Brief History of Trade Cards

Brief History of Trade Cards


by Ben Crane

Over a century ago, during the Victorian era, one of the favorite pastimes was collecting small, illustrated advertising cards that we now call trade cards. These trade cards evolved from cards of the late 1700s used by tradesmen to advertise their services. Although examples from the early 1800s exist, it was not until the spread of color lithography in the 1870s that trade cards became plentiful.

By the 1880s, trade cards had become a major way of advertising America's products and services, and a trip to the store usually brought back some of these attractive, brightly-colored cards to be pasted into a scrapbook.

Some of the products most heavily advertised by trade cards were in the categories of: medicine, food, tobacco, clothing, household, sewing, stoves, and farm.

trade card front


Willimantic Spool Cotton

Front view of trade card

trade card back view

Back text on trade card

The popularity of trade cards peaked around 1890, and then almost completely faded by the early 1900s when other forms of advertising in color, such as magazines, became more cost effective.

Although trade card collecting began over 100 years ago, today's strong interest in trade cards began relatively recently. Trade cards that were bought for ten cents thirty years ago frequently bring ten dollars or more in today's market--and some have even sold for over a thousand dollars.

Related sites:

Trade Card Collector's Association

The Cartophilic Society of Great Britain

About the Author: Ben Crane specializes in Victorian Trade Cards. Please visit his site,The Trade Card Place for more articles, resources, auctions and his trade card catalog.

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