What are Victorian Trade Cards?

Classic Victorian Trade Card for National Yeast Co. NY

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.


Currier & Ives Victorian Advertising Trade Card
Currier & Ives dabbled in printing trade cards between 1877 and 1882. Their 12 or so series featured a range of subjects running from Sports Comics and City Views to Railroad Trains and Champion Race Horses.  Most of their 200+ known card designs are of average size and quality, printed in 3 to 5 colors and cut to about 5 inches in width, slightly smaller than a modern postcard.

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.


Uncle Sam and Miss Columbian at the Chicago Worlds Fair.
Exhibitors at major fairs and expositions often provided free souvenir cards for those who visited their booths. These cards typically featured proud and patriotic images, as well as depictions of fairground buildings linked to the marvels of the products being promoted. This 1893 Columbian Exposition card is unusual in that it is an example of early off-set printing; most Victorian trade cards were printed as lithographs.

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.


Sales representative for TRIX "Breath Perfume" passing out free cards to kids.
A female sales representative for TRIX “Breath Perfume” distributes free advertising cards during a sidewalk stroll. Cards distributed in this manner sometimes have messages on the back, such as: “Children, be sure to show this card to your mother, and don’t forget to….”

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.


Chase's Liquid Glue Victorian Trade Card, family with scrapbook project at table.
Numerous versions of this classic Chase’s Liquid Glue ad can be found, ranging widely in quality depending upon which lithographer printed the card, and how much this Boston company was willing to pay for that particular press run.  This example is on the low end of quality, with an almost comic book style of coloration.  Compare the faces in this image with the quality of facial tones on the National Yeast Co. card at the top of this blog.  BTW, NOTE the text: “…will hold fancy cards in scrap books without wrinkling….”

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.


"Card Fiends" series stock card.
Examples from this “Card Fiends” series can be found with imprints from locations all over North America. The female shopper in this example has filled her arms with Victorian trade cards, advertising card die-cuts, and card novelties from every store in town. This example is imprinted for a hardware store in South English, Iowa… a town today with a few over 200 souls.

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.


This Victorian trade card promises: "4 Chromo Cards Given Away to Each Customer...."
The prospect of free cards lured many consumers into stores and purchases they might otherwise have skipped. This Victorian trade card promises: “4 Chromo Cards Given Away to Each Customer….” It was left to the shopkeeper and the guest to haggle out the definition of “Customer,” and whether a purchase was required for them to receive their free Victorian trade cards.

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.


Stock card with pretty flower girl: J.A. Godrey & Co., Clothiers & Haters, 46 Bank St., Waterbury, CT.
The reverse of this stock card was boldly imprinted with the plea: “STOP… Read This Before You Take Another Step.” The rest of the text promoted a clothing sale, then concluded with the business information: “J.A. Godrey & Co., Clothiers & Haters, 46 Bank St., Waterbury, Conn.”

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,

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Again, as always, all the BEST to you…  and Good Collecting! — Dave Cheadle