When you think of an advertising trade card, what picture comes to mind?  More than likely, it is something similar to the card shown in Figure #1.  While this image is representative of advertising trade cards of the late Victorian period, by 1870, the advertising trade card had already undergone an evolution of several thousand years!

To understand how and why the trade card came to be, we should first examine the broader history of advertising.  Advertising is the practice of calling public attention to the products and/or services being offered.  This was first accomplished by simple word of mouth, a primary method of advertising still very much in use today.  As technology advanced, craftsmen began to sign their wares as a way of distinguishing their work from that of their competitors.  This practice constituted the earliest form of trademarking.

The next important event in the history of advertising was the development of written language.  This occurred first in Sumer (in Mesopotamia) in 3400 BCE.  The Sumerian cuneiform symbols were inscribed on clay or wax tablets in large part to memorialize various business transaction (Figure #2).  Three hundred years later, in 3100 BCE, the Egyptians developed hieroglyphs (picture writing) which were regularly written by hand on sheets of papyrus (Figure #3).  Advertisements are known to have existed in both of these two writing systems.

In 105 AD, a Chinese court official invented a process for making paper by mixing mulberry bark, hemp, rags and water.  The mixture was then pressed to remove excess water, and dried in the sun.  With paper and the invention of woodblock printing also in China in 200 AD, all the elements were in place for pictorial advertisements accompanied by text.

The problem of course with written text is that it requires a literate population to read it.  Until the 1600s, ninety percent of all the people on earth could neither read nor write.  In London and other urban centers throughout Europe and Asia, merchants relied upon wooden signs to identify the nature of their businesses.  For example, a boot maker would hang a wooden boot in front of his establishments to announce that this was where boots and shoes could be purchased or repaired (Figure #4).

Arguably, the most important development in advertising took place in Germany in 1450.  In that year, Johannes Guttenberg introduced a printing press that used movable type.  This allowed books and other printed matter to be printed quickly and in quantity.  The first book to be printed by this method was the Bible, a page of which is shown in Figure #5.  By 1500, movable type printing presses were being used all across Europe.

With the advent of economical printing methods, merchants began to commission handbills (Figure #6), and posters (Figure #7) to advertise their wares.  While these instruments worked relatively well in urban settings with a concentrated population of customers, it was the development of newspapers that heralded the concept of mass marketing.

Newspapers had their modern origin in England and in the United States.  In England, the London Gazette was Britain’s first newspaper.  Initially, the Gazette refused to carry any advertisements.  However, within a few years, the Gazette changed its policy to attract additional revenue (Figure #8).  In 1704, the Boston News-Letter became America’s first regularly published newspaper to carry advertisements.  In 1728, Benjamin Franklin began publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  This newspaper soon attracted more advertisers than any other paper in the colonies.

In our next article, the process by which the trade card came of age will be explored.