Highlights of Victorian design: HSP’s trade card collection

Fels & Co. trade card (1880)

As you’ve probably guessed from my blog posts, planning for and processing collections from HSP’s adopt-a-collection program take up a good bit of my time here.  I just finished processing a lovely small collection of records from the Philadelphia County and Lancaster County militias [Am .23]  (and yes, they were in fact lovely and oh so legible!) and will soon start work on a collection of genealogical records pertaining to the Buckman family of Philadelphia.  In the meantime, several staff members and I have been looking at potential adopt-a-collections for HSP’s upcoming Young Friends scavenger hunt, an event which will hopefully result in the groups’ adoption of one collection.   We’ve narrowed down our choices for the event according to need, cost, and overall amount of work, but I thought I’d highlight one collection that just missed the cut: HSP’s trade card collection.

Wanamaker & Brown trade card (circa 1880)

Wanamaker & Brown trade card (1880)

Trade cards were used to advertise one’s business and folks handed them out or traded them as we do with business cards today.  Trade cards date back to the 17th century, but our trade card collection dates mostly from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.  It consists of cards from numerous local and regional businesses, everyone from hat makers and soda producers to dry goods stores and blacksmiths.  Some are done in simple black and white designs and text, while others contain ornate designs and fonts and colorful figures.  And they range in size from a couple inches to over a foot of advertising space.

Besides channeling Victorian-era graphic design sensibilities, these cards varied in subject matter and usually contained information about a business, business owner, or a product, such as the ones below from the Hires’ Root Beer Company.

Hires' Root Beer Company trade card (circa 1880)

Text from Hires' Root Beer Company trade card (circa 1880)

Hires' Root Beer Company trade card (circa 1880)

Hires' Root Beer Company trade card (circa 1880)

Trade cards became (and still are) highly collectible and people often saved them in scrapbooks.

Page from a trade card scrapbook (circa 1900)

Some advertisers perpetuated typical stereotypes of the day.  (Though, check out the card in the upper right-hand corner — can you decipher it?)


Page from trade card scrapbook (circa 1900)

Some cards were produced with folds, and the ad, story, or poem continued when they were opened.


Page from trade card scrapbook (circa 1900)

At 29 boxes, the vast majority of these cards are good shape and are identified, so the collection is not in dire straits, which is why it didn’t make this particular round of adoptees.  It’s fully accessible to researchers, though it could use some work to improve accessibility further (e.g. it needs some processing, conservation, and a finding aid).  If you keep an eye on the collections we put up for adoption, you may see it added to the list in the future.


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