A classic 7.5 by 3.5″ advertising trade card from an 1880s-era boot & shoe store on the Historic National Road in Indianapolis. Image credit: Ebay

Trade cards:
Predecessor to the business card, the trading card and the postcard

At the beginning of the 17th century in London, businessmen began distributing small, decorated cards (similar to the visiting cards exchanged in social circles) to potential customers. These “trade cards” functioned as maps to help the public locate their stores, as no official address system existed then. This was the birth of the modern business card.

In order to stand out from the crowd, some businesses began to create increasingly decorative designs that grew in sophistication along with the printing technology. A few printing companies specialized in producing stock cards, usually with an image on one side and space on the opposite side for the business to add its own information by hand, by decal, or at a second printing. Color images were still not widely available to the average citizen so, as the trade card designs became more attractive and vibrant, collecting them became a hobby — peaking in popularity in the late 19th century.

In its original form, the “trade” in trade card referred to its use by a proprietor announcing his line of business. As the advertising medium moved into the realm of collecting, the “trade” in trade cards came to refer to the exchange or “trading” of cards by enthusiasts. Some cards (particularly those produced by tobacco companies featuring baseball players) lost their function as advertisement altogether and morphed into use as “premiums” that could be found in tea, coffee, bubble gum, detergent and cigarette packages.

In 1848, a large trade card that held an advertising message was sent through the US postal service at letter rate, giving rise to the modern day postcard.

The German chromolithographic printing process was adopted by a number of printers in the US by the 1860s and with the adoption of this technology, retail businesses realized the popular appeal of printing multi-color trade cards. The public quickly became captivated by these attractive give-aways. By the 1880s, many hobbyists were collecting these cards and saving them in scrapbooks. The printers of these cards fueled the fascination by producing cards in sets; the individual customer was required to keep coming back to a store in order to acquire a complete set. The mania for collecting trade cards began to die off around 1900 with the change in postal regulations when the rates for magazines decreased and many businesses turn to cheaper and more widely distributed magazine advertisement.

Today, trade card collecting can be a relatively inexpensive hobby for the history enthusiast, though there are some rare Victorian trade cards that are worth thousands of dollars. On a trip to Ebay or your local antique shop you will probably find several lovely options in the $5.00 -$12.00 range.

You may enjoy seeing some of these Indianapolis-based trade cards:

Schnull and Krag trade cards are not too difficult to find. Schnull and Krag’s was an Indianapolis coffee purveyor in the mid-late 1800s.

trade card coffee 1 and 2

Image credit: Ebay

picture of pictures

The Nine O’clock Washing-Tea marketing department were apparently so caught-up in the trade card craze that there is little mention of their actual product on this card — perhaps an early attempt at collecting a mailing list? Note the statement “The picture on the other side is not a sample of my premium pictures.” What’s wrong with the duck? Image credit: Ebay


Womens work exch card1

The advent of lithography in the 1870s made it possible to mass-produce trade cards in color, leading to a golden age from 1876 to the early 1900s when halftone printed newspaper and magazine ads became more economical. Image credit: Ebay


Trade cards typically had a picture on one side and an ad on the other. There were custom cards printed for specific products, and stock cards which could be used for any product. Trade cards were popular for medicines, sewing, and farm equipment, and a range of other products. Image credit: Lorentz

trade card coffee5

Image credit: Ebay


An early single-sided trade card. Image credit: Ebay

mothers and children

Victorian wording can sometimes entertain. Children buying coffee? Image credit: Ebay

coffee card1

Idyllic scenes and cherubic children were popular Victorian images. Image credit: Ebay


Note the “beauty side” and the “business side” of this postcard-sized trade card (circa 1870) from an Indianapolis company. (Penny provided for size reference.) Image credit: Lorentz

IMAG5686 backside snip

Note the mention of tamper-proof packaging!

boot trade card1and2

A classic 7.5 by 3.5″ advertising trade card from an 1880s-era boot & shoe store on the Historic National Road in Indianapolis. Image credit: Ebay

Tell us — What do YOU collect?  Do you collect trade cards?
What kinds are your favorites?

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