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The Book

by Caroline McCraw  ||  April 10, 2020


Case Wing ZC 27 .T763, cataloged by the Newberry Library as English Trade Cards, is a unique volume of 217 trade cards pasted into a homemade codex of 93 leaves. The cards represent merchants and manufacturers primarily from London between approximately 1780-1810, with a consistent trail of annotations to suggest that the original book was created within this timeframe as well. While most of the trade cards are engraved or letterpress, they are pasted alongside handwritten notes and newspaper cut-outs that all contain similar advertising information for the likes of upholsterers, bakers, engravers, goldsmiths, jewelers, haberdashers, and other luxury shops and wares. The carefully maintained collection of trade cards is prefaced by a handwritten subject index, suggesting that the book was intended for functional reference use within an English home; however, there is no documented information about the volume’s creator, provenance, or even when it was re-bound for the Newberry. Case Wing ZC 27 .T763 presents a fascinating opportunity for considering how the quantity of printed ephemera might be evaluated alongside its discrete, qualitative properties. Therefore, by evaluating both the overall qualities of the volume and the specific juxtaposition of engraved, letterpress, handwritten, and newsprint media collectively housed in Case Wing ZC 27 .T763, it is apparent that this volume exists as a valuable cross-section of the dynamic between print media history and the commercial relationships of eighteenth-century English consumer culture.

Trade Cards: Context & Background

Trade cards, also referred to as tradesmen’s cards, primarily came into use in the eighteenth century, growing increasingly popular from 1720 onwards (Heal 9). They were especially popular in Great Britain as compared to other parts of Europe, and the form’s popularity was carried across the Atlantic to British colonial America. While the definition of a trade card can grow a bit hazy— especially as they were rarely referred to as “trade cards” at the time, and were instead conflated with “shopkeeper’s bills”— the term trade card refers to a genre of printed commercial advertisements that contained information about a shop’s location, the wares that it carried, and the kind of experience a customer might anticipate— “it is the plain statement of the shopkeeper or merchant to his customer” (Heal 4). Trade cards from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century occupy a specific location at the intersection of print media and commercial life. At this time, the printing methods employed in ephemera production “naturally boast[ed] of new processes and equipment,” revealing a balance of what was novel and what was affordable (Andrews 439). Likewise, shopping grew in popularity as a leisure activity; according to excise records from 1759, the ratio of population to shops for England and Wales was 43:3, which far exceeds such ratios today (Berg 260). Trade cards provide “illustrative evidence for the emergent commercialization of eighteenth-century society” along with insight into the luxury crafts and specialized trades of the time (Hubbard). Therefore, eighteenth-century trade cards both reflected and reinforced “the critical period when print became ubiquitous enough to alter culture and society” in a noteworthy and traceable way (Zieger 14). 

The functionality of trade cards in Great Britain grew alongside the emergence of consumer culture and England’s reputation as a “nation of shopkeepers” (Keating). To an extent, trade cards operated as graphic objects with enticing illustrations and attractive text, often printed with the newer technologies of the time. Ambrose Heal describes the trade card’s content as “[advertising] in a seemly way, often in a very decorative and interesting way. It avoids those errors against good taste into which some of our modern advertisers are so easily beguiled”; this is important to note, as ideas of taste, fashion, and civility were especially prioritized in eighteenth century consumer culture (Heal 4). Also popular at the time were shopkeeper’s bills, which featured a decorative header with space to mark transactions or write invoices. This distinction becomes hazy as trade cards often became impromptu invoices; although there was no space intended for this function, shopkeepers would often scribble receipts or credit reminders in whatever blank space was available on the front or back of a trade card (Heal 2). Phillippa Hubbard points out, “while trade cards have been treated as a subset of the wider category of ‘ephemera’ as ‘fragmentary documents of everyday life’ (Rickards 1988, 2000), they often held long-term appeal as both practical business documents and print collectibles, a paradox that further complicates their categorization as a historical source” (Hubbard). Therefore, the trade card genre continues to exist as a complex confluence of functional advertisement, graphic commodity, business document, and collectible. 

Trade card production was a staple of the engraver’s trade in London by the end of the eighteenth century, existing as a popular source of jobbing income for those in the industry (Jay 5). Trade cards were printed on sheets of paper that were several inches wide up to a full folio size, depending upon the printing technology and demands of the customer; Heal points out that while referred to as trade cards, thicker support materials such as pasteboard were not adopted until the Victorian era (Heal 1). Therefore, trade cards in the eighteenth century were primarily printed on moderate to high quality paper by means of letterpress or copperplate engraving, as this was prior to the revolutionary opportunities and production rates presented by lithographic printing (Hubbard). Trade cards functioned as a double-advertisement, as printers often had the opportunity to include their professional information at the bottom of cards produced for other trades (see Item #035). 

In terms of design, trade cards were originally quite simple, with well-spaced lettering and minimal illustrations that gradually grew more ornamental over time. Because the intention of trade cards was to “convey multi-layered messages about the status of the tradespeople and their customers,” more upscale shops opted for graphic and textual signifiers that suggested elegance, luxury, taste, and “a general impression of the range [of inventory] as a way of igniting curiosity in consumers” rather than full inventories of their stock (although inventory lists are certainly visible on other trade cards, especially for those shops that supplied more utilitarian goods, as seen in Item #038) (Hubbard). In the first part of the eighteenth century, most trade cards included illustrations of the shop sign in order to help customers locate the business in person. However, beginning in 1762, shop signs on public streets were gradually removed and replaced with numbered addresses for greater visibility and ease of shopping (Jay 4). While trade cards after 1762 would occasionally use graphic elements to allude to the storefront, it became necessary for businesses to prioritize including the shop’s numbered address on their trade card. 

Although trade cards were intended for distributive advertising purposes, they were still somewhat valuable due to the cost and labor-intensity of their engraving and letterpress print production; therefore, such value encouraged a selective process of advertising, and trade cards became associated with high-end consumer culture rather than day-to-day necessities. In order to curate an exclusive intended audience that would justify the associated commission and printing costs of trade cards, shopkeepers would primarily distribute the cards through intentional and intimate transactions with their customers rather than posting them in newspapers or public spaces. As Maxine L. Berg indicates, “This was not mass advertising, but closely targeted advertising focused on local, metropolitan, national, and international customers, on other tradesmen, and on other merchants” (Berg 272). Trade cards were handed to current or prospective customers within a shop, included with packaged goods, and possibly used in customer correspondence to announce the arrival of new goods or a change in address; Hubbard also denotes that trade cards were responsible for forging relationships and lines of communication between tradespeople and individual shoppers, allowing the shopping experience to solidify as a memory to later reflect upon: 

The memory of the shopkeeper and his store was perhaps enhanced by the physical act of passing a trade card to a customer. The proximity of the trade card to self, through hand-to-hand contact, established and reinforced the relationship between buyer and seller. Sensory engagement with the object as it passed from person to person highlighted this association and the memory of a particular commercial exchange. (Hubbard)

For the shopkeeper, trade cards were a critical part of curating and maintaining his or her desired clientele; for the customer, trade cards came to exist as collectible objects for the purposes of reference, bookkeeping, and even nostalgic preservation, “designed for close and repeated contemplation as both newspaper and memento… [mapping] a customer’s personal interaction with a purveyor, his goods, and his location” (Benedict). As previously mentioned, some trade cards became makeshift receipts or credit accounts (see Item #047). Some were collected in order to further enjoy the high-quality print aesthetics of the trade cards themselves, as they were often produced by both jobbing engravers as well as established artists (Hubbard). Hubbard also states, “Trade cards embodied the spectacle of consumption and the anticipation of future shopping experiences”; in other words, once within the home of the customer, he or she was able to use the trade card as a souvenir of their cultured shopping experience, reinforcing the identity and lifestyle of luxury that he or she sought to cultivate by shopping in the first place (Hubbard). 

