Every Trade Card Tells a Story

Despite their small size, trade cards and labels yield loads of information across many subject areas for researchers. A form of advertising that appeared in England in the mid-1600s and in America by the 1720s, early trade cards were either simple lists of products or elaborately engraved with cartouches, products, and shop signs to direct customers to sellers’ locations with the reverse side sometimes doubling as invoices. As chromolithography became more popular and printing cheaper, trade cards in the later decades of the 1800s showed more fanciful and colorful images of children, families at home, animals, flowers, and comic scenes to entice buyers. Their size also became more standardized to better fit into small product packages as an extra reminder to consumers to continue patronage. Trade cards and labels have been collectible throughout their existence; early ones as engraved prints, later ones as fodder for scrapbooks. By the turn of the century, trade cards disappeared as magazines succeeded them as the more effective advertising medium.

The library’s collection of trade cards includes early engraved labels and later chromolithographed cards, with the following five items revealing design changes over a 125-year period.

Benjamin Harbeson trade label, engraved by Henry Dawkins, ca. 1770.

Benjamin Harbeson trade label, engraved by Henry Dawkins, ca. 1770.

Philadelphia coppersmith Benjamin Harbeson, Sr.’s trade label was engraved around 1770 by Henry Dawkins, an English-born engraver first trained as a silversmith, who arrived in New York City in 1753 and worked in both cities until the late 1780s. The design shows copper wares and Harbeson’s shop sign perched on an elaborate rococo cartouche with a listing of items for sale within. Beautiful as the design is, it’s not original but copied from several English examples, one of which was E. Warner’s label for razor-maker Henry Patten. Besides plagiarizing this design, Dawkins was arrested in 1776 for counterfeiting paper currency, a common sideline for those with copper plates on hand. Full details of the story are unknown, and he was released in 1777, possibly escaping or freed by the British after they gained possession of White Plains where he was incarcerated. Suffering no permanent damage from the disgrace, Dawkins was soon engraving bills of credit for the Continental Congress.

William Buttre trade label, 1813–14.

William Buttre trade label, 1813–14.

The woodcut-engraved label of William Buttre offers an invaluable early view of a craft shop with people plying their trade. Showing the entire chairmaking process with its division of labor from the lathe-turning of parts to rush-seat weaving to ornamental painting, all under the watch of a master, the label provides clues to the success of this Scottish-born craftsman. Beginning in 1801, Buttre operated his fancy chair factory at different New York City locations until expanding into Albany by early 1815 for new opportunities. To pinpoint a date for the label, city directories showing the two listed addresses narrow the date to 1813–14, when he had amassed enough success and capital to venture into another market.

Hymen Lipman trade card, early 1840s.

Hymen Lipman trade card, early 1840s.

 

Hymen Lipman, born in Jamaica to English parents, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1829. Eleven years later he succeeded Samuel Stewart as the city’s leading stationer remaining at the 139 Chestnut Street address until 1849. Since envelopes aren’t specifically listed as one of his products, it is possible to date the card before he opened the country’s first envelope factory in 1843. His real claim to fame may be either as the first person to patent the revolutionary invention of a pencil with an attached eraser in 1858 or as having one of the five funniest names in history as posted in a YouTube video  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8c9mRklqQM.

Willcox & Gibbs trade card, ca. 1876.

Willcox & Gibbs trade card, ca. 1876.

After the Civil War, a radical shift in advertising strategies took place as firms used sentiment and emotion to attract business—as seen on the before-and-after scenes of the Willcox & Gibbs trade card sending the message to consumers that buying its New Automatic Silent Sewing Machine equated buying domestic harmony. As stated on the reverse, the company was one of many sewing machine manufacturers who exhibited in Machinery Hall at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, employing women to make and sell souvenir handkerchiefs and other items to visitors. This machine was one of the 8,000 machines in the building, including telegraphs, telephones, printing presses, steam engines, blast furnaces, and locomotives, that displayed America’s growing industrial power and technological developments to the world.

H. J. Heinz Co. trade card, ca. 1900.

H. J. Heinz Co. trade card, ca. 1900.

A new touch of whimsy at the end of the century featured cards shaped as products, like this one of a girl in a pickle—one of the many foods Henry J. Heinz sold after his humble beginnings as a boy peddling vegetables to his Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, neighbors. The food processing company got its formal start in 1869 selling horseradish, sauerkraut, vinegar, pickles, and more to local grocers, with its iconic ketchup debuting in 1876. Twenty years later, Heinz introduced the slogan “57 varieties,” a random number not reflective of the higher number of goods offered by the company. Expansion proceeded at a good pace; by 1904 H. J. Heinz operated plants in six countries and incorporated a year later. Committed to “pure, clean, good” food,  the firm pioneered processes for sanitary food preparation and lobbied for the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

View more trade cards online at: http://content.winterthur.org:2011/cdm/landingpage/collection/advertising.

Post by Jeanne Solensky, librarian of the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.

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