Victorian trade cards are illustrated business advertising cards from the 19th Century.
Typically printed in multiple colors, these cards were freely distributed to promote goods and services through images and text designed to be so informative, so clever, or so attractive that consumers would have a hard time throwing the ad away.
The Rise of 19th Century Advertising Cards
The “Golden Years” for American advertising trade cards began with their explosion in popularity as free exhibit souvenirs from vendors at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Golden Years for Victorian trade cards ended around 1901.
In 1876, the American Industrial Revolution was hitting full steam. Innovators and manufactures were developing new products, and they were eager to showcase their goods and explain the benefits of their brands in the most spectacular and memorable ways possible.
Full-color Victorian trade cards fit the bill perfectly.
In an age dominated by stark black and white photography and one-ink letter presses, the rainbows of colors and extravagances in chromolithographed images made Victorian trade cards an instant hit.
Most of the early cards were produced by well-established lithographers in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, but as the popularity of Victorian trade cards mushroomed, other printers began setting up color presses and producing them in virtually every major city in America.
By the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition, a business could hardly be considered respectable if it was not issuing cards worthy of a collector’s album.
Major lithographers like Ottmann of New York landed the biggest printing contracts with national firms like Hires Root Beer and the Singer Sewing Machine Company, who placed orders of hundreds of thousands of cards at at time.
But there was plenty of business for everyone, large or small.
In remote villages, print shops joined the action by customizing cards to their handful of stores on Main Street. These shops would purchase thousands of assorted color “stock cards” from the big cities. Stock cards arrived in bulk with blank areas for the imprinting local business names and addresses, as well as any requested advertising text that could fit in the remaining space.
Stock cards could be imprinted one-by-one using inexpensive card presses which were sold mail order for just such purposes. In small town press rooms, or even in the basement of a dry goods store, a store name and address could be applied by means of a rubber stamp.
By the 1880’s, collecting Victorian trade cards had become a national craze.
Articles were written about the proper way to trim the margins off advertising cards so the distraction of white borders would be eliminated when a card was pasted into a scrapbook.
Discussions were held on the merits of mounting cards with flour pastes rather than with leather glues. Etiquette essays were written to instruct refined young women how to cluster their cards in themes, as well as how to select certain types of albums to reflect the highest possible level of sophistication. Children competed with neighbors to see who could fill the most parlor albums the quickest, but parents got in on the fad as well.
Mothers would help the wee ones with their collecting, and in many cases, the scrapbook became as much the mother’s project as anyone’s.
Men began seriously collecting cards in the 1880’s when tobacco companies started issuing sports cards, joke cards, and actress cards with men in mind.
(Tobacco insert cards evolved into a genre of their own. More on that in a future blog.)
How Victorian Trade Cards were distributed:
Victorian trade cards were often placed in stacks on store counters, free for the taking.
Other times they were passed out by salespeople on the sidewalk.
They could even be found packaged as “prizes” inside coffee tins or boxes of soap.
To exploit increasing demand, book stores started buying batches of cards to sell to collectors.
Collectors began writing to companies for free samples, or even sending money directly to printers to purchase large assortments of cards before (or sometimes after) the ads were applied.
By the mid-1880’s, Victorian trade cards were being distributed and collected from coast to coast, from affluent urban centers to rural farm villages and remote mountain mining camps.
The Fall of Victorian Trade Cards
The prestige of trade cards tapered off dramatically after the Buffalo, New York, Pan-American Exposition World’s Fair of 1901.
By the arrival of the 1900’s, colorful magazine ads were on the rise, and the new fad of collecting postcards was taking the nation by storm. For the “modern” young people of the new century, assembling and organizing hand-addressed postal cards was all the rage. Filing and shuffling their exotic treasures in the slotted black pages of post card albums made gluing Victorian trade cards seem messy, and more like something “old-fashioned” only their mothers would do.
Queen Victoria ruled the UK from 1837 until she died of old age in 1901.
It seems fitting that as the Victorian era passed away and made room for the innovations of the 20th century, so, too, did Victorian trade cards fade away and yield their preeminence to modern advertising and the new cards that became in many ways the equivalent of Twitter and Selfies today.
But more on the transition from trade cards to postcards will be covered in a future blog.
For an in-depth expanded version of this blog,
click the article link below:
Again, as always, all the BEST to you… and Good Collecting! — Dave Cheadle
Especially the kind of tale that delivers a happy ending.
