The Development of Trade Cards and Bill Headings (Case 2, nos. 8-75)

The development of trade cards and bill headings is not straightforward, as can be seen in these chronological sequences, which combine letterpress with engraved examples, London with provincial. Trade cards are specifically discussed here, but in general bill headings mirrored the development of trade cards, as can be seen in nos. 52-66.

Early Trade Cards

Trade cards of the 17th century are extremely rare and our familiarity with them is largely due to the collections of Samuel Pepys and John Bagford. They show that the trade card was an illustrated medium from its beginnings, engraved often on wood or on copper. The chief difference between 17th century cards and those of the 1740s onwards is that of style. As shown in the label of 1654 (no. 51) and the trade cards of the very end of the 17th century at the beginning of this section, early representations of trade signs were simple, almost heraldic. The illustrations were often confined within a border, physically separated from the text. Some cards showed the entire sign, complete with its carved frame and hangers, a practice which continued into the first half of the 18th century.

Letterpress Trade Cards

In the 18th and 19th centuries, letterpress and engraved cards co-existed, although copper-plate and steel engravings became the predominant media for trade cards. The majority of letterpress cards were unillustrated. Where they were illustrated, woodcuts and wood engravings were, by their nature, far removed from the elaborate curves and flourishes of the copper-plate engravers and thus were immune from the changes in taste and fashion of the engraved trade card. This gives them a rather archaic look, the card of Benjamin Morgan (no. 36) being a striking example.

Developments in the appearance of letterpress cards were linked to changes in the size and quality of paper, and to innovations in type and typographic ornaments. In the 19th century trade cards were commonly printed (both in engraving and letterpress) on pasteboard and became significantly smaller. There are earlier examples, such as the card of Mary Scholey (no. 133), but they are not common. As their size determined how much text could be used, the information became more concise.

In small towns especially, printers (with notable exceptions) tended to be more conservative and jobbing printing more humble than in London. Furthermore, the relative lack of competition with other tradesmen meant that elaborate and flamboyant trade cards were not necessary. Addresses were also simpler. Some provincial tradesmen, notably in cities, followed the London custom of trade signs but, based on the evidence of surviving trade cards, this was by no means universal. There was no practical necessity to have signs in small towns where the locations of businesses were well known.

Generally letterpress was used, in the 19th as in the 18th century, for tradesmen’s lists or for the more modest trade cards—those for the poorer trades or for provincial cards. Booksellers’ cards are often letterpress. An illustration of a book conveyed little about a bookseller’s wares. Furthermore, booksellers sold such a diversity of other items that their cards often took the form of lists, for which letterpress was ideal.

Engraved Trade Cards

The 18th century saw the high point of the trade card. The incentive for London tradesmen to represent their shop sign made the trade card an inherently graphic medium. Copper-plate engraving, with its elegant flowing lines, enabled text and sign to be combined in imaginative ways, as for example in the trade card of James Poyntell (no. 30).

From the 1730s and especially in the 1740s to the 1760s, the style of the card reflected that of furniture, or more specifically of frames and mirrors. Trade signs and other illustrations were contained within baroque and rococo cartouches, the latter often reflecting the vogue for chinoiserie. Examples of the baroque and rococo styles are nos. 7, 24, 27, 29-32, 35, 86, 103, 142, 223, 248 and 273. Although in theory the baroque style precedes the rococo, there was much overlap in trade cards between the symmetrical and heavier baroque and the asymmetric and lighter rococo or Chippendale style (exemplified by the trade card of George Findlay of Glasgow, no. 32). The rococo (or rocaille) style was pioneered in England by Matthias Lock in 1740 (whose own trade card in that style, in the Heal Collection, can be dated to 1746) and Henry Copland. The style was dominant in the first edition of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director of 1754.

At the end of the 18th century, the vogue for the elegant neo-classical style was also reflected in trade cards. Exemplified by Robert Adam, the style began in the late 1760s but gained popular currency in the 1780s. An example can be seen at no. 268 and another, late, example at no. 246 (dated c. 1807). When a comparison is made between 223 (baroque) and 268 (neo-classical), both engraved by William Darling of Great Newport Street (fl. 1769-99), the radical changes in style in this period can be appreciated. However, the baroque and rococo cartouches continued into the late 18th century. Although style can indicate the earliest date for a trade card, it is not a reliable indication of date, as many plates were in use for several years, and sometimes for as long as two decades.

When shop signs ceased to appear on trade cards, they were replaced by engraved illustrations of products, tradesmen at work, manufacturing processes and premises. In the case of furniture makers particularly, illustrating their wares began with their trade signs (at the Royal Bed, at the Sign of the Chair & Anchor, at ye Looking Glass & Cabenet, etc.). The illustration of the shop sign was often flanked with other examples of the maker’s furniture and it was a natural progression to depictions of furniture without the trade sign, as in no. 32.

As with letterpress cards, the change from paper to card and the reduction in the size of trade cards made it an essentially miniaturist form. Indeed, it is remarkable how many products were illustrated on such small cards.

Trade cards often transcended their function. As examples of jobbing printing, many are exquisite. However, they were designed to do more than inform. The objective of a trade card was to attract custom and, especially, the patronage of the wealthy. Even chimney sweeps and nightmen (collectors of night-soil) often produced stylish illustrated cards.

The engravers of London trade cards are often anonymous. When engraved provincial cards are signed, they often bear the names of well-known London engravers. Examples are Benjamin Cole in the case of Benjamin Pearkes of Worcester (no. 27) and Matthew Darly in that of Dunkerley & Cockings of Derby (no. 249). Several of the examples in the John Johnson Collection of the work of the early 19th century London engraver William Newman (see part 12) are also for provincial tradesmen.

Of the 19th century, Sir Ambrose Heal wrote: ‘With the beginning of the nineteenth century the design of the Trade Card began to deteriorate sadly. The lettering still retained a great deal of the old charm, but the tradition soon got overlaid by the affectations of the Victorian era. These later Cards, however, though lacking in distinction, still have a quaint interest of their own time.’

Nineteenth-century cards predominate in the present exhibition. As with Victorian architecture, time and what might be seen as a further deterioration of style (especially in the trade card) in the 20th century have perhaps softened the effect perceived by Heal. The reader will judge.

Lithographed Trade Cards

Lithography was patented in England by its inventor Alois Senefelder in 1801, and lithographic presses were well established in London by the 1820s. Despite the widespread use of lithography for jobbing printing, English lithographed trade cards are not common in this period, with the exception of cards for the lithographers themselves (examples of which can be seen in parts 4 and 13). Trade cards, like bookplates, were prestigious productions and engraving was considered superior. This may explain the scarcity of chromolithographed trade cards in Britain and the continuance of the trade card as a predominantly black and white medium, while in the USA chromolithographed trade cards flourished.

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