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Cataloged under Case Wing ZC 27 .T763 at the Newberry Library in Chicago, you'll find "English Trade Cards": a homemade scrapbook containing 217 trade cards for merchants and manufacturers— upholsterers, bakers, engravers, goldsmiths, jewelers, haberdashers—primarily in London between approximately 1780-1810.

Trade cards can be found dating back to 1720 as a departure from shopkeeper’s bills, which were branded documents meant for invoices and record-keeping. Trade cards, however, were a distinct product of the new 18th-century European regard for “shopping” as an upper-class leisure activity, alongside print production reckoning with the commercial potential for ephemeral print. 

18th-century trade cards were simultaneously art objects and advertisements, often professionally engraved or letterpress printed—and rather than dispersed widely like flyers or newspaper ads, they were distributed privately to elite consumers, serving as a memento and map of a customer’s personal interaction with a merchant and reinforcing the recipient’s status and identity as a consumer. Trade cards waver between being disposable or collectible, both in the quality of their production and in the timeliness of their content.

Today, most collections of trade cards have been preserved and retroactively curated by 19th/20th c collectors such as Ambrose Heal. ZC 27 .T763’s cards are primarily letterpress or engraved, with a few handwritten scraps or newspaper clippings. Some general points of interest about this object include:

  • 217 carefully pasted trade cards in a bound volume with stamped page numbers and a handwritten subject index.
  • A rigorously updated system of annotations and strikethroughs, essentially creating an 18th century DIY Yelp volume of commercial London.
    • This domestic directory was a living document, maintained for functional purposes in addition to preservation.

Aside from the fact that this object was given to the Newberry by a New York book collector in 1966, the provenance and author are unknown, although the annotations and card contents suggest an origin in an upper-class, literary home. 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. 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.