Advertisers know this, so their most effective ads often tell the story of a good experience, a difficult life that is upgraded and improved through the purchase of a specific product and brand.
During the 19th Century, it was hard to get any more dramatic and obvious in storytelling about improvements in a consumer’s life than can be found in what collectors now refer to as: “The Before and After Trade Card.”
For the story of cards telling tales of consumer breakthroughs and transformations –and for an illustrated review of many classic examples of these ads– the best resource is Ben Crane’s 1995 book:
Crane’s study includes thoughtful discussions and helpful illustrations of Metamorphic and folding trade cards, “See-Through” Hold-to-Light cards (HTL), Turnover cards, Optical Illusion cards, Heat Sensitive cards, Then and Now, and others.
Over 80 metamorphic trade cards are shown (both opened and closed) in Ben Crane’s essential 19th Century Victorian Advertising Trade Card Resource.
Numerous other types of “problem solved” cards are shown as well.
With and Without cards, Paneled (and unpaneled) cards, Moving and Mechanical cards, Upside-Down cards (ambigrams), and even Before, During and After cards showing a progression of changes are all illustrated and discussed in Ben’s book.
Some of the transformations illustrated in these cards seem odd by today’s standards.
For example, in Victorian times, being “large” was often a sign of prosperity and good eating.
Philadelphia’s Mercantile Hotel catered to 1876 Centennial guests, but they also stayed around long enough after the exposition to develop a regular local clientele who could buy “First Class Meals” for 25 cents. To suggest the quality and quantity of their meals, they issued a card showing a very thin man growing fat on their fare in a single month.
Before and After cards offer some of the most fascinating views of Victorian life and fantasies imaginable. No wonder these clever and promising 19th Century ads were so popular in their day.
And no wonder they remain so popular yet today.
Ben Crane was a founding member of the Trade Card Collectors Association, and he contributed an outstanding overview article to the TCCA’s very first journal, ATCQ, Spring, 1994.
A reprint of Ben’s article can be found via the above link.
For more about Ben, and to tap into the wonderful resources of his huge website, click on:
More examples and discussions of the 19th Century Before and After Trade Card will be shared in future Victorian Card Hub blogs, but the link to Ben’s ATCQ article will provide researchers and collectors a very good introduction to these types and styles of storytelling cards.
Again, Ben’s article can be found in the Victorian Card Hub archive.
Victorian trade cards were often beautiful, clever, and informative
19th Century consumers gathered these irresistible advertising give-aways from wherever they could find them. And those original Victorian collectors treasured their specimens of 19th Century printing and lithography for good reason.
In an age of mostly black and white photography and line-art publishing, lithographed cards came in breathtakingly vibrant colors.
Advertising cards were informative, and not just about the latest innovations of the industrial age. In addition to educating about new products, these cards incidentally informed about popular culture, teaching people in different regions about new trends and fads from across the country, if not from around the world.
Yes, they were far too fascinating and beautiful to throw away. And even the blandest of these advertising cards were often clever, if not laugh-out-loud comical.
But, oh… the color ones!
Young and old Victorians alike gathered these cards from wherever they could find them: store counters, sales representatives, even packaged inside coffee tins and soap wrappers. Card collections were then sorted, traded with friends, pasted into scrapbooks… even pinned up on the wall or tucked into mirrors and picture frames around the home.
At times, it got competitive, with collectors racing to see who could fill the most albums with the best cards in the shortest amount of time.
In fact, some 19th Century collectors were so aggressive in their collecting they were at times described as down-right “fiendish” in their enthusiasms.
With so much 19th century fascination and energy invested in collecting cards, it is not surprising that a few cards were printed… about cards being printed.
And because a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s see it:
19th Century printing and lithography
as explained and illustrated by cards
Liebig issued an amazing 6-card set illustrating each of the phases involved in producing a 12-color lithographed card. As chromolithography is explained in these card pictures and captions… the depth of color begins to emerge as inks are applied to Liebig’s portrait!
Of course, some trade cards were inked in as few as one or two colors, and on the other end of the spectrum, Prang Lith. of Boston was known to have inked some prints in 20 colors or more. But this Liebig set illustrates the process very well.
