Affordable and Collectible Promotional Cards | Ancient information and history education


Today’s printed business cards are a far cry from the colorful, even sometimes humorous, advertising business cards of the past. Before the print was easily accessible, the businessman had to rely on a sign placed above the entrance to his business. The sign was usually painted with company symbols and was used not only to advertise goods and services, but also to help the many people who could not read in the early 19th century.

When printing became mainstream, commercial advertising cards were distributed, in and out of stores, to alert customers to products and services. One of the oldest known and most valuable was made at the end of the 18th century for the advertisement of Paul Revere, silversmith. Revere made his own impression.

Prior to the 1870s, most commercial advertising cards were in black and white. Among the most sought after cards today are those printed by Prang of Boston, and Currier and Ives. In the 1880s, Currier and Ives created a range of trading cards approximately 3-1 / 4 inches by 5 inches. In the first print, they published 20 each for the horse and horse trade, cigar trade, and general publicity.

Photo courtesy of Simon’s Sports Center A McLaughlin’s Cafe trade card featuring actress Fanny Davenport.

The increasing use of chromolithography, with its vivid colors, not only sold products, but made cards a popular collector’s item. They were recorded in albums, often by category. Since some companies offered their trade cards in series, collectors eagerly awaited each new card in the series. Some illustrated fairy tales and others were simply a series of a single subject such as animals, birds or flowers.

Creative cards

Basically there are two types of trade cards. “Stock” cards were cards that any business could purchase from a printer and have their own name printed on blank space. The “Private Design” cards were only designed for one company.

Patented drug cards and those advertising household and food products were most common in the 1880s and 90s. Tobacco companies and yarn manufacturers quickly jumped on the bandwagon. When cigarettes became popular at the turn of the 20th century, their advertising cards were designed to be collected and redeemed. Some were beautiful enough to be presented as art. A good example are the beauties of Palm Beach made for Turkish trophies. Famous illustrator Hamilton King created them in a colorful poster style with his signature prominently displayed.

During these decades, famous personalities and actresses became the forerunners of celebrities in commercials. Pretty young women, animals, birds and flowers were other subjects. Often the cards became more important than the product.

The average size of most early trading cards ranges from 2 x 3 inches to 4 x 6 inches. Some are also bigger and smaller.

The more unusual characteristics a card has, the more it is sought after by collectors. Many have used the same features found in postcards and Valentine’s Day. Here are some examples :

  • A “cut out” card had the shape of an object. One example was the figure of a white bird holding an ivory bar of soap. It came with a string attached so that it could be hung.
  • A “mechanical” card had moving parts worked with a tab.
  • A “hold up to the light” card had a cutout design that only displayed when held up to the light.
  • A “shapeshifter” card changed its image by pulling down a flap, showing images such as a little girl crying, then laughing.

CLUES: The golden age of trade cards is generally considered to be from 1880 to 1893. With a few exceptions, such as sports trade cards, the average price of 19th century trade cards ranges from $ 5 to $ 40. At flea markets and yard sales, entire scrapbooks can still be found for as little as $ 25.

The interesting topics to look for would be early transport. Balloons, cars and trains are considered a choice and the prices would be higher.

Sunbonnet Baby cards keep increasing in value, as do the baking soda inserts that came in the packaging made by Church and Dwight in the late 19th century. What made the baking soda cards special was that they were educational and were of good quality. They came in a series on animals, marine life, and flowers.

Fashion cards, commercials, and corsets can provide a glimpse into the past.

While many collectors use them as decorative art today, serious collectors have a word of advice: treat cards as if they were beautiful prints. Protect them under glass. Or, do like the Victorians … put them in scrapbooks.


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