Transatlantic Trade Cards

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the printing industry in England during the Tudor era and continue to be interested in the history of printing and print culture, not just book and informational publishing but also practical or “job” printing, preserved as what we call “ephemera” today:  newsbooks, handbills, broadsides, catalogues, tickets, labels, and a host of other forms of printed matter.  John Johnson, Printer to Oxford University in the mid-twentieth century and a major collector of ephemera, defined it as  “everything which would ordinarily go into the waste paper basket after use, everything printed which is not actually a book.” 

 Despite real and digital survivals in collections around the world, these pieces of paper were and are ephemeral—-who knows how many were produced?  Survivals are like captured fleeting images from the past, and great examples of both print and popular culture.  What did you throw in the trash today that might be valued by historians tomorrow?   My focus today is on trade cards, an early form of advertising, whose production definitely peaked in the  later nineteenth century, after the diffusion of color lithography and before the onset of electronic media.  Trade cards seem to be inextricably linked to the Victorian era when they were colorfully pictorial and prolific, but they actually go way back to the first centuries of print.  Below are some examples from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and both sides of the Atlantic. 


 The two early English cards (c. 1680-1700) are from the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University;  the Salem and Lowell examples are from the Baker Library at Harvard and the Library of Congress.  I particularly like both the image and  the tag line of  T.W. McKean, Tailor:   Ladies’ Tight Fitting Garments a Specialty (but the lady dreaming of her well-dressed husband and son on the last card is hard to beat).

4 responses to “Transatlantic Trade Cards

  • Steve

    Wow, something new to collect! These are wonderful. I adore the first two and I’m completely creeped out but the woman’s eyes in the card you hold to the light. They’re all fun to see!

  • Valerie Fairbrass

    Great post. Always on the look out for mentions of jobbing printers – particularly of theatre ephemera.

  • C A R N I V A L E S Q U E « Airs, Waters, Places

    […] illustrations) to a number of interesting posts about frost fairs. Streets of Salem features some fascinatingly illustrated trade cards, a portion of which are early modern, and for those of you wanting to read about love in advance of […]

  • Nelson Dionne

    I have a 4 inch thick binder of Salem trade cards. Some were used to illustrate the 2011 Salem Rotary Club’s “Salem Then & Now” Calendar.
    By & large, the small single sided cards are easiest to get, especially boot & shoe, or clothing stores. They make a great Victorian Salem time capsule.

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