Trade Cards

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American manufacturers had a problem in the 1870s. They were beginning to produce and distribute consumer goods on a nationwide scale—but there was no advertising medium of truly national circulation. Their need, together with the perfecting of inexpensive methods of color lithography, gave birth to a fascinating phenomenon, at once folk art and effective business device: the trade card. Inserted in packages at the factory, handed out by retailers with every sale, or mailed to prospective customers, these small cards touted the virtues of almost every imaginable product. The complete sales pitch was usually printed on the back, but an attractive colored picture on the other side of the card was invariably the attention-getter—one that soon proved its tremendous appeal. Thousands of Americans avidly saved these cards, later to exchange them with friends, paste them in albums, or just keep them in a drawer in the parlor, where members of the family could beguile a long winter evening by poring over the collection. The fad flourished until well after the turn of the century; and just as the ads in last week’s magazines will one day be of high interest to cultural historians looking for insights into American life of the 1960s, so a sampling of the trade cards of the Gilded Age offers a unique view of how Americans lived then: what they believed in, what they desired, what they were proud of, and what their hidden assumptions were. Such a sampling, together with brief commentaries, follows.