This month's blog post is authored by Sarah Jones, visual resources intern at CSUN. Sarah is a graduate student in the Information Studies department at UCLA, with a focus on archival studies and rare books.
Trade cards are small, rectangular cards that typically have promotional text on one side, and a decorative image on the other side. These cards first became popular in the late 17th century in major European cities, and became extremely popular in America beginning in the late 19th century. The increase in domestic products and the desire to advertise them led to the widespread printing and distribution of trade cards. Technological improvements in printing presses and color lithography also worked to boost widespread distribution of trade cards.
Trade cards functioned as advertisements and frequently included maps that directed eager and interested clients directly to a store that was selling the item. The cards were distributed either in product packaging or by travelling salesmen hoping to spread the word about new products. The cards originally advertised a person’s trade (hence the term “trade card”) but became so popular and widely-circulated that people began to collect them and keep them in scrapbooks, and the trade card became the trading card.
Beginning around 1875, tobacco companies became a popular and prolific producer of trade cards. Known as cigarette or tobacco cards, this specific type of trade card was printed and used to stiffen the cigarette packaging as well as advertise specific cigarette brands. Often, the cards had advertising on one side, and a popular cultural icon on the reverse. These icons ranged from baseball players, boxers, well-known military generals, to operas and plays. The cards were typically released in sets of twenty-five or fifty cards, and people were eager to collect complete sets of cards.
The David Trutt Gilbert and Sullivan Advertising Cards Collection contains an interesting assemblage of trade cards that use characters from popular British operas to advertise different products. While the cards were originally collected for their portrayal of the famous partnership between librettist W.S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan, the cards themselves provide a unique glimpse into late 19th and early 20th century American cultural values and interests.
The cards in this collection advertise a variety of companies and products, including: six-cord cotton thread, cigarettes, soap, and all-purpose cleaner. However, the majority of the Gilbert and Sullivan advertising cards consist of cigarette cards, specifically advertising John Player & Sons, a well-known tobacco company in Great Britain and Ireland in the 19th century.