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page x -- What's all the fuss about trade cards?

updated 3 February 2019
Getting the word out, passing it on, leaving a message. Are we any better at this now than in previous generations?

Twenty-first century citizens travel faster than 19th century citizens. We arrive at our destinations with remarkable speed. But are those the same destinations as those we arrived at 200 years ago? And just what difference does it make how fast we get there?

A tour through the Earl J. Arnold Advertising Card Collection may reveal some answers, pique your curiosity and inspire you to take a few side trips along the way. The Collection is your tool to unlock the exciting history of the Victorian era in America.

Trade Cards were a means of advertising services. As Wikipedia explains, they were distributed in the manner business cards or appointment cards are today. You might find them at a local merchant or see an assortment at any social gathering. As a boy, Earl J. Arnold was paid 50 cents a day(!) to hand them out at fairs.

results of Google image search for "trade cards" showing groups and individual advertising cards
Google Image search for "trade cards"
Most cards were postcard size or less. But they were not postcards. Their popularity was based on a particular set of circumstances unique to the late 19th century.

Color was the biggest draw. All printing prior to this time had been black and white only. Color was an innovation made possible by a new printing process called lithography. Newspapers and magazines were printed in black & white.

Those of us who remember the deluge of bulk mail advertising arriving in our mailboxes during the 20th century will find this hard to believe: "Junk mail" was unknown when these cards were popular! Much of the American population was in rural areas. Without cell phones (or any phone, actually), computers, radio, television, or regular newspaper delivery, the best way to reach customers was to put a trade card in their hand when they came to town via their horse-drawn carriages.

Trade cards rapidly faded from the scene when new communication technologies became available to advertisers.

In 2015, trade cards can be found in old scrapbooks, for sale at garage sales and on the internet. Merchants such as Ebay and Amazon sell them. Although multitudes of trade cards were issued, they are gradually becoming more difficult to find. The last of the generation that used them passed away in the late 20th century.

Fortunately, you don't have to own individual cards to appreciate them.  The Trade Card Place hosts a number of useful resources, including a list of books and articles about trade cards. In addition, the host of the site, Ben Crane, has organized a collection of trade cards by category in his online Victorian Scrapbook.

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