Why the American commercial cards of yore were hilarious advertising tools


Injuring young children, torturing animals, and racism were fairly popular themes at the time.

Violent toddler with disheveled hair shaves in front of mirror, blood dripping from razor; another little boy is about to behead a doll while a frantic young girl tries to stop him; there are cows that sell tallow, pigeons that sell cooking oils with pictures of roasted birds, etc. These are not images designed to serve as a warning. Welcome to the early days of advertising, with trading cards.

At the time, these cards played an important role in helping businesses in the US, UK and Europe reach their customers. As historian Elizabeth Kim notes: “Like print advertisements today, commercial cards have played an important role in business operations, providing customers with a carefully constructed impression of a merchant and their business while at the same time. also serving as a mnemonic device for new customers. They were widely distributed and often used as flyers and coupons.

Why the American commercial cards of yore were hilarious advertising tools

Today, trade cards are valuable signifiers of the era in which they circulated. They are fairly easily accessible as many libraries have large digital collections that they have placed in the public domain. Private collectors of ephemera have also digitized their collections and often sell them at nominal prices.

Academic work on trade cards has largely focused on cataloging them and analyzing issues such as gender and race, but these cards are also a great storytelling tool, using picture tales of global appeal. For example, the image of the toddler shaving was commissioned in the 1880s by Tefft and Esmay Fine Clothing of 42 Genesee Street, Utica, New York. One can’t help but wonder what made store owners see this as an appropriate representation of their brand. Was it for the shock value? The card has nothing to do with clothing, but it does have an impact. On the one hand, it is an uplifting tale of a child playing with dangerous household items. On the other hand, it’s a powerful image of an evil child, which may make the store curious.

Each trade card has a long history and many stories to tell. They were created for universal appeal, but they have now also become a valuable commentary on the social and cultural mores of the time.

Why the American commercial cards of yore were hilarious advertising tools

Evil children clearly had an appeal. It is not art where children have a scary or devilish expression; these are young people doing terrible things. The trade card with a little boy about to behead a doll was commissioned by the American Piano and Exchange Company. The boy looks surprisingly well prepared for what is clearly a premeditated plan. British firm J&P Coats often featured children with nonchalant expressions torturing their dolls in manual washing machines. Of course, this made the wire appear solid and reliable since the dolls had survived the onslaught. But even otherwise, injuring young children, torturing animals, and destroying objects – considered highly politically incorrect today – were fairly popular advertising themes at the time.

Why the American commercial cards of yore were hilarious advertising tools

The height of the commercial card era in the United States was between the 1870s and 1890s, although the tradition began a long time ago in Europe. Academics Maxine Berg and Helen Clifford trace the story back to 1622, on a French map that belonged to George Marceau, “a master hatter, Paris 1622”. Many renowned engravers like William Hogarth and George Cruikshank also designed trade cards. In fact, some works of art bear the artist’s signature. But more than anything else, these cards reflected everyday life – the daily grind of polishing pans, baking perfect bread, tending livers, and mending socks. In 1918, as the Spanish flu ravaged the world, major American newspapers prioritized war news and anti-German propaganda, while the flu only made room on the inside pages. Thus, advertisements for tonics and other flu medications have become a major source of information about the epidemic.

Likewise, Victorian apothecary maps are not only an excellent source of historical data but also reflect the ambivalence between galenic ideas and new clinical practices. Interestingly, these cards rarely featured containers of the ointment or syrup itself, but showed idyllic backdrops, with happy children, flowers, young women, and scenes from mythology. The calming images were intended to convey overall good health. Of course, not everyone followed this rule. Merchant’s Gargling Oil, for example, used a rather evil gorilla to sell the liniment. Of course, it was also because it was meant to be good “for man and beast”.

Why the American commercial cards of yore were hilarious advertising tools

Animal themes were also very popular. While there are endless designs of animals going to school, playing sports, dancing, cooking, fencing, drinking and getting married, some images are decidedly morbid. For example, Magnolia Ham, the “king of hams,” used the image of a dead pig dressed in a king’s costume, seated on a throne. Although, strangely enough, there’s also the map with a naked baby riding a turtle. Then there are the cats. They sell either musical instruments or other products with their musical skills. Obviously, the Victorians appreciated good meows.

It would be impossible to escape racial stereotypes by talking about business cards. The most common stereotypes concerned Asians and Blacks. For example, one map shows that General Ulysses Grant rejected a large rat offered by the Chinese when he was on tour there because he “always carries Magnolia ham.”

Why the American commercial cards of yore were hilarious advertising tools

Ironically, these cards were created in the hope of winning Asians and Blacks as customers. Soap companies, for example, presented the most racial images. Yet soaps were a versatile product used for washing clothes, cleaning and washing, and it was household helpers, mostly black at the time, who bought the most soap. In addition to soap makers, stove waxes, shoe waxes, and baking powders were also often blacks on their business cards.

The writer is a historian based at Queen’s University, Canada. Watching old Bollywood movies keeps her going.


Majorie T. Leonard

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