“Millions upon millions . . . of the most varied designs were thrown on the market. . . . Hardly a business man in the country has not at one time or another made use of such cards to advertise his wares.”
Louis Prang, c. 189017

Unlike the all-inclusive quality of trade catalogs, trade cards offered a more intimate presentation with which companies could announce their line of business and products. Produced in a variety of shapes and sizes, trade cards generally measured 2 x 4 or 3 x 5 inches. The cards functioned as the ultimate giveaway, whether tucked into products at the factory by wholesalers or inserted into packaged goods by retailers. Traveling salesmen had the opportunity to distribute trade cards to individual customers, general stores, retailers, and wholesalers, whether they made a sale or not.

Advances in chromolithography in the 1870s and 1880s opened the door to a flood of colorful creations. By that time the trade card’s popularity had made it one of the most widespread advertising formats—promoting everything from baby milk to pianos to patent medicines. “Manufacturers were eager to supply the local merchant with whatever advertising materials he might agree to use in dealing with his customers,” historian Robert Jay explains. “The generous supply of chromolithographed trade cards and other advertising materials was in fact a powerful incentive for the general store owner to agree to stock the product in question.”18

Innovators in chromolithography included the noted firms Mayer, Merkel & Ottmann, New York; Donaldson Brothers, New York; Bufford & Sons, Boston and New York; and Louis Prang, Boston. Their colorful trade cards were displayed in offices, general stores, hotels, railroad stations, and restaurants, and salesmen assisted storeowners in arranging advertisements for store counters and window displays using trade cards as well as larger formatted show cards.19 Marketing images also came to adorn home interiors. “Amid multiplying commercial images, the boundaries between art and commerce remained difficult to draw,” cultural historian Jackson Lears argues. “In many homes, advertisements became the chief means of brightening a dreary visual environment.”20

Printers offered an array of stock designs—flowers, children, animals—for the front of the card. A blank area provided space onto which companies could imprint or stamp their name and address. “We will send you Fancy Advertising Cards, no two alike,” the Union Trade Card Company announced, “With or Without Advertisements on them, for only Twenty-five Three Cent Stamps, Post Free to any Address.”21 Different companies might use the same card design to feature their products, while firms with larger advertising budgets could order custom designs.

Trade cards had to both entice customers and provide them with useful information in a compact format. The verso of each card featured helpful details about the product and company—from the benefits of liver pills to insurance company statistics—as well as general data about location, prices, terms of business, and sometimes a list of other products carried by the company.

Neatly packaged and visually arresting, trade cards functioned as precious tokens—keepsakes that illustrated the promise of individual products and the road to a better life. Print curator Eleanor Garvey contends that, “The colorful, expensively produced ad in and of itself was a treat: both an invitation to step into a more ‘complete’ and luxurious life by buying the product, and at the same time a token of that life. The more expensive an ad, the more it was worth to the consumer.”22

17 See Peter C. Marzio, The Democratic Art: Pictures for a Nineteenth-Century America. Boston: David Godine, 1979, p. 99.

18 Jay, pp. 39-40.

19 Walter Friedman, Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 63.

20 Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. New York: Harper Collins, pp. 268-269.

21 The Union Card Co. of Montpelier, Vermont in Maurice Richards, Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian. New York: Routledge, 2000, p. 335.

22 Eleanor Garvey, The Adman in the Parlour: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 23.