Bruce Roberts

Clipper ship trade cards are cards that were issued by dispatch lines to advertise specific voyages of clipper ships from one port (usually New York or Boston) to another (usually San Francisco). They were distributed primarily during the late 1850s and early 1860s.

During the pre-Gold Rush era, clipper ship sailings were advertised primarily by brief, unadorned announcements in newspapers. Once gold fever struck, posters and broadsides were the printed media most often used. While George Nesbitt & Co. of New York was printing at least a few clipper ship cards (albeit simple, drab ones) as early as 1849, the heyday of the clipper ship card was still some years away.

Ironically, this heyday for clipper cards did not correspond with the peak times of the industry they promoted. Many people quite naturally associate clipper ship cards with the frenzy of the California gold rush, but in fact most clipper ship cards were produced during the decline, not ascent, of the clipper ship industry. The depression of the mid-1850s, which culminated in the Panic of 1857, obviously hurt business. By the late 1850s, when clipper card production began in earnest, the clipper ship was facing a growing challenge from the steamer. And in the early 1860s, the period of heaviest clipper ship card distribution, shipping trade was disrupted by the American Civil War, with any California-bound clipper the potential prey of Confederate raiders.

Most clipper cards were printed in full color, on coated stock, and represent some of the finest early American color advertising artwork. Recurrent thematic topics and imagery found on clipper ship cards include Nautical Scenes, Knights/Warriors, Mythology, Native Americans and Women.

While most clipper ship cards show "action" scenes, some offer pleasant, Pastoral images. Surprisingly few clipper ship cards show California scenes; unsurprisingly, gold mining usually has a presence in the California scenes that were executed. And many include little or no illustration, leaving the Lettering to shoulder the entire visual load.

The art of the clipper ship card was limited only by the artist's imagination and ability, and these qualities were rarely lacking. Couple artistic success with excellence of printing, and you have some of the most striking printed advertisements ever created.

The Trade Card Place