The scenes and captions of the six cards are as follows:
1. The Artist Composes the Subject
/ Portrait – in 2 Colors (L’artiste composent le sujet.) 2. Extraction of the Lithographic Stones
/ Portrait – in 4 Colors (Extraction des pierres lithographiques.) 3. Lithographic Reproduction
/ Portrait – in 6 Colors (La reproduction lithographique.) 4. Creating the Proofs
/ Portrait – in 8 Colors (Tirage des epreuves d’essal.) 5. Final Run. Rotary Press
/ Portrait – in 10 Colors (Tirage definitif. Presse rotative.) 6. Cutting and Packing
/ Portrait – in 12 Colors (Decoupage et emballage.)
Before examining the remaining four of the Liebig cards, it might be helpful to read what one American firm said about the process of color printing.
The production of lithographs was explained in detail on a card issued by
Burdick & Son, lithographers and manufacturers of metal and tin work, Albany, NY.
Burdick was noted for, among other things, manufacturing custom tin boxes with beautifully lithographed images. One of the cards they distributed at expositions features a factory view of their Albany, New York, facility. This card is itself a showcase of their work: the card is composed of tin, rather than cardboard.
It is a card designed to demonstrate to potential clients the quality of the 19th Century printing and lithography work they could expect when placing orders for “Decorated Tin Boxes” and lithographed signs, etc.
The metal Burdick card describes on back the work that is done with the lithographic stones, the inking process, and other aspects of 19th Century printing and lithography image production.
Back to the Liebig set, which illustrates these steps in 19th Century printing and lithography in brilliant color stages:
Card 4 of the Liebig set shows printers working with their prepared stone slabs.
Note vertical rows of the stones beneath the presses, with additional stones lined up on distant shelves.
By the final two cards of the Liebig set, the portrait of the company’s founder grows rich and realistic in subtle hues. By the time of the application of the 12th color of ink, the skin is lifelike indeed.
Only one color of ink is applied at each pass through the press, so to get the final portrait image, this card was imprinted 12 times!
And again, each imprint required a distinct stone.
More information about 19th Century printing and lithography will be shared in future posts, but this should give folks a pretty good overview.
A permanent (and expanded) version of this blog post will be posted into the Victorian Card Hub archive.
More about Patent Medicine Cards on History Channel:
Pawn Stars, Monday Night, April 23, 2018
People have been asking about these fabulous “Dark Humor” Antikamnia calendar cards.
Some are actually hilarious or even cute, while others are definitely creepy.
For more “background information,” read the reverse note from the last card they issued:
The Antikamnia Chemical Company hired local physician-artist Louis Crucius to do the art for the calendars. Crucius was also a pharmacist, and did the “Skeleton Sketches” drawings while working at a pharmacy. Five years worth of the calendars – 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900, and 1901 – were printed.
Antikamnia’s analgesic compound, which was never patented, was marketed as a ‘proudly ethical drug’ and used to treat headaches, fever, stomach aches, nervousness, insomnia and ‘the blues’.
They claimed their cure was a new synthetic coal-tar derivative, but it contained almost 50% acetanilid, which they mixed with codeine or quinine. Or even Heroin!
The toxic effects of acetanilid were exposed in a 1907 California State Journal of Medicine article, ‘Poisoning by Antikamnia’, and the company was prosecuted by the government in 1914 for violating the disclosure terms of the Food and Drug Act of 1906.
Skulls, Headache Pains,
Acetanilid… and Tylenol
Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Julius Axelrod discovered that the primary metabolic product of acetanlilide is a compound called paracetamol.
Of course, you may know paracetamol by its other chemical name, para-acetylaminophenol … or Tylenol.
To learn more via national television, watch the Season 15 Episode 25 History Channel show about Antikamnia skeleton calendar on Pawn Stars, April 23.
All the BEST to you, and as always, Good Collecting! — Dave Cheadle
Growing up on a farm in rural western Michigan, I used to go around digging bottles from old country dumps.
With a little scrubbing, those “dump” bottles sparkled up pretty nice, and I started seriously collecting medicine bottles for the shelves and window sills around our 1800’s farm house.
There were six of us kids living under one roof, and eventually my little brother and youngest sister started coming along to assist with a shovel, and then to help with the washing when we got home (for a nickle per bottle). Even my dad got pulled in, and after a hard day he’d sometimes join in a local dig.
Mom, not so much. But she liked them in the window just fine.
As my collection grew, I started selling duplicates at flea markets… then setting up sales tables at antique shows and bottle swaps around the Midwest.
From antique bottles, I transitioned into collecting patent medicine advertising of the sort featured at the top of this blog post. I found the added information on these ads to be very helpful when I was giving a sales pitch and trying to make a bottle sale.
And then I started really falling in love with the cards, signs and almanacs themselves.
