The earliest American consumer good to regularly use images of women to attract the attention of buyers was probably sheet music. Sheet music covers were sometimes lavishly illustrated, often hand-colored, and sometimes even speckled with glitter. A consumer might buy a piece of sheet music as much for the cover art as for the music inside.

By the nineteenth century, American merchants had been distributing illustrated trade cards for over a century. Early incarnations were less inclined to feature pictures, but by the period following the Civil War, improvements in printing technology allowed artists and business owners to create pictorial advertisements that were much more sophisticated and colorful, for a cheaper price than ever before. These trade cards’ eye-catching appeal and low cost to produce made them a popular mode of advertising. 

Technological advances enabled advertisers to reproduce very elaborate, sophisticated, and colorful images of beautiful women. Such images were often—but not only—designed to appeal to the women who would use the advertisers’ products in their daily grooming and household chores. Appealing images like these quickly became the most popular way to attract the attention of potential customers, a technique that has become increasingly sophisticated even until the present day. People frequently collected these cards for the same reasons that earlier generations collected prints, pasting them into scrapbooks. These illustrations were designed to encourage consumers to associate the advertised product—which might be anything from soap to cigars to home furnishings and appliances—with beauty and pleasure.

The Baker Library at Harvard Business School has an excellent online exhibit about American trade cards.

Mermaid Polka. Lith. of Napoleon Sarony, 1850. [H. D. Hewitt]

Detail from Mermaid Polka 1850, 33.5 x 26 cm

Gypsy Girl Polka. Eliphalet M. Brown, Jr., William Hall & Son, n.d. [Carl Pfannenmuller]

Detail from Gypsy Girl Polka n.d., 34.5 x 26.5 cm

Dandine Polka. 1869. [J. Egghard]

Detail from Dandine Polka 1869, 34.5 x 26.5 cm

Lyon's Katharion. Sarony & Co., 1856.

Detail from Lyon's Katharion
1856, 31 x 38 cm

Hall's Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer. Attributed to Louis Maurer, n.d.

Detail from Hall's Vegetable Sicilian
Hair Renewer
n.d., 49 x 33 cm


Smith Brothers Chemically Pure Borax, trade card, c. 1870–1900.

In this trade card, the woman in the floor-length dress is the mistress of the house. Her dress, entirely impractical for the rigors of housework, signals to the viewer that she is affluent, and her ability to employ three washerwomen to work in her own home suggests considerable wealth. She is seen instructing one of them and is thus a model of expert household management. Female consumers were encouraged to look at this image and imagine themselves enjoying such a life of leisure and privilege. Of course, the manufacturers of Smith Brothers Chemically Pure Borax meant for consumers to associate their product with beauty, material comfort, easy housework, and leisure. Whereas all of the white women in the image conform to idealized notions of beauty, the black woman is delineated according to the grotesque models of the minstrel stage.

Image of Smith Brothers Chemically
Treated Borax
c. 1870-1900. 36 x 57 cm

Detail from Smith Brothers Chemically
Treated Borax
c. 1870-1900. 36 x 57 cm


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