Last time in the Trade Card Corner, we examined the history of advertising from its early beginnings in ancient Egypt and China to the invention of Guttenberg’s movable type printing press in 1450.  These events converged for the introduction of the first tradesmen’s card in England during the late 1600s.

A tradesmen’s card was technically not a “card” at all as it was printed on quality paper and not card stock.  A typical tradesmen’s card measured eight by ten inches in size and consisted of a pictorial element at the top of the card with a printed text below.  The tradesmen’s cards were available at the advertiser’s place of

business where they served a variety of purposes.  In addition to functioning as an advertising flyer, the cards were also used as a sales receipt and even as wrappings for purchases.  Figure #1 shows a tradesmen’s card for a London coffin maker from the early 1700s.  Both the illustration and the text were produced by woodblock printing.  Likely, the coffin and the hanging man were representative of the wooden sign that hung in front of the advertiser’s shop.

As printing methods improved, woodblock printing was replaced by copper plate engraving.  Although the format for tradesmen’s cards remained much the same, the engraving process allowed for more artistry in the pictorial elements and a much greater selection of styles for text.  Figure #2 shows an English tradesmen’s card for ass’s milk from the 1740s.  Note the attention to detail in the pastoral scene and the use of a script text.

As the English immigrated to America, they brought with them their advertising acumen using tradesmen’s cards.  The earliest known American tradesmen’s card was for a bookstore in Boston run by Thomas Hancock, uncle of John Handcock.  Early American tradesmen’s cards are also known from Philadelphia (Figure #3) and New York City.  Oddly, Tradesmen’s cards advertising engravers and printers were not common in America until well into the 1800s (Figure #4).

In 1850, a German immigrant, Louis Prang (Figure #5), introduced lithography, and specifically chromolithography, to the United States.  At first, printers used the unlimited variety of colors offered by chromolithography to publish landscapes and to reproduce famous works of art.  Cheap to produce, the lithographic prints could be sold at such reasonable prices that any family could afford to hang them in their homes.  Chromolithographers also made a healthy living producing circus posters (Figure #6) and advertisements for liquor (Figure #7).

In the 1860s, advertisers came to Mr. Prang requesting a small sized inexpensive advertising card that could be mass produced for distribution to the public.  Mr. Prang’s answer was a three inch by five inches lithographed black and white double-sided card printed on thin cardboard.  On the front of the card was an illustration designed to attract the consumer’s attention (Figure #8).  On the back was text, often testimonials from satisfied customers, which extolled the virtues of the advertiser’s product.  The cards came in two types. The first type was a stock card which bore a generic illustration suitable for practically any product.  These stock cards also featured a large blank area on the front of the card onto which the advertiser’s name could be printed as needed (Figure #9).  The second type of card was a custom printed card which had an illustration and text unique to the advertiser (Figure #10).

The heyday of the Victorian trade card lasted from 1870 to 1904.  During the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, where advertising trade cards were heavily promoted, eighty per cent of the cards were still produced by black and white lithography.  It would take another five years until the chromolithographic cards that today we so treasure would dominate the market place.