Fishy Business: Historic Ephemera Traces History

E. Richard McKinstry is the Winterthur Library Director and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Librarian. He has served as president of the Ephemera Society of America, an experience that further enhanced his appreciation of printed ephemera and people who collect it.

Especially during the late 1800s and early 1900s, American manufacturers, retailers, and wholesalers used trade cards to advertise what they had for sale. Splendid examples of the printing process of chromolithography, trade cards were more often than not about the size of postcards. One side almost invariably contained an image and the name of a business, while the other side included text that further explained and lauded the product being promoted.

In part because of their colorful imagery, trade cards were highly collectible in years past and continue to be today. The Winterthur Library is home to several thousand, both in a separate trade card collection and scattered in scrapbooks and in other items. A fully indexed database, shortly to be added to the library’s online resources, will describe and picture nearly 6,000 of them.

Besides promoting particular products and services, trade cards shed light on historical events of their times. For instance, during the late 1880s, Henry Mayo & Co. of Boston, a firm that was known for canning food, advertised one of its products, minced codfish, using a trade card. At the time, the United States and England were battling diplomatically over fishing rights off the coast of Canada. The trade card shows figures representing America (Uncle Sam) and England (John Bull) and reads: “’Tis the national food and the food for international quarrels.” In effect, the Mayo company creatively used an international quarrel to its advantage in the marketplace.

Mayo’s card dovetails neatly with other illustrations of the day to help tell the story of late 19th-century American-English discord. A drawing from the pen of noted caricaturist and editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast also addressed the fishing rights issue. Entitled “Our Next Haul,” it appeared in Harper’s Weekly on June 19, 1886, on page 399.

Nast’s cartoon suggests that the United States might annex the Canadian maritime province of Nova Scotia as a way to resolve the diplomatic predicament with England concerning fishing rights. He pictures Nova Scotia as a sailing vessel entering Boston’s harbor. As it does, sailors replace the English flag with the Stars and Stripes. America offers its welcome. To the right, Nast depicts Newfoundland—a separate colony from Canada into the mid-20th century—as a water soaked dog, wondering if perhaps it would follow in Nova Scotia’s wake.

It is doubtful that Thomas Nast and Henry Mayo were personally acquainted, though Nast may have eaten Mayo’s food and Mayo probably knew of Nast because he was such a noted public figure. But what they each created separately regarding a burning diplomatic issue of their time unites them for today’s historian.

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