Thursday, September 1, 2011

Victorian Washes

One of my great pleasures in collecting antique advertising is to find duplicates within lesser known genres. Today I'm sharing examples of a subset of trade cards known as "washes." These all would have been printed between approximately 1870 and 1890.

Washes were almost always die cut (I've never seen one that wasn't), and they were usually red, yellow and green, in that order.

That's because printers created the color spectrum by hand, as shown above, and those three colors would blend into a particularly pleasing spectrum. Most trade cards from the same period were colored through the registration of many lithographed stone plates, so the wash method of colorization was a quick and inexpensive way to achieve "full color."

Most often, the wash die cuts would be leaves, which seemed to go hand-in-hand with the favored spectrum.

This distinctive card reads:

AUGUST MAYER, Propietor,
For Pure Whiskies and Wines for Medical
Use Call on Him at
20 Main St. : : : CRAWFORDSVILLE

The Monarch Livermore Pen, on sale for $3.50, would have been pretty pricey. According to, a skilled laborer of the 1880s would have earned $2.00-$2.50 for a day's work.


  1. Hello Mark:
    These are absolutely fascinating and previously completely unknown to us. Are these, we wonder, part of your own collection?

  2. Hello, Jane and Lance: Yes, all of the washes featured in today's posting are from my collection.

  3. Without knowing anything about these, and I saw them without your explanation I would be totally clueless as to the era they were produced. I would have dated them as much more recent!

  4. Dear Mark - I too have never come across Victorian Washes before. Is the process a bit similar to printing linocuts?

  5. Hi, David - These are indeed a different look for the Victorian period. I agree with you that these could be the look of a later period, perhaps the 1930s or 1940s.

  6. Dear Rosemary -

    I'm not exactly sure how these washes were printed, but because the images are in reverse, I'm inclined to agree with you that the method was akin to the linocut method, but more likely from metal plates.

    Any black type that you see in these images would have been overprinted at a later time, since many of these diecuts were generic and distributed to stationers and printers from other companies.

  7. Mark, these are exquisite. I've never seen anything like these before. Never even knew that such a thing as Victorian Washes existed.

    The colors are so beautifully subtle. LOVE the leaves.

    Thanks for another wonderful enlightening post.

  8. Hi, Yvette - Like many other collections, I think groupings of washes are more dramatic than any of the individual pieces.

  9. Mark what an interesting and wonderful collection. They are all beautiful and have a delicate quality.

    Art by Karena

  10. Thanks, Karena — I love your new blog photo, and that now we can now see that beautific face!

  11. I had never heard of washes!! They are so charming!! Just love all the beautiful line art.

  12. Hi Mark, These are a great collection. White Sewing Machines is an old Cleveland company, and these autumnal cards will really make me miss the fall season there.

    The same technique is used on old postcards to roughly simulate hand coloring. Also related is the tinting of old silent films, although those were usually monochromatic.
    --Road to Parnassus

  13. Hi, Stacey and Road to Parnassus - Parnassus, your comment reminds me that I've seen the effect of full color achieved very successfully by printing cyan and magenta screens on bright yellow paper.

  14. something New under the Old sun. so glad to know this. pgt

  15. Hi, Gaye - I have a feeling that these washes are purely an American phenomenon.