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Historians Investigate When French Shopping Became Seductive

Originally Published 10 August 2004

Historians from the University of Warwick have won a grant of over £155,000 to investigate and catalogue trade cards and advertising in the 18th century. French trade cards illustrate the development of advertising language and images, and mark the moment when shopping became seductive.

The researchers are set to analyse part of The Rothschild Collection, located at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire. Examples of continental trade cards are rare, so the Waddesdon Collection, which contains over 500 French examples, both Parisian and French provincial, is exceptional.

In the 18th century the market for luxurious goods expanded in numbers and social range, as new middle class consumers began to desire the new ‘luxuries’ and ‘semi-luxuries’ that were being manufactured. As new consumer markets developed the trade card was used as a tool for effective advertising locally, nationally and internationally to promote goods.

The cards present a ‘sexy’ image of shopping and are designed to entice a certain type of (middle-class) shopper. Shops are shown hung with mirrors, cases are loaded with goods and refined ladies and gentlemen are depicted being shown handsome wares by the shop-owners.

Trade cards present ideas about how to use or display goods. They show confectioners table settings loaded on handsome stands and the interior of shops inviting the consumer to experience shopping, which was a new and increasingly popular leisure pursuit.

What’s more, advertising ‘tricks’ used to dupe shoppers into buying goods were employed in the 18th century. For example, trade cards often imply that goods are made on the premises, with views of workshops, when in fact, we now know that all the goods sold were bought-in.

Dr Helen Clifford, researcher at the University of Warwick, said, “Just as today’s shoppers frequently hold onto Prada or Marc Jacobs bags, trade cards were often kept as a memento of the shopping ‘experience’. 18th century shops were by no means dreary or dark spaces, and advertising was evolving into something more sophisticated. Cards seduced people into buying goods by showing beautiful displays and suggesting goods were exclusive and made on the premises.”

The pioneering cataloguing project will codify and describe the visual content, not just the textual content of the cards. Through word cataloguing the visual elements the researchers will compare and collate unique images, relate them to fine art sources, and create a much more accurate idea of advertising mechanisms and the use of images. This new method will set a blueprint for future cataloguing projects.

As one of the most popular forms of marketing in the 18th, and an indicator of consumer habits, social values and advertising techniques, trade cards are of interest to many, including cultural and business historians. For more information contact: Dr Helen Clifford, History Department, University of Warwick, Tel: 01748 884118, Email: or Jenny Murray, Press Officer, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255, Mobile: 07876 21 7740

The grant was donated by the Leverhulme Trust, which makes awards for the support of research and education