Trade card-omania


Trade card, Brown-Manly Plow Co., Malta and Columbus, Ohio, 1887. Collections of the MSU Museum.

On a counter out of reach and out of view of the MSU Museum’s general store visitor lay a number of colorful trade cards. 

The trade card—a small, usually rectangular paper card printed or engraved to advertise a service or product—originated as business cards in London, England, in the late seventeenth century. Trade cards at that time were printed as woodcut engravings or by letterpress.

In the eighteenth century trade cards, printed in black ink and sometimes hand-tinted, were the products of copperplate engraving. The introduction of lithography during the Market Revolution led to increased advertising of goods once known more generically rather than as a brand.

Improvements in chromolithography in the 1870s and 1880s made eye-catching trade cards one of the most popular forms of advertising for the rest of the century. Trade card printers offered wholesalers and retailers a variety of stock illustrations to carry information of goods and services. Distributed by storekeepers and traveling salesmen, or packaged in goods, trade cards provided a simple and effective means to inform consumers about new products. Mail order catalogs and magazines replaced this advertising medium in the early twentieth century.

How do we, as curators, rethink the general store’s internal visual culture: trade cards, advertisements, labels, and signage?  Trade cards in particular explain how brands went national and how rural Americans could learn about and adopt fashionable goods and exotic foods.  How do visitors take in the visual cacophony of images and designs–and what ideas do they take away from their experience?


Trade card, Lavine Washing Soap, Lavine Hartford Chemical Works, 30 Union Place, 1880s-1890s. Collections of the MSU Museum.

And what about the ethnic and racial caricatures employed on many trade cards?  Jarring to modern minds, these images still have the power to provide opportunities to engage contemporary representations of identity.  When visitors, especially those with young children, expect not to encounter difficult topics in the space of the general store, how do curators remain true to the historical record?

Further Reading:
Berg, Maxine, and Helen Clifford. “Selling Consumption in the Eighteenth Century: Advertising and the Trade Card in Britain and France.” Cultural & Social History 4:2 (2007): 145-170.

Jay, Robert. The Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century America. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.

Laird, Pamela Walker. Advertising Progress: American Business and the Rise of Consumer Marketing. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.


This project and popular projection

The creak of its wood planks as you step onto the floor of a re-created general store in a museum or historical society transports you to a different time. The shelves are stocked with canned goods. On the counter sit jars of candy. Bolts of fabric, patent medicines, bins of flour, sugar, coffee, and spices are out of reach but easily visible. A museum guide, sometimes dressed in old-fashioned clothes, helps you understand what you see.


Sam Drucker, social maven and historical interpreter

Americans have a sense of the historical general, or country, store, created through popular culture. General stores as social centers are features of American western films and television shows. Older generations may remember Sam Drucker of the television shows Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. As such, these places serve more often as stages for social activities rather than as a site of commerce. The kindly storekeeper who knows all the town’s gossip, the ideal of courteous service, and the more personal relationship in handling credit—in an era of self-service “big box” stores, there is a certain appeal to nostalgia in these dramatizations.

Museums and historical societies that offer general store exhibitions to the public are mindful of visitor expectations of and in these spaces. Over the last twenty years, historians have revisited the general store, creating new knowledge of the general store’s economic ties to a community and to the world beyond. What this project does is engage those new studies in rethinking the MSU Museum’s general store exhibition.