Monday, October 10, 2011

Trade cards: 19th century entertainment

Hold the card up to the light, readers were told.
In the days before television and radio, American families sometimes entertained themselves with trade cards—colorful advertising cards the local grocer or dry goods purveyor might have included with a purchase.

The cards had wonderful scenes on the front and an advertising message on the back. People collected them, traded them and put them in scrapbooks. An evening might be spent sorting them, talking about them and carefully attaching them to pages to be enjoyed again.

The cards came about because of a development in printing called chromolithography that eventually allowed inexpensive mass reproduction of these pleasant images. Early on, chromolithography was anything but cheap. Multiple colors in a scene required that the printed sheet be passed beneath many stones, each etched with a color contained in the image. That proved to be both very time consuming and very expensive. Fine art prints were created this way.

But eventually printing became much more streamlined and huge quantities of these little cards could be produced. An assortment of 19th century advertising cards is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. The cards were most popular from about 1800 to 1900, though their popularity had begun to wane by the 1890s as merchants and manufacturers turned to newspapers as their primary advertising medium.

The cards offer a glimpse into lifestyles of the period. Here are cards advertising coffee, for instance, long a staple of the American household. One particularly humorous card shows a couple clearly at loggerheads over some unknown issue. Below them reads, "BEFORE using The Great A&P Tea Co's Coffee with A&P Condensed Milk." When a reader inverts the card, a happy couple is revealed, cleverly drawn into the bottom of the illustration of the bickering couple. The corresponding caption reads, of course, AFTER using the products of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company (which became better known as the A&P grocery store.)

Here, too, are cards for toiletries, patent medicines, baking powder, and other kitchen supplies, packaged food items and more, all printed in beautiful color.

The array also includes a mini-program for a play starring Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Florence, who were popular performers for many years during and after the Civil War. The play was
The Mighty Dollar, which the couple toured with for at least a decade. Presumably the Florences offered a respite from evenings of sorting trade cards.

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