It is important to reiterate that trade cards were not representative of English consumer habits as a whole; rather, as is often the case with advertising media, they represented aspirational lifestyle aesthetics and the shopping priorities and patterns of a wealthy elite who had the time and resources to spend engaging with recreational material consumption. Likewise, Newberry Case Wing ZC 27 .T763 is representative of a very specific consumer who existed within a specific time and place with specific financial and social privilege. However, once these limitations are recognized, trade cards remain fertile sites of research due to the fact that they have survived up until this point both due to their material durability and desirability as a collectible. “The movement of trade cards was connected to complex choreographies of distribution and exchange through which meanings were produced and reconfigured as they moved between the contexts of commercial spaces and collecting environments” (Hubbard). In studying these choreographies, one can begin to assess how the resources necessary to enable trade card production and consumption contributed to the greater trajectory of print media’s relationship to material consumption. 

Since their inception, trade cards have continued to be accrued as collectible items for the aforementioned purposes of personal bookkeeping, future reference, and nostalgic review. Today, most collections of trade cards have been preserved by private collectors such as Ambrose Heal and Samuel Pepys, and then eventually museums and library collections;  however, Heal purports that the trade card— like much print ephemera— was often not held in the same regard as other collectible print media such as stamps or maps (Heal 6). Newberry Case Wing ZC 27 .T763 is a bit of an anomaly in terms of its form; upon an initial cursory inspection, one might suppose that the volume is essentially a scrapbook of a collector’s trade cards purely for preservation purposes. However, as will be further discussed, the book is unique in its plenitude and intention for functional use during the time within which it was created. 

The Volume

It is valuable to consider the potential functions and intentions of the volume as a whole by noting a handful of Case Wing ZC 27 .T763’s peculiarities as a book object. The book is 24cm tall with 217 trade card-related items pasted across 93 leaves; while the book was clearly re-bound with archival preservation in mind, there is no information about when this might have occurred, or by whom. While actual dates are few and far between, it can be estimated that the trade cards in the collection roughly span the years 1780-1810 due to the dates that do exist, the emphasis on copperplate engraving, and the presence of shop numbers rather than shop signs. 

While the volume’s re-bound exterior is modern and crisp, the book’s original binding is especially bizarre. Rather than consisting of full leaves folded in half and stitched together, each page is a singular leaf with an excess of roughly half an inch that is then folded, nested within 3-5 protruding stubs of other pages, and then the folded stubs are glued to one another along their crease to create a quire. These quires were then somehow glued into the original binding in a manner akin to a makeshift perfect-bound approach, although it is difficult to assess the details of this technique due to the tightness of the new binding. However, it is impossible for a reader to miss the bundles of stubs lining the gutter every few pages. While there is still a bit of mystery regarding the original binding technique, these details suggest a process guided by necessity and innovation in order to work within the material and technical constraints of the bookmaker. The trade cards themselves are adhered to the book’s pages with transparent glue and occasionally even red paint, and trade cards with text on both sides are carefully glued in such a way that they can be flipped back and forth (Item #020). Such tender attention to adhesion is also apparent in instances when cards have been lost or removed; it is possible to see the remains of the carefully-applied spots of glue that were placed in the corners of each card, and which are practically invisible beneath the remaining cards. While it is unclear as to who bound the original pages, the DIY approach and allegiance to delicate adhesive systems suggests that the binding process was not too far removed from the other processes related to the book’s compilation. 

