Trying to Sell Something: Commercial Printed Ephemera
Earl D. Hart
Individuals, companies, agencies, and even governments constantly
send printed advertisements to consumers to whom they are trying
to sell something. These announcements form a body of printed matter
identified as commercial ephemera.
Often intended to last only until a specific lot of goods has been
sold, advertising fits the definition of ephemera something which
has a short life or transitory existence; the papers of the day,
born to die before the next morning.1
Advertising is as old as civilization itself. Craftsmen like Paul
Revere signed their creations in hopes of securing repeat business
from satisfied customers. Merchants displayed signs to distinguish
their shops and to identify themselves as members of appropriate
guilds or unions. The development of the printing press provided
a new medium for advertising, producing a printed document that
the consumer could examine at home and save for future reference2
Although Gutenberg is credited with developing movable type in
about 1437, not until the late seventeenth century did merchants
begin printing sheets and cards to publicize merchandise currently
in stock. In May 1704, the Boston Newsletter published the
first paid American advertisement offering something for sale.3
Today, consumers and homeowners are inundated by floods of
broadsides, handbills, pamphlets, cards, and letters from various
companies located in Louisiana or with franchises in the state.
This advertising may be hand-delivered to ones door or sent
through the mail; it may accompany a newspaper or be picked up at
commercial establishments, welcome centers, or conventions.
The local or regional library has a duty to collect, to catalog,
and to preserve materials on the cultural heritage of its area and
to make them available to the community. A local collection should
include all types of resources, dealing both with current documents
and with historical materials. Collections of ephemera unfortunately
have become associated with the private collector, libraries tend
to purchase books, a secondary source of information based on ephemera,
while neglecting the acquisition of ephemera itselfprimary
research materials which will provide vital data to future historians.
Each library, when considering what should constitute an ephemera
collection, must formulate a policy that meets local needs. Emphasis
should be given to materials with geographical relevance, including
works written by local authors, produced by local printers, or dealing
with local subjects.4
The best places to find and to identify current examples of commercial
ephemera are the mailbox, the desk, and the wastebasket, where most
ephemera exits the home or office. Librarians face the responsibility
of selecting the right items and discarding the bulk of the documents.
Handbills, posters, and other commercial ephemera provide historical
perspective, social insight, and visual stimuli. They are an aspect
of our culture that should be preserved, but they should not be
History of Commercial Ephemera
Advertisements in colonial newspapers were little more than announcements
of whatever goods a merchant had in stock. Most products were traditional,
and it was assumed that colonists knew what they wanted. Because
news articles and advertisements were printed in the same size type,
publishers identified the promotional entries with the heading "ADVERTISEMENT."
Later, stock woodcuts of bottles, wagons, and other symbols highlighted
As the United States economy expanded, businessmen needed to develop
markets for their goods. They employed trade cards, catalogs, billheads,
posters, and other modes of advertising ephemera to create demand
for new and unknown industrial products which included a variety
of tools and devices for both work and home use. People had to be
informed that products existed, and the printed advertisement became
the primary means. America had entered the Industrial Revohnion.6
technology that produced a surplus of goods and products also permitted
advances in printing. Presses spread throughout the United States
in the wake of advancing settlement. Large cities supported several
publishers; by the mid 1850s New Orleans, for example, had ten newspapers.
Large display type, which had been developed in France, began to
appear m the United States. Advertisements from Macys and
Lord & Taylor introduced displays that utilized engravings.
Newspapers began to print advertisements that were three and four
A major advancement in advertising was the development of techniques
that yielded inexpensive printed illustrations. In 1796 Aloys Senefelder,
a German, developed the process of printing black-and-white lithographs
using a smooth stone surface; improvements thirty years later made
it possible to print lithographs in colors (chromolithography).
Although this procedure was brought to the United States by emigrants
about 1840, it was at first too expensive to use. By the 1860s,
however, the commercial world exploded into color. Because most
Americans had never seen an oil painting and commercial advertisements
had always been printed in black and white, the luxuriantly colored
chromolithographs represented real art to be collected. John James
Audubons Birds of America, for example, was reproduced
by Julius Bien of New York. Chromolithography gave rise to colorful
brochures, flyers, and broadsides. Manufacturers of locomotives
and patent medicine companies were among the first enterprises to
use chromolithographs to advertise their products. By the 1870s
Louis Prang, the father of the American Christmas card industry,
had expanded applications of the technique to include holiday cards,
trade cards, and posters.8
In 1878 Frederick Ives brought new life to black-and-white illustrations
with his invention of the photographic process that produced halftones.
