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History of Advertising Trade Cards

Updated on September 1, 2013

Hires Rootbeer

Brand Names Emerge

Business was booming in America, in the years after the Civil War. Manufacturers were turning out more and more goods and brand names were becoming more important. Having specific brand names on coffee, beans or other foodstuffs was actually a rather new concept.

Shoppers bought whatever was made locally or commodities shipped in bulk. There was no individual packaging , but commercial canning had become a large business and they needed catchy packaging to attract the customer’s eye.

Lion Coffee

Excelsior Starch

New Packaging

So products started to be put in smaller packages suitable for a single household and there were more and more food producers competing for the dollars of consumers. It was time to turn to advertising. Newspaper ads were common and there were some magazines available, but newspaper ads had to be in black and white and magazines ads were expensive. So advertisers turned to trade cards.

Merrick Thread

Polish Card

Inexpensive Printing Developed

Due to new, less expensive color printing techniques it was not too costly for even small businesses to afford the cards. They were a little bigger than the size of today’s postcard and usually had a colorful picture on the front and advertising copy on the back. They were made of thin cardboard and were very sturdy. Some national brands even included the name of the local store where the goods could be purchased. Many also had catchy slogans or jokes or novelties.

1893 World's Fair in Stove Card

WINSLOW SOOTHING SYRUP (with heroin the secret ingredient)

Distribution of Cards

Some cards were mailed to prospective customers, but most were obtained in the grocery store. Merchants were given the cards by manufacturers to hand out to all customers or those that had purchased the item. Some cards were also included in the packaging.

Many of these cards are still available today because the customers who received the cards didn’t throw them away. There might not be a lot of artwork in the house and these trade cards were collected and displayed. Some people even had photo albums full of the cards and showed them proudly to company.

WHITE LEAD PAINT (look there's even a child in the picture)

Golden Eagle Clothing

Wide Variety Available

The themes on the cards varied widely, some had pretty girls, other cards used patriotic symbols, humor, children, historical figures and fictional characters. Almost all were in color and a few cards were folded or put together in such a way so that they showed 2 images.

It was not just grocery companies that used trade cards, farming equipment, sewing machines and building supplies were also featured on the cards. Household goods such as plumbing, furniture and pianos also were on many trade cards.The trade card business started to dry up around the turn of the century. Magazines had become less expensive and color printing was more common in the periodicals. There were more ways to advertise so the trade cards sort of died out.

Today the cards are still available in antique stores and online for reasonable prices. The colors on the cards are still vivid but they are now collected for their historical interest, rather than for their attractiveness.


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    • wetnosedogs profile image

      wetnosedogs 5 years ago from Alabama

      Great history piece. Interesting how it all started. I really like the pictures.