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Archives Spotlight: Trade Cards

Archives Spotlight: Trade Cards

Before the postcards and color-print advertisements of 20th century magazines, trade cards were a unique and popular advertising craze. These small paper antecedents to collectible baseball cards featured eye-catching, whimsical images in full color. Some form of trade cards had existed since the 1700s, but the medium was not mass-produced and revolutionized until the 1870s by lithographer and printer Louis Prang. The development of color lithography and the inherent commerciality of trade cards generated a lucrative and competitive print market. Although the examples in this collection were exclusively commissioned by the Liebig Company, earlier printers and traveling salesmen routinely produced and circulated “stock cards,” including black spaces around the illustrations to allow any variety of businesses to utilized them in their advertisements. It was not uncommon to find the same trade cards advertising different products. The cards were then inserted into product packages or handed out in shops.

Trade cards became an incredibly fashionable Victorian collectible, traded and scrapbooked widely amongst consumers. An album of trade cards, filled with colorful ephemera, could include a diversity of illustrations of products, landscapes, animals, famous architecture or people. The subjects depicted could be humorous, sentimental, nostalgic or historical. Especially as they became more exclusive and personalized for the interests of particular merchants or manufacturers, these early trading cards became a signature novelty of the late 19th century.

The Liebig Company is an English firm that started widely producing “meat extract” after it was created by Justus von Liebig. The meat extraction process created a concentrate and preservation of the essential nutrients and flavors of beef in the form of paste or bouillon cubes. The production of the meat extract was started in 1850 and was named after its inventor. “Liebig Fleischextrakt” was soon sold all over the world with its main production taking place in Fray-Bentos and Colon, South America.

This collection of advertising trading cards consists of the colored lithographed cards found on the packaging of the products. The production of these cards started in 1870 and ended in 1975, spanning more than 11,000 different types of cards. The last lithographed series were released in 1939, but series were edited and reproduced through the 1970s. The cards were divided into subjects that nearly always made up a set of six or twelve The size is generally around 4.1" x 2.8".

Early on in their production, these cards were exchanged by the Liebig Company for coupons. The reverse of the cards were either advertising for a Liebig product, or they had a recipe in which the meat extract could be utilized. The series of cards were produced in multiple countries, therefore the cards can be found in a multitude of languages. Belgium, France, United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, and Italy are just some of the countries in which these were produced.