Donaldson’s American heroes

Among postcard collectors, patriotic sets have long been a favorite category.  In this group will be found the very popular Colonial Heroes, Austen's Famous Americans, various Raphael Tuck & Sons' titles and Rose Co.'s series of prominent historical personalities.

But perhaps the most interesting is Donaldson's American Heroes.

Its roots go back beyond the postcard format, beyond the turn of the 20th century, to two different types of early ephemera.  We can trace its artistic origins to the famous Arbuckle Coffee trade cards and to Clark's O.N.T. thread of the early 1890s.

The later postcard set of "American Heroes," as collectors have always called it, was issued nearly a generation later. And it consisted of 14 beautifully crafted items.

Each card was created in vignette design, reminiscent of the patriographics and other very early pioneer postcards of the 1895-1899 era, with a portrait of the famous American, two scenes from his life and a brief biography.  Though manufactured in this country, they were printed on the same postcard stock used by Bamforth Co., a British firm more associated with comics than with American historicals.  Copyright was claimed by R. M. Donaldson in the year 1908, so it can be assumed that 1908 or 1909 was the year of issue.

An important reason for collector's interest in this set is the fact that many of the famous people honored are not found on other patriotic postcards.  For that matter, most of them were rarely, if ever, used by publishers as illustrations for any kind of postcard.  Great personages from the pages of American history found in the Donaldson set, besides Paul Revere and Abraham Lincoln, are William Penn, Winifield Scott, John Smith, Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Sam Houston, Oliver Hazard Perry, Israel Putnam, George Washington, David Glasgow Farragut, Philip Henry Sheridan, and John Paul Jones.

In 1894 Donaldson Brothers, one of the largest and most important lithographic firms In America, printed the original set of 14 as advertising trade cards for Clark's O.N.T. Spool Cotton. Approximately 14 years later, R. M. Donaldson, the surviving brother of the partnership, used the exact designs for his postcard set.  The second set apparently was sold as a souvenir novelty as a boxed or packaged item.

The original trade cards were 3x5-inches in size, as compared to the postcards of 3x5-inch dimensions.  However, the actual illustrations were not enlarged in order to accommodate them to the slightly larger format.  Instead, we find the careful use of white spacing as a border around the picture.  To the eye, the postcard design looks larger, but a closer examination reveals otherwise.

Being trade cards from the 19th century, the Clark O.N.T. Spool Cotton set has advertising on half of the back, while the other half is given over to a biographical sketch of the hero. It is also from the reverse side of these trade cards that we find the origins of the set title, because nowhere on the postcards is there even a hint of any sort of series designation.

The line at the bottom of the trade card says simply: "This is one of a series of cards from our Gallery of American Heroes."

Early postcard collectors in the first two decades of the 20th century had easy access to the older trade cards and from this line was derived the commonly accepted terminology for the postcards.

Donaldson Brothers was a printing firm doing business in New York City in the Five Points area.  From what can be gleaned from the old trade cards, it began operation in the mid-1880s.  They were lithographers of many of the best advertising trade cards of the era.

A very important customers was the Arbuckle Coffee Company. Arbuckle's need for trade cards in the 1880s and 1890s, as free inserts in one-pound packages of their coffee, was so tremendous that they employed several large printing firms simultaneously.

One of the Arbuckle sets that Donaldson did was the 50-card "History of the United States and Territories" in 1892.  The style of the frames used to highlight and separate the different vignettes on each card is the same later found on the 1894 Clark’s trade card set and the 1908 postcards.

And at least two of the illustrations, "Pennsylvania" and "D.C.," were borrowed intact.  In fact, so exactly were these two pictorials copied, the artwork still contained the name of the state or federal district, with the patriotic hero's name added to fit the new format.  However, the adaptation of the Clark trade cards to postcards involved no changes of any kind.  The same artist who drew the Arbuckle insert cards also did the trade cards for Clark's O.N.T. Spool Thread two years later.  But he was not needed for the postcard layouts since no original material was added in.

Undoubtedly the choice by Donaldson of the subjects to use on their 1908 postcard series was determined by what was available in their own files from previous years.  This helps to explain the somewhat unusual choice of people portrayed on the postcards.  The heroes of the 1890s were not necessarily the legends still idolized by folks in 1908.  By then/ the passage of time had dimmed people's memories about many Revolutionary and Civil War heroes.

But thanks to Donaldson Brothers/ there is available to today's collectors an unusual and beautiful set of patriotic postcards and a patriotic trade card set from the previous century.  They both helped to make the 4th of July in past years a more festive holiday.