Thursday, 19 July 2007

Trading up is on the cards

Perhaps it's because as a junior reporter, I was indentured to a newspaper publisher who was also a jobbing printer.

Perhaps it's simply because my writing for this column gets turned into reading, so to speak - smart pages with attendant images that are easy on the eye and (hopefully) worth something more than a cursory glance.

So, I collect long since defunct wooden poster type; printers' type cases (perfect for displaying small knickknacks); wooden printing blocks and printed ephemera - arguably the cheapest of all collectables.

Cupboard drawers groan under the weight of albums full of old billheads; greetings cards; advertising cards; cartes de visite and best of all, a fascinating collection of trade cards.

Or at least I thought they were fascinating ... until I saw the trade cards illustrated here.

They date from perhaps 50-75 years before any of the ones I own and although my collection contains some quality cards, none can touch this selection.

They were circulating in the North of England in the first quarter of the 19th century and as such are becoming increasingly rare when compared to my own.

More importantly, though, is the fact that they pre-date the introduction of colour lithography.

Put another way, that means they are mostly plain black and white, their charm relying almost solely on their naiveté and their wonderful copperplate printing.

As such they were intended to impress potential customers and everyone from chimney sweeps to sail-makers handed them out.

Lithography was patented in England in 1801 by its inventor Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) who discovered the process almost by accident.

It was 1796 and the 25-year-old Czech was experimenting with printing techniques when his mother asked him to write a laundry list.

Problem was, he had no paper. Instead, he scribbled it down on a piece of smoothly ground stone that he used for printing, writing with ink made from wax, soap and lampblack.

Later, just as he was about to wash the writing from the stone, his curiosity was aroused.

What if he applied a special fluid that etched away the stone, leaving the letters in relief? Apply ink and it should print.

Eagerly he tried it, inking the surface using a leather ball stuffed with horsehair. At first he used too much ink, but after a little perseverance it worked.

Eventually, after two years' painstaking experimentation and one or two improvements, the process was mastered.

In 1799, Senefelder became established as the only lithographer in Bavaria.

He was no businessman, though. First, he sold his secret for 2,000 florins and then his British patent for 3,000 florins more.

If that was not enough, Senefelder then wrote a book explaining all there was to know about lithographic printing. It was published in England in 1819.

By the 1820s, colour lithographic presses were well established in London, although more humble jobbing printers outside the capital were slow to adopt the new process.

Trade cards pre-date lithography by a century or more. From their early beginnings, trade cards were printed from a plate engraved on either wood, steel or copper and printed by the letterpress process.

Remember printing with half a potato and poster paint? Well, letterpress is the same process.

Few early trade cards were illustrated, while those that were relied on hand-coloured woodcuts, which only add to their naïve and primitive charm.

However, this was quickly overwhelmed by the excesses of the Victorian era. Soon trade cards were being given away to promote every service and product imaginable.

Grocers gave them with everything from soap to soup. In some cases cards were put inside the packaging to be discovered - and collected - when the product was opened.

Others were handed out by men employed to walk the streets banging a drum to draw the attention of potential customers "drumming up business" for the businesses they represented.

Come the advent of lithography and wise manufacturers such as Lever Brothers, Pears of soap fame and Cadbury's confectioners realised that a product or service would seldom be forgotten once a collection of the colourful advertising cards was started.

By the 1890s, advertisers were giving away millions of the things every year.

Customers were soon hooked on collecting them and many an evening was spent pasting them into ornately covered scrapbooks.

Those long-forgotten scrapbooks are still being discovered in attics and at the backs of drawers, much to the delight of today's collectors who are more than happy to pay their £3-5 price for an individual card.

Their appeal is their documentation of social history.

One side of the cards was usually decorated with an appealing colour lithograph which might feature flowers, artistic still lifes, scenic vistas of far-away places, unusual animals, adorable children, happy families, religious scenes, or contemporary humour, anything that might induce the recipient to want to save and collect them.

Sometimes the name of the company or product was printed on the illustrated side of the card, often cleverly worked into the design.

The reverse of the card was used to display the company's advertising message which, it was hoped, would be imparted to the consumer (and the consumer's friends and family) every time the card was admired.

Blank-backed cards were intended to be rubber-stamped or over-printed by local distributors or retailers of the company's product.

New products were introduced daily, with the cards cleverly reflecting taste and styles of the period. If it was in vogue, chances were it would be touted on a trade card.

The popularity of trade cards peaked around 1890, and then almost completely faded by the early 1900s when other forms of advertising in colour, became more cost effective.

Young people saw trade cards as too old fashioned to collect, and consumers found the adverts in magazines and newspapers more relevant and timely.

Those who wanted to collect cards switched over to collecting postcards and cigarette cards.

Today's collectors have massive scope and there are few fakes to worry about.

However, watch out for well known cards that have been reproduced, notably those for Shell motor oil.

Invest in a good album with clear plastic sleeves so that both sides of the card can be viewed.

On no account should cards be pasted into an album and take extra care when attempting to remove cards from old albums - indeed some would say don't even try.

However, old flour paste or animal glue is brittle and can be dissolved in water. It might be worth a try.

My own meagre collection of trade cards includes some beauties, including the example pictured above for Liverpool-made Royal Baking Powder (6d, 1/ and 2/ tins and 1d packets) the pride of Wright, Crossley and Co.

With typical aplomb the card quotes The Lancet of June 6, 1896: "The Royal Baking Powder manufactured by Wright, Crossley and Co., 17 North John Street, Liverpool, was found on analysis to be free from objectionable ingredients and especially alum.

"On moistening, a copious evolution of gas was given off. It is, therefore, a good and wholesome yeast substitute."

And just to prove the point, the firm appears to have recruited "Miss Lucas and the Teachers of the Liverpool School of Cookery" to put the product to the test. Needless to say, it passed with flying colours.



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