Trade cards are a great source of information for scholars, historians, and students, because they provide examples of the material culture and business practices of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most trade cards provide the name and address of the proprietor and the variety of services available, sometimes with vignettes to describe items sold or the place of business. Although there is no concrete definition of a trade card, it is generally a printed notice of goods for sale or services available for the public.
Copper plate engravings were used almost exclusively for early commercial printing and later chromolithographs gave color to the trade card. Although many may think that these trade cards were printed on the large printing press, like newspapers, a small hand press or "card" presses made the job faster and cheaper. This made the trade card affordable to not only the prosperous business owner but also to the small business owner. One of the earliest job printers was Samuel Dickinson who is best known for his printing of the Boston Almanac. The visual composition of the decorative lettering and diminuative illustrations made trade cards a great investment for rising businesses.
The rise of type foundries in the 1860s, created the availability of specimen books. This brought variety and convenience to business owners by introducing them to the variety of typefaces and wood engravings. Many designs on trade cards were non-pictorial, presenting only the message of the proprietor in ornamental lettering. If there was an engraving on the card, the engraver's name or initials were usually presented in the lower right hand corner or below the center of the card.
The collection at AAS includes many examples of early trade cards from Paul Revere, James Turner, and Nathaniel Dearborn; but also some from less well-known names such as D.L. Glover and W.G. Mason. The Society holds 11,000 trade cards ranging in date from 1749 through 1900.
Approximately half of the trade cards in the collection are also digitally available in Readex's American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I under "advertising cards." This resource is available onsite at AAS and via subscription from Readex.
- Ephemera Journal, 1987: Vol. 1
- Rickards, Maurice, Michael Twyman ed. Encyclopedia of Ephemera, London: The British Library, 2000.
- Landauer, Bella C. Early American Trade Cards, New York: W.E. Rudge, 1927.
- Heal, Ambrose. London Tradesmen's Cards of the XVII Century: an Account of Their Origins and Use, London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd, 1925.
- Jay, Robert. The Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century America. Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1987.