Color Business Cards




The earliest forms of trade cards were to be found at the beginning of the 17th century in London. These were essentially used as advertising & maps, directing the public to merchant's stores which had no formal street numbering system at the time.

Color Business CardsEarliest forms of trade cards were printed by the woodcut or letterpress method. In the 18th century, copperplate engraving became the most popular method. These were relatively unsophisticated methods, & as such were usually printed in one color. Since engraving was a specialized craft, often silversmiths were used to create the intricate plate engravings. There are early examples of cards done by one of America's more famous silversmiths, Paul Revere. His career was rather shortened as he was always jumping on his horse & running off to Concord in the middle of a job.

These early trade cards were generally done in a lavish script with detailed graphics, or in block letters with simple graphics. In the 19th century, the style began to transform into that which were are more familiar. Still, color was a rarity.

Most businesses in America were in the large cities, as a result many, if not most of the more familiar printers were in or near the New England area. As businesses grew, so did the production and distribution of trade cards.Color Business Cards

In the early 1800's, trade cards were still done in monotones, or with simple tints. Perhaps one or two colors were added for an accent. This was mostly because of the rather slow, expensive & cumbersome method of creating plates from which the cards were printed. Around 1830, lithography using several colors became an established method in Europe. The term "Chromolithography" was coined and used to refer to lithographs that were made up of several colors. Today we commonly use this term to refer to the color process used up through the late 19th century.

At that time, much of the lithography was done on stones. The slow, cumbersome & expensive method of etching these stones was replaced in the 1850's by metal plates. This made the printing of trade cards less expensive and easier to produce in grater quantity.

Color Business CardsDespite these advances, color printing of trade cards did not become widely popular until after the Civil War. An early printer who specialized in color trade cards was the now popular Louis Prang Co. of Boston. Subject matter usually consisted of flowers & animals, often with a bright red background. These were among the original "Stock" cards; cards with no advertising, sold to merchants who added their own advertising, or had them added by order at the printers.

Color Business Cards

In 1876, the Centennial Exhibition was held in Philadelphia. This became a major venue for printers to display their products & to hand out their cards advertising their services. Though multi-colored cards had been in use for a while, this exhibition acted as a impetus for larger scale use of the multi-color trade card.

The popularity of trade cards was also in part due to the relatively high cost of advertising in newspapers & other periodicals. The distribution of such periodicals was not universal, thus fewer people could be potentially reached by these media. Trade cards began to be distributed in stores throughout the country. They addressed a wide variety of products from food to axle grease. Often the cards produced by lithographers who offeredColor Business Cards trade cards for sale were of the more detailed and elaborate.

Color Business CardsSince most households engaged in doing their own baking & sewing (Related to two of the more important aspects of life), trade cards relating to these industries were found in great abundance. The onset of the patent medicine industry was another source of prolific advertising. 

Thousands of trade cards were produced & distributed, touting the efficacy of products such as Dr.Kilmer's Swamp Root Kidney & Liver Cure, Female Remedy and Prompt Parilla Pills. 

A great variety of items were represented on all sorts of cards: Tobacco (Often touted for its beneficial, medicinal qualities), Farm items, and food items as well. 

The heyday of trade cards was essentially from the 1880's through the turn of the century. A highpoint was the great Chicago Colombian  Exposition of 1893. Here manufacturers of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution could advertise their wares and distribute countless numbers of trade cards relating to them. Other expositions offered similar  opportunities to advertise the wares of merchants, such as the lesser-known California Midwinter Exposition of 1894. 

Shortly after this great exposition, the advent of the machinery that was so lavishly displayed & advertised, was in itself responsible for the downfall of Color Business Cardsthe trade card industry. New technology & communication advances made the distribution of newspapers & periodicals more practical. As such, advertising in this media became more affordable and more widespread.Color Business Cards

In 1898, the Post Office changed postal regulations, making the use of the newly introduced postcards more affordable. Also, the rise of mail order houses, such as Sears and Wards, were able to make their catalogs widely available as a result of these more reasonable rates. With regulations as put forth by the newly formed Food and Drug Administration in1906, ads for patent medicine's were dramatically reduced.  This significantly affected producers of trade cards.

These new forms of advertising edged their way into the niche formerly held by trade cards & soon were the cause of their demise.


*A more detailed & fascinating history of trade cards may be found in "The Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century America," by Robert Jay. University of Missouri Press, 1987.Color Business Cards





Color Business Cards

I.  Visiting Cards 17th Century   ●  II.  Trade Cards 17th Century   ●  III.  Business Cards 19th Century   ●  IV.  Calling Card Etiquette     V.  Trade Cards History

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