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The use of trade cards signaled the beginning of modern advertising. Manufacturers gave them away to encourage interest in their brand of products. Company salesmen distributed cards to shopkeepers, who passed them along to customers. Alternatively, firms inserted trade cards directly into packaged goods as premiums.
Trade cards had existed since the early 1800s, but their use blossomed in the 1870s after lithographic publisher Louis Prang of Boston began to make low-priced, full-color stock cards onto which advertisers could overprint their information. Companies with larger budgets ordered custom-printed cards, examples of which are shown here. Because of the novelty of their full-color printing, the public found the cards very attractive.
Trade cards reached the height of their popularity in the 1880s and 1890s, before lowered postal rates enabled the subscription magazine business to expand. (Companies then shifted to advertising in the print media using newly perfected halftone photography techniques.) Advertising budgets, which remained dedicated to trade cards during the last years of the century, reached $175 million by 1880 and $300 million by 1890. The demand for trade cards was so high at this time that a generous supply from a manufacturer often prompted storekeepers to stock their products.
Firms used trade cards to advertise all different types of products, but especially targeted food. In a number of cases, full-color artwork on the front of cards had little to do with the black and white descriptions of products on the back; some advertisers thought that giving away high-quality pictures would stimulate customers’ recognition of their name and brand. Often products were featured prominently in the illustrations on the front of cards. Companies believed that if consumers were familiar with images of their goods (which most often really meant the packaging), they would ask for them rather than for competitors’ brands the next time they went shopping.