by Burt Purmell



With the opening of the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, printed ephemera met color lithography head on. Until then, color was used sparingly in trade card production. Centennial Exhibitors put thousands of these bright little pasteboard salesmen into the hands of a product hungry public. Grocers handed them out for every imaginable product, from soap to soup! In some cases cards were put right into packaging. They set off a collecting craze and people saved the cards with a passion right into the 1890s. Many an evening was spent pasting them into ornately covered scrapbooks. Wise "admen" of the era knew that a product or service would seldom be forgotten once a collection was started.

Advertising became a potent selling tool. And would a big ad agency be far behind? The 19th century was a time of invention and innovation. New products were introduced daily, with the cards cleverly reflecting life in America. If it was in vogue, chances were it would be touted on a trade card!

75 Years Later
In New York City during the 1950s, "thrift shops" abounded. They were a cross between antique shops and "early attic." You never knew what you might find! On the way to school one morning, a trade card scrapbook in a thrift shop window stopped me cold. I went in and thumbed through the book, and was completely overwhelmed by the wonderful color, typography and design of the cards. It was my first purchase! The book was chock full of great material. I quickly discovered that soaking the cards out of the scrapbooks was an art unto itself as wallpaper paste and other strange glues were used in the 1880s. However, the many tedious hours of soaking was worth the time and effort expended. A few years later I was lucky to find a couple of Clipper Ship cards which are now quite rare. I wish I hadn't traded them away.

Bella Landauer Collection
In my early collecting years, I went through the many books of trade cards in the Bella Landauer Collection at the New York Historical Society on Central Park West in New York City. A pioneer in the field, Mrs Landauer was curator of her collection at the museum. She was a very gracious lady, always happy to impart a wealth of trade card knowledge to a novice collector like myself. I learned a lot about the cards and printers from her. I consider myself fortunate to have located a copy of her out-of-print book, Early American Trade Cards, published in 1927 by Wm. Edward Rudge Press, NY.

Prior to the 1960s, serious collectors of trade cards were few, and dealers virtually non-existent. Cards were relegated to shoe boxes under tables at antique show booths. Today the picture has changed and the future is bright. Finally the trade card has gained the respect that it rightfully deserves. These days there are specialized auctions and conventions, and thousands of avid collectors attend the many ephemera shows held throughout the country.

Shown to the left and right are thumbnail views of some of my favorites among the cards I've been fortunate enough to find. Click on a card to see an enlarged view.

Happy hunting!

This article was excerpted with permission of the author,
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The Trade Card Place