Trade Cards & Early Corporate Identity

I've been collecting trade cards for almost 40 years. The foundation of my collection is the result of one dealer who had collected dozens of Victorian scrapbooks through the 1940s and 1950s. Through the years, I also traveled to advertising and ephemera conventions, and of course visited many dealers at shows and shops. As my collection grew, I noticed duplicate designs, interesting trends, and a slow evolution of corporate identity. I'm going to take a small portion of my collection and show how merchants gradually moved into what we would today call "branding."

All of the cards shown here are from my own collection.

In the first half of the 19th century, merchants still advertised as they had for several hundred years — through cards, posters and handbills that were engraved.

Engraved advertising could be beautiful and elegant, like this Boston cologne ad, and some companies would continue throughout much of the century to use engraved advertising.

This card for Jackson's grates and fenders was actually designed by the National Bank Note Company.

Engraved advertising was generally black and white, or one color.

According to Peter C. Marzio, author of The Democratic Art, prior to the Civil War there were only about 60 printers in the United States. By 1890 that number had jumped to approximately 700.

One reason for the explosion of printing companies was the advent of chromolithography. According to the Edinburgh City of Print, "Lithography is the art of printing from stone. ...By writing or drawing with a greasy ink on a specially prepared slab of limestone, the grease is absorbed by the stone and the image thus formed has an affinity for printing ink, while the remaining parts of the stone repel the ink as long as the surface is kept moist with water."

Chromolithography is the same process, only with layers of different colors of ink from multiple stones.

The result was brilliant, unadulterated and exciting color!

Merchants and companies of every size embraced the new color printing by distributing what are termed "trade cards," which could be any number of sizes, but which were usually 3" x 5".

That in turn set off a national craze of scrapbooking. From the 1870s through the 1890s, children and adults alike collected cards of every sort and pasted them into beautifully bound scrapbooks. The collecting and sharing of trade cards was a major form of 19th century entertainment, and family scrapbooks would be placed on parlor tables for guests to enjoy.

Early trade cards were very generic, often of children or animals. They were usually lithographed with a space left for type, and these were called "blanks."

Over the years, I've collected many printers samples. Blanks were sold to local printers, stationers and individuals in packs.

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Here's a printer's sample sheet from the Centerbrook Card Co. of Centerbrook, Connecticut, a major trade card printer.

These tiny blanks are less than an inch square and would have allowed room for only a store name.

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As these delightful cards illustrate, blanks could become calling cards, ads, school rewards — virtually anything.

What's interesting about early trade cards and the blanks is that for a long time, merchants made no connection between their product and the image that they were distributing.

Different companies could have duplicate images, and the degree of artistry could vary widely.

Eventually larger companies employed in-house art studios. While such companies would at least maintain an artistic standard, the company name might look different from card to card. Artists would be very creative with lettering, but there wasn't yet a strong concept of logos or corporate typefaces.

Can we know for sure what Mrs. Dinsmore really looked like?

It's quite possible that these two different ads for Frank Miller's Crown Dressing shared some, but not all, color plates (lithograph stones).

A major shift towards corporate identity happened as companies incorporated their product into the image. At first it might have been as a storytelling prop, as in the Stickney & Poor's card above, or the popular Pond's Extract cards below.

Dr. Thomas' Eclectric Oil became the focal point.

Above, Heckers managed to showcase their whole line of products.

This superb trade card for Frank Miller's Harness Oil Blacking shows a rich array of 19th century packaging. The harness oil blacking was not unlike today's Armor All. It was advertised as weatherproof and was used to blacken carriage tops, as well as harnesses. The label on the inside box cover was a lithograph, the can labels were probably paper, and each of those cans would have been soldered by hand.

Though all sorts of whimsical trade card designs continued to be distributed through the 1890s, the logical conclusion of the fad was the straightforward depiction of the product, like these cards for Hecker's Farina and Kennedy's Newton Biscuit. The fronts of the Kennedy's boxes are actually printed on the trade card with a gold metallic ink.

H. J. Heinz was very conscious of branding. He came up with the slogan "57 Varieties," and when the company added more varieties, Heinz insisted on keeping the "57," just because he knew the sound of it was catchier. At a time when it was commonplace for food to be sold in dark amber bottles, Heinz made sure that every one of his products could be seen through clear bottles. H. J. Heinz was a moving force behind government food regulation, and he was a pioneer in many workplace innovations. An excellent (though out of print) book on Heinz is entitled The Good Provider.

One company that was consistent in their identity was Baker's Chocolate. They trademarked the above painting, known as "La Belle Chocolatiere," in 1883 and went so far as to distribute logo pins.

Armour's had a pretty good sense of branding, and yet there wasn't an oversight committee to tell the artist not to leave ladles on the floor!

Clark's distributed delightful trade cards die cut in the form of spools.

The more one collects trade cards, the more one realizes how many advertising concepts are really quite old. J. Liebig made his signature synonymous with his product, and 90 years before McDonald's, he updated the public on how many thousands he'd sold.

Robert Knight, who owned a textile mill in Rhode Island, used this familiar image as early as 1851. When it was patented in 1871, it became the 418th patented trademark. With the passing of 140 years, the trademark has been simplified, yet it remains amazingly true to the spirit of the original design.

By 1900, trade cards and their scrapbooking were over. Such a simple pastime was eclipsed by movies, crystal radio sets, the mobility afforded by cars, and even changes in printing and the quality of paper. But most of all, people had enjoyed collecting trade cards for a full generation, and had gotten it out of their system. The cards that I started collecting in the 1970s were from the recent estates of those original children. Chromolithography produced amazing color images, and I have looked at these cards with the same delight and wonderment that they surely did.