Somehow, advertising just seemed more charming a hundred years ago. Long before the days of pop-ups on websites and garish LCD billboards, businesses promoted themselves with delicate, artistic, finely printed cards, suitable for collecting, trading, and compiling in scrapbooks.
The advent of lithography in the early 19th century allowed for more flexibility, a much larger number of prints, and vastly lower costs than engraving, and soon became the primary medium for commercial printing. The industry bloomed even further in the 1870s, when Louis Prang developed the concept of mass-producing small cards in multiple colors (chromolithography). By the 1880s and ‘90s, these cards had become ubiquitous. This paralleled an unprecedented population explosion in the United States, ushering in a massive increase in the consumer market, not to mention goods available for consumption. In The Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century America Robert Jay notes, “Patents registered in the United States during the year 1846 totaled just over 4,500; fifty years later, the number had increased to over 56,000 a year.”
Dave Cheadle explains in Victorian Trade Cards: Historical Reference & Value Guide that cards were “sent in the mail, piled in stacks on store counters, handed out on sidewalks, stuffed into packages, and if one trade card image is to be trusted, dumped like WWII propaganda leaflets in the streets.” Scrapbooking had become a popular leisure-time activity, and “albums were often displayed in parlors as evidence of good taste.”
The Brooklyn Museum Libraries recently received a fantastic transfer from our Decorative Arts and Prints, Drawings, and Photographs departments – three scrapbooks full of advertising trade cards and a number of additional loose cards, dating from about 1861-1895. The collection consists of over 2,100 trade cards in all. The scrapbooks were a gift to the Museum by Arthur Clement; we are not certain who assembled them, but each page was attended to with great care and precision. The cards were often pasted among scraps - decorative cut-outs that became a popular collectable in the late-19th-century.
The collection includes many trade cards with a focus on furnishings, design, and the decorative arts, corresponding aesthetically with the Museum’s object collection. There are even cards that relate directly to objects here at the Museum - like one advertising the Marks Adjustable Folding Chair Company, whose Folding Invalid Chair is currently on view in our Luce Visible Storage and Study Center.
Highlighted in our collection are a great deal of Brooklyn businesses, many from the bustling strip along Fulton St.:
Animals played a huge role in advertising imagery:
Much of the illustration involves a certain fanciful beauty:
And then there are the cards that are notable for their outdated or just plain peculiar appeal:
A May 1885 article in Paper World, a printing trade journal, described the collecting craze: “The number of people who save handsome advertising cards when they chance to get them is larger now than ever and will increase with the growth of the population. No one is either so refined or so vulgar that he will not admire a pretty advertising card and save it. The ultimate destination of all cards is to swell some collection or to adorn some home, and they may be found in even the remotest parts of the land.”
Current advertising media can – without a doubt – be found in the “remotest parts of the land.” However, I’m hard pressed to find examples of such splashy blurbs for dating websites or reality television anywhere near as lovely and artful as the 19th-century trade cards represented in our collection.
Dyani Scheuerman, IMLS Intern Coordinator, Brooklyn Museum Library & Archives