Trade cards were used primarily during the late 19th century to advertise everything from breath freshener to Coca-Cola.
A cheap and effective way to reach consumers, their heyday was between 1876 and 1904. Expositions (such as the St. Louis World’s Fair), were popular places for companies to distribute their product cards. Druggist's and other merchant’s counters often had a number of different trade cards on them, in the hopes of encouraging patronage.
Trade cards often featured beautiful illustrations, humorous cartoons or worthy sayings, and they captured the imagination of the Victorians who became keen collectors of them. The Victorians would compile their collections in scrapbooks, and it became a popular pastime.
Current collectors classify the trade cards into two categories:
Generic cards with interesting images that could be personalized and applied to any product. Backs were left blank so a local advertiser could include his own message and information.
These cards were produced specifically for a product or company, and thus typically have unique designs and feature the product being advertised.
By the turn of the century, trade cards were on the wane, as magazine ads became more popular, and postcards became the new collectible.
Trade cards offer a unique window into the social history of nineteenth century America.
For more information on Coca-Cola collectibles, check out the Coca-Cola collector’s club.
This comprehensive site, created by a trade card collecting enthusiast, offers information on everything from auctions to trade card history.
The Trade Card Collector’s Association is no longer in business, but their site, which has some trade card resources, is still maintained.