The Ephemera of Trade

Trade Ephemera as a Resource

As will be highlighted by the themes of the exhibition, trade cards, bill headings and prints carry information of significance to many researchers, among them social, printing, local and family historians. Through these uninterpreted primary source materials, we are transported back to an age where commercial streets were hung with colourful shop signs, where a great number of exotic imported goods were available, where provincial shops sold an amazing range of goods, where booksellers sold not only books but also patent medicines and musical instruments, and where women had a surprisingly prominent role. Occasionally, too, we are struck by a phrase which reveals a concept or a problem taken for granted at the time: ‘coals wholesale as cheap as at the water-side’ (no. 134), or ‘N.B. the rooms are well air’d’ (no. 268), for example.

Trade cards represent what the tradesman wished to convey about himself and his business, both textually and visually. Of course, we cannot look at a trade card in the same way as a potential customer, who would have known which retailers were reputable or provided good value, whose silks were of the highest quality or where to buy the best tea. However, much can be deduced about the status of a business from its card, especially if products are depicted on it. The illustration of the products themselves provides an invaluable iconographic resource, documenting artefacts for which primary sources are often scarce.

Trade cards supplement information found elsewhere, for example in trade directories. Occasionally tradesmen elude the directories altogether (Edmund Toulman and Elizabeth Hodnet, for example). Even when directory entries exist, they are brief, giving only name, address and trade. Trade cards expand this information, giving not just the principal trade but all the other branches of commerce undertaken and sometimes information such as details of the tradesman’s predecessor, former master or previous address. In directories of the 19th century, trade card plates were used for advertisements at the back of, or even interleaved with, the directory entries themselves. Examples of this are the trade cards of W. Burton & Co. (no. 264) and William Mole (no. 269), which appear as full-page plates in the Birmingham directory section of The history, topography and directory of Warwickshire by Wm. West (1830). Conversely, it is the directories which can often enable us to date an otherwise undated trade card.

Through trade cards, bill headings and prints, local historians can trace the different trades exercised at a particular address, or can find illustrations of buildings long since demolished or altered beyond recognition. Interiors of shops are shown too, and we get a sense of what it might have been like to go to a linen-draper or shoe shop in the time of Jane Austen or to browse in a circulating library or bookshop.

Trade cards and bill headings give us information about the terms on which business was conducted: wholesale or retail, ready cash only, etc. Bill headings show the large accounts which accumulated, interest-free (within the shopkeeper’s terms) over months or sometimes years. Through them, we can also see the price of goods and their value relative to each other.

Collectors of Trade Cards

Both Samuel Pepys and John Bagford recognised the significance of vulgaria (as Pepys termed it). Their collections of the ephemera of their own time, preserved at Magdalene College, Cambridge and the British Library respectively, include the earliest surviving trade cards, in both cases dating from the 17th century. Sarah Banks and Sir Ambrose Heal specialised in the collection of trade cards. Their collections, both preserved in the Print Room of the British Museum, document the 17thto 19th centuries. The Heal Collection is particularly rich in the 18th century. In London Tradesmen’s Cards of the XVIII Century, Heal described the years 1720 to 1770 as the ‘palmy days of the Trade Card.’ He went far beyond the mere collecting of trade cards, writing copiously on the subject: in books, articles and on the mounts of the cards themselves.

The Guildhall Library also has an important collection of London trade cards.

Trade Cards in the John Johnson Collection

The trade cards in the John Johnson Collection are strongest in the 19th century but span the 17th to the early 20thcenturies. There is a parallel collection of bill headings.

The Cataloguing and Digitisation of Trade Cards

The trade cards and bill headings in the Collection are kept by trade. This necessarily means the first-named trade. In cataloguing the material now, each and every product and trade is indexed. This enables us to build up an understanding of the nature of trade and of the distribution and sale of products. Researchers interested in ‘mirrors’, ‘pounce’ or ‘coffins’ can find not only the obvious examples but also those cards or tradesmen’s lists in which their specialist interest might be the fifth or fiftieth named product. Tradesmen’s lists are particularly revealing as they attempt to list the tradesman’s entire stock. All names and addresses are indexed, enabling researchers to track tradesmen, engravers, printers, etc. The iconographic content of the card is also indexed: trade signs, products, manufacturing processes, premises, etc. The Library of Congress Thesaurus for Graphic Materials is used as an indexing tool, supplemented where necessary.

The main sequence of trade cards and of tradesmen’s lists are already digitised, and it is hoped to complete the process and to digitise the booktrade trade cards and the bill headings in the near future. The cataloguing and digitisation of trade cards provides an opportunity to create a virtual collection of these materials, even within the John Johnson Collection itself as, apart from the main sequences of Trade Cards and Bill Headings, trade ephemera are dispersed among Booktrade; Circulating Libraries; Oxford Trade; Tradesmen’s Lists; a volume of Sheffield trade ephemera; Albums; and the Bridgnorth Collection.


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