Friday, July 31, 2020

Getting the Word Out Victorian Style

Trading card scrapbook.
QUESTION: I recently purchased a scrapbook full of brightly colored cards displaying advertisements for various products. Can you tell me about these types of cards and about how old they might be?

ANSWER: You seem to have stumbled on a scrapbook full of advertising trade cards. While
T.V.  commercials, as well as magazine and Internet ads  promote everything from cars and medicines to food products, during the latter part of the 19th century, trade cards did the selling.

In the 1890s, manufacturers focused their advertising efforts nationwide. Although the Industrial Revolution gave them the know-how to mass-produce consumer goods, they needed a way to show off their new products. At the time, magazines were just beginning to show ads. A new inexpensive method of color printing called chromolithography appeared in the 1870s and paved the way for trade cards. Reproduced by the millions, these colorful handouts flooded the country, becoming at once an effective business device, as well as folk art. Companies mailed them. Merchants gave them to their customers. Traveling salesmen distributed them door to door. And consumers saved them, often trading them with friends.

Chromolithographic trading card.
Although most were about the size of a playing card, others measured up to 3 x 5 inches. The typical card featured a colorful picture on one side and a sales pitch on the other. Frequently, the manufacturer left a blank space for a merchant to add his name and address.

Two-sided trading card
Die-cut trading card.

The most common trade cards are flat pieces of colorful cardboard, however even more popular are die-cut cards—those cut in the shapes of the objects they advertise. Particular favorites include such varied subjects as pickles or teacups. Some are two-sided, with a different scene on either side, each of which promotes one of the company's products. Others fold or have movable parts.

Metamorphic trading card.

Metamorphic cards have flaps that fold out to reveal pictures different from those seen when closed. Some cards encourage the viewer to open the flap to discover what happens next. One titillating card pictures a woman sitting in a bathtub with her knees visible. When opened, the card reveals her serving drinks to two bald men.

Cards with movable parts are fragile and often in poor condition. Unfortunately, few of these cards with all their parts intact have survived decades of wear and tear. Hold-to-light or see-through cards are even more fragile. The picture changes or words come into view when the card is held up to the light, completing the advertisement.

At the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, manufacturers put thousands of these bright little pasteboard salesmen into the hands of a product hungry public. Grocers handed them out for every imaginable product, from soup to soap! Manufacturers inserted some cards right into packaging. People saved the cards with a passion, pasting them into scrapbooks.

Arbhuckle Brothers Coffee trading card.
As their popularity grew, trade cards evolved into trading cards which manufacturers frequently packaged as serialized premiums in products such as cigarettes and coffee. Arbuckles' Coffee, for example, offered  a 50-card series of states and territories.

Medicine trading card.
Some of the products most heavily advertised by trade cards, included those involving medicines, food, tobacco, clothing, household goods, sewing items, stoves, and farming tools. Two of the most popular categories were medicine and tobacco. In the late 19th century, claims made for patent medicines weren’t  regulated by law, and trade cards advertising these medicines often promised miraculous results.

Tobacco companies inserted trade cards into cigarette packs as stiffeners to protect the contents. Allen and Ginter in the U.S. in 1886, and British company W.D. & H.O. Wills in 1888, were the first tobacco companies to print advertisements. Several years later, colorful lithographic illustrations began to appear on these cards which featured a variety of topics ranging from sports to nature. By 1900, over 300 tobacco companies produced thousands of tobacco card sets. Children would often stand outside of stores to ask customers who bought cigarettes if they might give them the trade cards in their packs. By the 1950s, trading cards boy began to collect sports, military, and automobile cards contained in packs of bubble gum.

The popularity of trade cards peaked around 1890, and then almost completely faded by the early 1900s when other forms of advertising in color, such as magazines, became more cost effective. The more common antique trade cards sell for about $1 to $15, depending on quality and condition.

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