The book’s paper is likewise unusual, as it is thick and brown in color. Today’s reader might associate such paper with contemporary construction paper, which is also thicker than typical book paper and available in a variety of colors. The paper is consistent throughout, suggesting that it was all purchased at the same time, perhaps with a specific function in mind. The wear and fading along the paper coincide with areas of high use, such as along the edges of each page where it might be turned. The laid marks of the wire screen are frequently visible, and the paper’s thickness and durability seem to have been prioritized over the whiteness and smoothness so often sought after by professional bookmakers; this paper truly exists as a “support” in every sense of the word, as it is strong enough to withstand the weight of glue and anywhere between two and five items attached to each page. Philip Gaskell points out, “Ordinary, blue, whited-brown, and brown papers were made for bookbinding, interior decorating, wrapping and packing, and for various industrial purposes” (Gaskell). This suggests that the paper used in Case Wing ZC 27 .T763 was perhaps intended for a more industrial purpose, and possibly purchased from one of the bookbinders, stationers, engravers, or another tradesperson whose card was included in the volume. The brown paper also bears some similarity to the heavier brown papers sometimes used for chalk or pastel drawings at the time; however, to investigate this possibility would require further research in a rare prints and drawings archive as a comparison of such paper is difficult to conduct virtually. The unique binding approach also supports the speculation that the book’s paper was originally intended for another purpose, which might account for the paper being pre-cut to an inconvenient size that the book’s creator had to adapt a binding technique to. However, it is ultimately necessary to recognize that the paper chosen for this volume was selected for its structural integrity and ability to facilitate the object’s functionality as a regularly-handled reference resource. 

Case Wing ZC 27 .T763 has two primary attentions to user navigation: the page numbering and a subject index. The subject index lists trades, alongside their respective page numbers, phonetically— for instance, “cabinet maker” and “knapsacks” are both listed under C/K/Q, suggesting that ease of navigation was more important than alphabetical correctness. Each of the brown leaves has a page number in the upper right corner, which are presumably stamped due to the standardized type used for each digit. While such stamps would have been most readily available to a printer who could have been commissioned to prepare the leaves, it is possible that someone with a burgeoning recreational interest in bookmaking— and the funds to procure the necessary materials— could have included this step in his or her DIY process. Regardless, the consistency in page numbering echoes the consistency of paper throughout the volume, both of which support the possibility of the book’s organization being carefully premeditated and organized prior to its execution rather than expanded gradually and cumulatively over time. While there is certainly space for more information to be added to the subject index and for more cards to be added to each page (and surely, this was the case to an extent), the exactness of the content’s organization suggests that the bulk of the trade cards were pre-collected and then given a home, rather than the other way around. Additionally, such attention to navigation continue to suggest that Case Wing ZC 27 .T763 was intended to be a more functional object rather than just a commemorative collection. 

A final noteworthy quality of the volume is its system of annotations and strikethroughs. Many, if not most, of the trade cards include textual commentary written in the same hand in what is now appears as brown ink. The annotations include information ranging from documentation of purchased goods (Item #023), who recommended the business (Item #131), whether the shop is expensive (Item #121), updates to a business’s address or successor (Item #064), and even commentary on the shopkeeper’s personality (Item #027). Additionally, several of the trade cards are crossed through (Item #059), suggesting that the book’s owner maintained up-to-date records of which businesses had closed. While many of these annotations are specifically functional (when instructing reader to turn a card over, marking updated locations, recalling inventory, etc.), the more subjective annotations (“a very civil man” or “a good shop,” which are two of the most common annotations across the collection) serve to reinforce the relationship between seller and consumer, further committing the shopping exchange and experience to the customer’s memory.

As a whole, this volume situates itself somewhere between a commonplace book, a trade catalogue, a scrapbook, a bookkeeping record, and a shopping guide. Its conception and execution were both highly interactive, and required a significant amount of planning on behalf of the book’s creator. At this point, what can be speculated about the motivation for creating such an object? Maxine Berg points out that not only was the eighteenth-century shop “a public space for mixed sociability, a setting for developing gesture, manner, and conversation,” but buying itself became “a skill, a form of enlightened knowledge” (Berg 266). Berg also notes luxurious goods were partially defined by “specialized knowledge as a prerequisite for their appropriate consumption, that is regulation by taste or fashion” (30).  Therefore, being a “knowledgeable” shopper implied that one had taste. Not only did a shopper have the opportunity to purchase a luxury good, but they also were able to acquire proof of experience by means of a trade card; by collecting and annotating trade cards in a volume such as Case Wing ZC 27 .T763, the consumer was able to solidify, prove, and improve their knowledge as a shopper to themselves and perhaps to others as well. Case Wing ZC 27 .T763 is a commemorative commitment to the consumer identity, in addition to its archival and reference functionality. 

More text forthcoming . . .