In the last part of the 19th century, it was common for storekeepers to place an advertising card in the bag with your purchase. The trade cards typically had a pleasant image with an advertising slogan on the front, and full advertising text on the back.
Ad cards had been around for decades, but were mainly printed in black and white. In 1876, chromolithographic technology took printed ephemera to a new level, delighting Americans with multi-colored prints, posters, labels, and trade cards.
The cards were a cheap and effective way to advertise, and with thousands in distribution they became a collecting craze.
Between 1880 and 1900, Americans collected and traded the cards, and spent evenings pasting them into scrapbooks.
Companies were fond of creating series, making the collecting even more fun and challenging. Shown above are three in a series of cards for Rice's seeds (1887).
With the rapid industrialization of the United States and development of new consumer markets, manufacturers competed aggressively for shoppers. The trade card was an effective advertising medium, which heralded an extraordinary variety of newly manufactured goods from soap to baking powder, and flower seeds to stationery.
Today, historians use the cards as not only an indicator of the types of products that were available, but also of consumer habits, social values, and marketing techniques.
Take for example the cards above, in the same series from Rice's Seed Company, with a carciature of a potato as an Irishman, and an ear of corn as a Native American. Though such images may have been perfectly acceptable, even humorous, to the majority of 19th century Americans, they are regarded as insensitive today.
The era of trade card collecting waned in the late 1890s. Advertisers turned more to newspapers to get the word out about new products, and it was also the dawning of the American picture postcard, which became its own collecting phenomenon.