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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Curator's Choice: Choice Flower Seeds Trade Card

May 1, 2014 Archive Insight

Did you really think we wouldn't pick May flowers?

Trade cards (also known as advertising cards) were produced in enormous numbers during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Following the Civil War, America was inundated with an unprecedented volume of advertising. Simultaneous with this was the prolific publication of newspapers and magazines. However, these publications offered limited advertising space for most businesses. Newspapers usually reserved space for only their local merchants and national magazines devoted only a few pages to advertising. A full-page advertisement was almost nonexistent in periodicals of the time and certainly almost no advertisement appeared in color.

Hence, the advertising void was answered by the poster and the trade card. The trade card became the format of choice for many different reasons. First, unlike posters, trade cards could be printed on both sides often giving greater detail of the product on the reverse. The trade card was relatively inexpensive to manufacture and distribute, and as lithographic technology improved during the 1870s and 1880s, beautiful full-color trade cards began to be produced by even the smaller companies, and subsequently collected by the eager public. (Lithography is the process of putting designs with a greasy material on stone, zinc, aluminum, or another substance and then producing a printed impression from there.) Trade cards were most commonly distributed through local retailers and wholesalers where they reached even the most remote towns. Oftentimes they were packaged with product, and companies began campaigns, much like the incentives common in today's cereal boxes, in which customers were urged to collect all the different designs in a series.

New postal regulations in late 1880s may be the single greatest cause for the end of the trade card. A reduced cost for mailings allowed for a number of new periodicals on the market, and the publishers began to add more pages to their magazines making room for more advertisements. The full-page advertisement began to appear, as well as heavily illustrated mail order catalogs such as Sears & Roebuck. Another competitor for the trade card was the post card which allowed companies direct communication to specific consumer markets. After the tremendous volume produced from the 1870s through the 1890s, the trade card had all but disappeared by the beginning of the twentieth century.

By Judith E. Endelman, former Curator of Special Collections at The Henry Ford.

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