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!

Lithography Explained Illustrated Production Liebig 6x Advertising Trade Cards
Artists at work in a lithographic printing shop, as depicted on a Liebig card from the Turn-of-the-Century. The portrait on the left shows a face after six passes through the presses, with a different color of ink layered onto the card by a different stone during each pass.

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.


Old Gentleman card fiend with a hand out to collect Victorian advertising trade cards.
“The Old Gent Fiend” as depicted in a “CARD FIENDS” set of cards showing men, women, boys and girls all trying to collect more than their fair share of the freebies.


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


Lithography Explained Illustrated Production Liebig 6x Advertising Trade Cards
Card number one in the Liebig set depicts an artist composing a card design as a watercolor painting. The second card in the set shows the limestone slabs being harvested from a quarry and cut to sizes for the stone press operations.

 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 & Son Lithographers Metal Advertising Cards 2x Factory View Tin Printers
This Burdick & Son factory view card advertises their ability to produce “Decorated” tin boxes and tin signs. The reverse of this metal card explains the process of printing lithographs on tin.

 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 reverse of the tin Burdick card answers the Question: “How do you decorate the Tin Boxes, Signs, etc.” The card’s text goes on to explain the chromolithograph printing process in helpful detail.


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.


Lithography Explained Illustrated Production Liebig 6x Advertising Trade Cards


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. 

Visit:    19th Century Printing and Lithography

As always, all the BEST to you, and Good Collecting! — Dave Cheadle