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sheet showing eight different scenes including: with oysters and win, with a lobster and fish; with ham; with two women and scales; one with with a stereotype Asian man and woman and a box with tea spilling out; with a stereotype Asian man and a box of trade goods; with fine china; with fancy glass; with women's clothes and toiletries; with a an apothecary with medicines; with jewelry; with books and paper
Bufford's trade sheet, 1876.

Trade Cards and Making an Impression

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a grid of business cards with some features names to show fonts others showing specific businesses or occupation including: Passenger and freight train employees; fire department; baseball clubs; insurance companies; wholesale and retail clothiers and manufacturers; merchant tailors, carriage builders; billiards halls; dining saloons; restaurants, and hotels; harness makers and repairers, barbers watchmakers and jewelers, masons; music teachers and dealers in musical instruments; dealers in stoves and tin ware; boot and shoe dealers repairers, and manufacturers; Knights of Pythia hat and cap dealers and manufacturers; dentists; coal dealers; blacksmiths; hair dealers and hairdressers, shipping department; fish dealers; druggists and apothecaries; crockery dealers; bankers and brokers; dry and fancy goods dealers; hardware dealers; photographers; architects; cigar and tobacco dealers; fashionable dress and cloak makers; trunk dealers and manufacturers; Calvary; artillery; book dealers and stationery; bakeries; furniture dealers and manufacturers; baggage and express wagoners.
Trade cards showing stock card images for a variety of occupations and industries.

This image is one of the more fun images I have found in the Library’s collections (open it up to get a better look). It looks like something a printer would show potential customers as both sample and starting point for those looking for their own trade card.

Trade cards would have acted much as a modern business card would, though they were a bit more than that. They were part advertisement and part contact information–something that was very important when addresses were less formalized than they are today. They may have been the first chance to make that all-important first impression–they had to inform and maybe even wow.

According to Robert Jay in The Trade Card in 19th Century America, the history of the trade card in Europe goes back to at least the late 17th and early 18th century; and many early ones, while not referred to as trade cards, were printed on paper and varied in size. Because many people couldn’t read and because streets weren’t numbered, cards were designed to familiarize potential customers with a business’ shop sign and to provide information that would make it possible for someone to actually find a particular business. Trade cards did make it to the colonies but not until later in the 18th century and were initially more common in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

By the 19th century, as the United States grew and moved westward, trade cards became more common. They became more elaborate and sometimes even colorful. According to Jay, it was about this time when the idea of “stock” trade cards were developed. Stock cards were based on a single card design and adapted for many different advertisers (p. 26-29). John H. Bufford’s Bufford Company was an early leader in the use of color lithography in trade cards; we have one featured below. A firm owned by Louis Prang would also play a major role in the development of the trade cards in the 19th century. The waning years of the 19th century saw the decline of the trade card, and by the early 20th century, they were virtually gone.

Looking at a few older examples, there was quite a variety of styles. There is one from F.J. Pillner that is quite a bit like the sample sheet that launched this post. One for Luke C. Dillion was more basic, while others, like those for Jas G. Stacey, were more elaborate. Some printers, where particular industries concentrated, would have samples to appeal to that market, like one I saw for rye whiskey. I also saw a few featuring a bevy of beauties that might have been used for “stock” trade cards. Beyond stock images and design, a business might bring their own personality to their trade card to stand out from the more typical designs. In 2015 I wrote about one I bought at an antique mall because of its distinctive look.

While trade cards may have died, the 20th century saw the rise of its relative–the white rectangle we are more familiar with today. Traditionally, business cards have been a white or cream 2 x 3.5 rectangle with black text and possibly a pop of color for the company or organization logo. Increasingly, many people no longer use business cards in favor of digital connections and even social media. When you do see them, there is increasing variety when it comes to their design. There is often more color, some cards come in other shapes and sizes, and it is not uncommon for both sides of a card to be used.

Trade cards themselves have become collectibles. Some people collect them for the art and imagery. Some collect a particular industry. Others may be interested in businesses in a particular area.

While it may be that trade cards are gone and business cards are less commonly used, these cards are a window into the commercial history of the United States and often provide information of interest to those researching particular industries or businesses in a local area. They can also just be really pretty.

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Comments (3)

  1. Really interesting! And, yes– pretty! Thanks for shedding light on this history.

  2. As a former paper conservator I collected numerous business trade cards over the years. I’m thinking of passing the on to my family. Any suggestions on where to go or who to contact for an honest appraisal? Thank you. Larry

    • I don’t know that there is any best option, it might be helpful to talk to an antiquarian and see — they might be tapped into to anyone that might specialize. This feels specialized. The three trade cards I have I got at an antique mall in Pennsylvania and were $3 each. With that said, I suspect that any that are from well-known business (like Coke) or that have some other iconic/collectible image (cats are always collectible) would likely fetch a higher price.

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