From Glass to Paper
Over time, my collection of 19th century patent medicine advertising items expanded into other areas such as pre-prohibition beer and whiskey cards, soap ads, and agricultural farm equipment folders.
By the time I was teaching high school History and English in my 20’s, I was collecting Victorian lithographed cards of everything from men’s top hats to State Fair horse races.
In the 1980’s I began selling illustrated articles to magazines like Bottles & Extras and Sports Collectors Digest. I would specifically look for Victorian Advertising Trade Cards to illustrate the specific themes I was researching and writing about, feeling like I could justify buying whatever I needed for the sake of “historical preservation” … and I rationalized that my published documentation of these artifacts would serve as a valuable legacy to future generations.
This sounded pretty convincing to me, but my wife didn’t always see it that way 😉
By the 1990’s when the trade card collecting hobby was really taking off, I had published dozens of articles in everything from Victorian Decorating and Lifestyle to a cowboy history magazine.
That’s when Russ Mascieri reached out to me to join him in launching a new collectors’ association for card folks. Russ was the proprietor of the hugely successful Victorian Images trade card auctions, and he figured together we could put out a journal to serve the card collecting community. More on that another time, but we had a good run, and we saw the hobby flourish during those years.
After the Trade Card Collectors Association closed down in 2002, I shifted my focus somewhat away from writing about cards and social history, and more towards selling my duplicates on ebay.
My kids were growing up, and I had to pay some bills.
From Paper to the Web
… and to Television
Fast forward to April, 2018.
The bug to write again about cards, and to try to bring the card collecting community together again, motivated me to search for some sort of cost-effective way to get things rolling.
Everybody kept telling me I should write a blog.
A busy blog starts showing up on search engines, and traffic increases. Linked to a website, this venue might get some traction.
By April 15th, we’d launched the framework for the Victorian Card HUB, and folks started signing up to subscribe to the blog and newsletter. The new HUB website was getting hits, but far fewer subscribers than I’d hoped.
And the first newsletter experiment was still in the works, but I could not find an angle.
Suddenly, I discovered that I’d be appearing on Pawn Stars the next week.
Back in October, I’d filmed a couple episodes with Rick in Las Vegas, and in one of those shows I’d given him a chance to purchase one of my complete Antikamnia skeleton calendars.
I’ve not yet seen the episode, but it was pretty interesting to film. I have no idea how the show will be edited, but Rick and I got around to shooting the breeze about Victorian lithographs, and about patent medicines, and a bit about Victorian culture and history.
Those are three of my running passions… and perhaps yours as well?
Hence, this story… and our first HUB newsletter and mailing!
I’m not quite as egotistical as this blog might seem from all of my rambling about myself and the show on April 23.
But I AM looking for a way to generate more steam for the HUB.
For the HUB to flourish, we need hundreds more folks to visit the site. To bookmark the HOME page. And to subscribe to the blog newsletters.
Lots of folks watch Pawn Stars. Millions of them, from what I hear. (I don’t get cable, so I have to go to a buddy’s house to watch the History Channel.) Anyway, I’m hoping to leverage the upcoming show. Maybe you’d be willing to help?
Please feel free to forward this email to as many folks as you think might get a kick out seeing some really cool ephemera on national television. Tell them how you collect old cards like this, and that you’re not crazy… this stuff can actually be VALUABLE and HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT !
Brag a little… and tell them about one of your really cool cards.
Tell them that Antikamnia wasn’t the only patent medicine firm to issue skeleton cards. Let them know there are a handful of other “creepy” cards in the genre, including this classic:
Did I mention that you could use the April 23rd Pawn Stars show as an opportunity to brag about
one of YOUR favorite cards?
NOTE: if you or any of your interested family or friends miss the premier of the Antikamnia card episode, you can probably catch a rerun later in May. The History Channel often runs their “new” episodes a few more times during the next 30 days after a premier. Plus, most folks can figure out how to pull an older episode up ON DEMAND, or by using their computer. My episode is S15, E25, the one titled: “Highly Explosive Pawns.”
I’m the guy at some point in the episode who makes Rick feel “dated” when I show him crazy skeleton images from the chemical company’s advertising calendar pages.
THANKS again for
Subscribing to the HUB
… and please invite others!
The above image comes from the same series as the Antikamnia skeleton calendar on Pawn Stars.
Okay. I really appreciate you help on getting out the word.
All the BEST to you, and Good Collecting! — Dave Cheadle