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
Earliest 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
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.
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
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.
Despite 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
trade cards for sale were of the more detailed and elaborate.
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
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.
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