Digital Commonwealth

19th Century American Trade Cards

Boston Public Library

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Color lithographed Victorian-era trade cards were a key late 19th century advertising vehicle for national manufacturers and local businesses. These miniature posters, about the size of a postcard, were handed out as souvenirs at major expositions during the late Victorian period. They were distributed at stores, placed on sales counters free for the taking, and passed out by 'drummers' who walked the streets looking for customers.

The Print Department of the Boston Public Library is home to almost 4,000 of these Victorian advertising trade cards. The cards in our collection advertise medicines, clothes and shoes, foods, cosmetics and perfumes, farm equipment, household appliances, and cooking products. Several items feature advertisements for Boston businesses as well as products still being manufactured, such as Quaker Oats and Heinz Ketchup.

The cards provide a glimpse into the everyday lives of the Victorian American, and they suggest the values, dreams, and political agendas of America's past. The vast majority of the cards are whimsical, amusing, colorful and great examples of graphic art design.

Warning: Website visitors should be warned that several of the words, descriptions, and images in some of these trade cards are considered racially offensive by today's standards. The materials are presented in order to give an accurate historical picture of the advertising industry.