scale for the first time. Color printing had a profound impact on the general public and high-quality chromolithographic trade cards were a predecessor to twentieth century advertising.

The process for creating colored images prior to chromo lithography was by hand coloring or tinting; a slow and labor-intensive process. The advent of lithography after the Civil War, and the subsequent development of chromolithography in the 1870s, made it possible, and affordable, to produce high-quality colored prints in large numbers.

Victorian trade cards, or advertising trade cards, date mostly from 1876 to 1900. This period is referred to as the “Golden Age of Trade Cards” and predates the origination of postcards. Colorful trade cards became widespread and were popular collectibles. Trade cards were used to promote the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Companies soon began producing colored trade cards to inform customers about new goods and services.

Trade cards became so popular and inexpensive that some firms began distributing them by the tens of thousands. Trade cards were put into packages, piled in stacks on store counters, handed out on the sidewalks, and sent through the mail. Trade cards, and especially chromolithographic trade cards, became a very popular and prolific form of advertising before the arrival of postcards at the turn of the century.

Advertising became a powerful selling tool with the development of color printing. The end of the Civil War saw a revival of invention and innovation in America. New and improved products were introduced daily. People saved trade cards and put them into scrapbooks and albums. Advertising departments knew that a product or service would not be forgotten once a collection was started. This set off a trade card collecting craze in America and England.

Trade cards usually had a picture on the front and an ad on the back. There was a wide range of trade cards produced from 1870 through 1900. The subjects ranged from medicines to farm equipment to stoves and ranges. Images of sewing machines probably appear more often in Victorian trade cards than any other single type of mechanized devise. The Singer Sewing Machine Company was one of the leaders in the production and distribution of trade cards. Singer produced many series of trade cards, including an American Songbird Set of 16 and a Days of the Week Set of 7. There were several other sewing machine companies that produced trade cards, including Davis, Standard, New Home, Household, Domestic, Wheeler and Wilson, White, and Remington.

Trades cards produced for thread advertising probably include the widest range of imagery found in any single product category. Thread and notion companies used trade cards to advertise their numerous lines of products. Clark’s Thread Company was one of the most prolific producers of trade cards. Their ONT thread was an acronym for Our New Thread. J and P Coats produced several sets of 4 trade cards, including cats, girl’s heads in leaves, and girl’s heads in flowers.  Other thread companies that produced trade cards include Brooks, Willimatic, Kerr, Chadwicks, Corticelli, John Cutter, Merrick, Real Scotch, Belding Brothers, and Brainerd and Armstrong. Notion companies included English Needles and Standard Rotary Company.

The height of the trade card era is generally considered to be 1893, the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Private Mailing Cards, also known as PMCs, were authorized by Congress effective July 1, 1898. This saw an end to the “Golden Age of Trade Cards.” PMCs evolved into “Penny Postcards” at the turn of the century. The “Golden Age of Postcards” was the period from the turn of the century until the beginning of WWI, circa 1898 to 1915. Postcards quickly became the most popular collectible in the world and trade cards began to go out of favor after 1900. The most significant difference between postcards and trade cards was that postcards could be sent through the mail with a personal message, at a cost of one penny. The lithographers who had perfected their skills creating and producing high-quality trade cards turned their efforts to postcards. The demand for postcards increased dramatically after 1900. Rural Free delivery was established in the United States in 1896 and hundreds of millions of postcards were mailed throughout the world during the “Golden Age of Postcards.” For more information on postcards see our article titled “Brief History of Postcards” on this web site.

Trade cards are fascinating glimpses into the social history and advertising. The early trade cards in our inventory make colorful and interesting images for quilt blocks and greeting cards. We have collected trade cards for forty years and have a wide and extensive collection to draw from. Please let us know if you have any requests for specific topics or images. We will be glad to help you however we can.

THANK YOU – Jack and Susan Davis