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.
Their preference is to be surrounded by their hobby. When they find a new lithograph or trade card that they especially like, it’s more likely to go on the wall than in a drawer. ‘If there’s a spot on the wall, I’ll encapsulate it and hang it up,’ Henry says. The walls and doors of their cottage like home are papered with more mint-quality collectibles than most people will see in a lifetime.
Henry’s primary interest is those items produced during what is often referred to as ‘the Victorian era,’ 1876-1920. ‘It was about a 25-year window. Color on paper was really introduced in volume after the Civil War,’ Henry says. ‘That was the first big push in color.’ A real boom in trade cards came in connection with the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.
Brightly colored trade cards were a huge hit at the exposition, and people returned home with dozens of cards. Anxious to show them off, collectors pasted their cards in albums and displayed them when callers came. Children assembled their own albums, as well. ‘Kids butchered a lot of cards,’ Henry says. ‘But if they hadn’t, if the cards were still around, intact, they’d only be worth a nickel today!’
Cards and other pieces printed in that era demonstrate the artistry of the stone lithographer. In the heyday of chromolithography, images were drawn (in reverse) on specially prepared limestone using greasy ink or crayons. A separate stone was used for each color in the image. It was a complex and slow process. ‘It took a lot of skill,’ Henry marvels. ‘Those early stone lithographers from countries such as Austria, Germany and England were artisans.’
In about 1900, the advent of offset lithography and enactment of federal bulk postal rates, which lead to increased advertising in magazines, rang a death knell for trade cards. The first wave of collector interest also faded, as enthusiasts moved on to the next craze: postcards.
Today, membership organizations and online auctions demonstrate the trade card’s enduring appeal. Many collectors, determined to ensure that the niche hobby continues to thrive, pay increasing attention to the future. ‘It’s all about restore, protect, preserve,’ Henry says. His home, for instance, has ultraviolet coating on the windows to protect his paper collection from fading. All of his paper collectibles are stored on acid-free paper, in polypropylene sleeves, or they’re encapsulated to protect against humidity and insect damage.
‘In the old days, we put everything in vinyl pages. Then they scared us to death about that, and we started using polypropylene, archival-quality stuff,’ Henry says. ‘We’ve also taken some of our framed pieces to preservationists. If you’re a purist, maybe you’d keep it with holes and corners broken off. But we think there’s a need to reverse the damage. And we don’t restore to the point of deception.
‘We learned about quality early in our hobby,’ he ruefully recalls. ‘I remember early on, cutting an oversized piece in half so it would fit into two vinyl sleeves.’
Today, of course, he’d rather cut off his own arm than cut a piece of paper in half. That said, his collection includes a few – a very few – reproductions. ‘And that’s okay,’ he says. ‘Those are just pieces I like, things that speak to me, that I know I couldn’t get any other way.’
Still, for Henry and Margaret, much of their focus is on preservation. Henry, for instance, especially loves his 1919 Baker-Upham wall calendar. He’s spent enough time studying it to suspect that it was produced before World War I ended on Nov. 11, 1918: Inside, pages encourage farmers to produce more food, and Armistice Day is not marked on the calendar. The calendar’s illustrations of farm buildings remind him of those from his childhood. It’s an important piece in his collection, and yet he knows he is but a caretaker of it and other treasures he’s found. ‘It’s meaningful to me,’ he muses, ‘but it’s also being preserved for another generation.’ FC
Interested in vintage lithography? Know what you’re looking for . . .
Vintage paper collector Henry Szlachta remains optimistic about finding gems on his hunt for trade cards and lithography from the late 1800s. ‘They were printed,’ he says. ‘You know they made more than one.’ Some cards were produced in very small numbers; others by the thousand. In the category of cards printed 1876-1900, black-and-white cards are particularly rare: They weren’t pretty enough to keep.
Collectors buy trade cards from dealers, from other collectors, at online auctions, flea markets and antique stores.
Expect to pay more for ‘mint’ cards and remember that condition is very important to resale values.
As with all collectibles, be alert to the possibility of reproductions. Use a photographer’s loupe to magnify detail on paper pieces.
Contemporary offset printing leaves a clearly identifiable dot pattern; true lithographs have no dot pattern; you should see a solid mass of color. Also, look for other signs of genuine age, like pinholes, tears and creases that are real, not printed.
Trade card varieties
Die cut: These cards were cut in the shape of an object, punched from printed sheets by a die.
Foldout, fold-over: These cards had a fold, revealing complete images when opened.
Hold to light: These cards were printed on very thin paper so that when the card was held to the light, an image on the back shows through, superimposing the image on the front. This technique was often used in puzzle cards and before-and-after cards.
Mechanical: In these cards, two or more separate parts were fastened together by tabs or grommets so the card image changed when one or more parts were moved. Cards using rotating disks or sliding tabs are the most commonly found form.
Metamorphic: These cards consisted of a single piece, employing one or more folding parts to produce a change in the card’s image. This technique was frequently used in before-and-after cards.
Photo-lithographic: The photolithographic printing process was used to produce a detailed, photo-like image, typically in black and white.
Puzzle: These cards employed various techniques to present a puzzle for the viewer to solve. Most commonly, the puzzle entailed finding small objects hidden in the detail of the illustration. Other puzzle cards employed heat-sensitive or optical illusion techniques.
Series: A set of trade cards where each card portrayed part of an overall story. Sometimes the cards were sequentially numbered. Series cards were either separate or connected to form a fold-over card. Because of the connected card’s fragility, these are often found in separate pieces.
The Trade Card Place; Victorian trade cards used to advertise American goods and services during the late 1800s, online auction: www.tradecards.com
Antique Advertising Association of America, membership organization and newsletter for collectors of popular and antique advertising, P.O. Box 5851, Elgin, IL 60123; www.pastimes.org
Paper Collectors’ Marketplace, a monthly magazine for paper collectors, P.O. Box 128W, Scandinavia, Wl 54977; (715) 467-2379: www.pcmpaper.com
Ephemera Society of America: www.ephemerasociety.org