Trade Cards 19th Century Advertising
Trade cards were small color cards advertising many different products. Many people collected these in the 19th century.
Building brand loyalty
Before the American Civil War there was little product advertising and there was little need for it. Families grew most of their own food and made most of the things they needed. Whatever the family could not produce themselves they bought from the local store. But the products generally did not have brand names; you bought coffee not Lion brand coffee for example.
Growth of advertising
But in the 1870’s, with the Industrial Revolution, more and more products were available in the stores. Groceries were not necessarily sold in bulk, but by the can or bottle, and the products had brand names. So companies tried to get their customers to be loyal to the product brands. But, how to advertise? There were newspapers and magazines and they contained plenty of advertisements. But there was, of course, no television or radio. Manufacturers wanted another way to create brand loyalty.
clark mills trade card
Companies put up placards and displays in the stores and they also started passing out advertising trade cards.
These were postcard sized, colorful pieces of thin cardboard. Inexpensive color lithography had been perfected by this time so the cards designs could be quite bright and detailed.
One side had the design and the reverse listed the product name and the sales pitch. It also might list the local store where the item was available.
Holiday trade cards
The cards were distributed several ways. Some were mailed out to prospective customers. Many cards were handed out by retailers, sometimes when the item was bought, sometimes to everybody.
Some, such as Lion Coffee were put in the packaging. Lion Coffee was part of the Woolson Spice Company. That company distributed new cards 4 times a year, to coincide with the seasons. They had some very nice Christmas cards, which are still collected.
Cards eagerly collected
Many people did collect the cards, just for the pretty pictures. You need to keep in mind that people might not see a lot of artwork in their day to day life, so these images looked pretty good. People would paste them into albums and many would trade the cards like children later traded baseball cards.
The fad lasted about 50 years and the images recall a simpler time. Some of the products are, quite rightly, no longer being made. Cocaine drops to soothe a quiet baby, for example. But quite a few of the products being advertised on the cards, such as Singer Sewing Machines. are still being made.
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