My doctoral thesis considered the production, design, use and function of engraved trade cards in eighteenth-century Britain, France and North America. Trade cards were highly graphic, single-sheet notices promoting the goods and services of a wide variety of individual trades-people. A culturally-encoded graphic and textual vocabulary communicated with shoppers equipped with the financial resources and social pretentions to purchase fashionable consumer goods and engage in cultural activities. My thesis examined the role trade cards played in the self-fashioning of tradesmen, shopkeepers and the designer-engravers who produced the cards. From the second half of the seventeenth century, native engravers produced visually complex trade card designs which circulated as indirect advertisements, helping raise the profile of engravers as inventive artists. Early engravers such as John Sturt and later William Hogarth used trade card commissions to develop their graphic styles and print portfolios. By the end of the eighteenth century, highly successful and well-known artists, such as Francesco Bartolozzi, continued to issue trade cards alongside their high- profile and profitable commissions as a way to promote their name and style among wealthy patrons interested in art and visual culture.
Trade cards, unlike other contemporary forms of advertising, did not advertise to anonymous buyers. Instead, they were selectively distributed to a known or anticipated customer base who read the cards in conjunction with other texts, graphic prints and educative illustrations in books and magazines. From the seventeenth century, trade cards functioned as multimedia advertisements for an audience engaged in cultures of knowledge and display. Tradesmen issued their cards to distinguished customers as a gift of thanks or as invoices endorsed with private economic information. For a unique period in the history of consumer culture, trade cards performed as crucial mediatory devices in the socio-economic relationships formed through personalised credit agreements. In this context, trade cards assumed a gift value as highly decorative prints that appealed as miniature artworks.
Indeed, trade cards were retained beyond their purpose as commercial notices and became collectibles, commanding a price at auction alongside other graphic articles such as topographic views, maps and caricature prints. Chapter four of my thesis examines trade cards as desirable objects and considers modes of print collecting, display and spectatorship in the eighteenth century. I suggest that the interest in collecting graphic ephemera at this time coincided with the rise of interest in native visual culture, gallery-going and private engagement in the arts more generally.
Trade cards developed as promotional notices and engraved prints in response to the graphic heritage, economic priorities and conditions of the countries in which they circulated. Chapters one to five of my thesis explore British trade cards; chapter six examines trade cards in other geographic contexts. While trade cards helped shape national promotional and graphic cultures, by the end of the eighteenth century, they functioned as international business cards, supporting commercial networks in global trade.
Thesis Chapter Titles:
Chapter 1: ‘A Nation of Shopkeepers… A People of Customers’: Trade Cards and Eighteenth-Century Promotional Culture
Chapter 2: Selling Consumption: The Promotional Strategies of Early Trade Cards
Chapter 3: The Art of Advertising: Trade Cards and Graphic Print Culture
Chapter 4: ‘Very Novel And Elegant’: Graphic Trade Cards and Their Collectors
Chapter 5: The Economic Functions of the Trade Card in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Trade Cards and Systems of Credit
Chapter 6: Advertising in National Contexts: Trade Cards in Eighteenth-Century France and America
The Warwick/Waddesdon Trade Card Project
An exhibition entitled ‘Selling Shopping in Paris 1680-1820’, held at Waddesdon Manor between March and October 2008, introduced the public to the Waddesdon trade card collection and coincided with the live launch of the database. An accompanying article, written by Phillippa Plock, publicised the collection and the exhibition (see Plock, ‘Now Showing: The Waddesdon Manor Trade Cards, Online and in the Frame’, The Ephemerist, 141 (Summer 2008), 22-28). A one-day conference entitled ‘All That Glitters: Shops and Shopping in Eighteenth-Century France and England’, held at Waddesdon Manor in May 2008, also marked the culmination of the digitalisation project and associated research. My research into eighteenth-century trade cards in British, American and French consumer society has formed part of this collaborative research venture over the last four years.
© The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor