This lithograph for the Advance Thresher Co. was Henry Szlachta's first acquisition in 1978
Henry Szlachta revels in his collection of trade cards and advertising lithographs dating to the late 1800s.
He loves the graphics, the history and the variety. But what he really enjoys is imagining the impact when the brightly colored, richly illustrated advertisements first burst onto the scene in the 1870s.
Up to that time, Henry speculates, 'It had been a black-and-white world. There wasn't a lot of art on the walls in farm homes. But suddenly color was introduced into that world. It was art for the masses.'
But it wasn't just art for art's sake. Although dressed up with bright colors and elaborate graphics, trade cards and broadsides were first and foremost a means of advertising products. Before the era of widespread newspaper circulation, magazines, television and radio, manufacturers tried to reach potential customers through eye-catching printed materials that were mailed, inserted in shipments and distributed free at businesses and events.
In the boom era of 1880-1900, advertisements appeared on trade cards (not to be confused with trading cards, as trade refers to businesses in this example), broadsides (poster-sized lithographs displayed at a business), folders, calendars, catalogs and pocket companions. The latter are pocket-sized booklets that contain general, almanac-like information and or information specific to a company, as well as blank pages for record keeping. And Henry Szlachta loves it all.
'It has to speak to you,' he says. 'I really like the color in this stuff and the graphics.'
The most common categories for trade cards were medicine, food, tobacco, clothing, household, sewing, stoves and farm-related items. Henry focuses on farm-related pieces, many of which are uniquely handsome. The extraordinary detail and artistry in those pieces may have been the result of competitive pressures. In that era, U.S. manufacturers produced the vast majority of farm equipment used worldwide. Countless American manufacturers, small and large, competed head to head in the 1880s and 1890s, and their advertising efforts were particularly intense.
Henry, who lives in northern Illinois, began collecting in the early 1980s, starting with pinbacks (like political campaign buttons, but farm related) and trade cards.
'My wife, Margaret, had collected tin advertising pieces and containers for several years,' he says. 'This gave me a hobby of my own. She'd do the leg work while I was working; she'd go to flea markets and antique shows.'
From there, Henry's involvement in the hobby grew. Pinbacks, catalogs, match safes, pocket companions, trade cards, salesman's samples and broadsides all fill the Szlachta home, happy partners to Margaret's collection of advertising tins, antique sand pails, cardboard oatmeal canisters with ornate labels and more. The couple has dutifully filed away countless scores of vintage paper collectibles, grouped pinbacks and match safes in display boxes and encapsulated miles of paper in protective polypropylene jackets.
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