Boston Public Library

19th Century American Trade Cards

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.

Boston Public Library Arts Department is home to almost 4,000 of these Victorian advertising trade cards. Several feature advertisements for Boston businesses and for products still being manufactured, such as Quaker Oats and Heinz Ketchup.

The advertisements for medicines, clothes and shoes, foods, cosmetics and perfumes, farm equipment, household appliances, and cooking products provide a glimpse into the everyday lives of Victorian Americans. The cards also are examples of the graphic art design and printing techniques of the period.

At the same time the cards reflect the social and political biases that persisted after the end of the American Civil War. Dating from the period between 1870 and 1900, several of the words, titles, and images in some of the trade cards are considered offensive by today’s standards. The cards are presented in order to give an accurate historical picture of the advertising industry. However, we recognize that many contain harmful content. We continue to work to present and describe the cards in a sensitive and equitable way.

For further information, please see the Digital Commonwealth Statement on Offensive and Harmful Content. If you have questions or comments about images, language, or other content you consider offensive, or if you have questions or comments about our policies, please contact us at

Critical funding to support long-term preservation of and enhanced public access to Boston Public Library collections, including this one, was provided by the Associates of the Boston Public Library.