This procedure filtered light rays of images through a screen to
produce dots that were engraved on a copperplate. These engravings
were used to print shades of gray. The finer the screen, the greater
was the precision of detail. Printers, using a letterpress, experimented
with halftones and colors (usually red or orange on black) to simulate
full color. In 1924 the Saturday Evening Post introduced
a method of printing illustrations four times, once each in red,
blue, yellow, and black, to produce full color. Kodaks development
of color photography in 1935 revolutionized color printing by using
one negative instead of three.9
Another major technological development was the invention in 1904
of the offset lithography press which could print in black and white
or in color on standard paper. The letterpress, previously used,
cost more to operate and required coated paper for color reproduction.10
Today, computers are used to design and to print advertisements
in a variety of colors, tones, and fonts.
Themes in Advertising
Most manufacturing companies were small, and few employed advertising
personnel. The owner, working with a printer, selected advertisements
to promote his company. Advertising reflected the values and ideas
that the businessman wanted to communicate to his customers. Merchants
wanted to wean Americans from European goods and to encourage a
sense of native pride in American products. Paramount among many
themes in Victorian advertising were nationalism and progress, and
Uncle Sam and other patriotic symbols became popular motifs. New
products like commercial soaps claimed superiority over the old-fashioned
lye soap that women made at home. Such progress would free women
to care for their families. Advertisements displayed beautiful people
in elegant surroundings, portraying a luxury to which businessmen,
and presumably their customers, aspired. America was changing, and
everyone should benefit from its progress.11
Trade cards evolved from tradesmens signboards, which hung
above a shops entrance and were the only form of trade publicity
that antedated them. The emblem on the sign often was duplicated
on the trade card with the tradesmans name, occupation, and
address. Early cards doubled as invoices or receipts. Lithography
created a demand for illustrated trade cards, and large companies
hired printers to design special cards engraved with their names,
trades, and addresses. From a printers collection, small businessmen
purchased illustrated cards that contained a blank area wherein
the companys name and address could be stamped.12
When chromolithographed cards appeared in the 1860s, the public
rushed to collect the colored illustrations and to paste them in
scrapbooks. Some commercial firms issued cards in series, hoping
to entice the customer to return for the next card in the set, and
offered prizes to those who amassed a specified numberusually
twenty-five cards. Produced on silk, wood, metal, and celluloid,
as well as paper, the trade card became the most prolific form of
ephemera. With the advent of color advertising in magazines in the
early 1890s, the public embraced a new collectible style of color
advertisement, and interest in chromo trade cards declined. The
business card, a descendant of the trade card, remains in popular
Most trade cards were rectangular in shape and contained a message
and/or illustration on one or both sides. A specimen that promoted
Clarks thread depicted two boys flying a kite which had Clarks
Spool Cotton Thread as its string, thus implying the threads
strength; on the reverse was an advertisement for a local merchant
who carried Clarks. Four other types of trade cards supplemented
the basic pasteboard rectangle: mechanical, see-through, metamorphic,
and die-cut cards. A mechanical trade card contained movable parts,
like a paper wheel that turned, revealing a series of messages in
a window. The wheel in a patent medicine card, for example, could
be rotated to list the aches and pains that the medicine would cure.14
cards were printed on paper so thin that holding them up to the
light enabled the viewer to see additional words and illustrations
that changed the cards messages. Similarly, the metamorphic
card had folds and flaps that opened to create an image different
from the one seen when the card was closed. A card might depict
a person frowning, but when the bottom flap was opened, the individual
then was smiling, presumably because the use of the advertisers
product had relieved a toothache or some other problem. The die-cut
or shape card might be cut in the form of a rabbit, train, house,
or other figure. Kaufman & Isaacs, whose merchandise included
mens clothing, issued a card in the shape of an overcoat.
One in the shape of a basket of violets read only "Jacobs,
New Orleans"; Jacobs was not a florist but a confectioner.
Often the illustrations on trade cards had nothing to do with the
commodities they promoted (see Figures 1-2).
Billheads and Letterheads
A by-product of the trade card was the billhead. At one time merchants
had used trade cards as invoices, but as firms began to distribute
more products to a greater number of customers, they needed longer
pieces of paper, and the billhead emerged. Its upper portion resembled
a trade card, with the companys name, trade, address, and
insignia; the lower half contained columns for the date, description
of items sold, price per item, number of items, and extension price.
Billheads served as both invoice and receipt and provide historians
with a primary document of commodities and services supplied, including
quantity and cost. The billhead evolved into the letterhead.15
Many businessmen adopted billheads decorated with images of their
stores or factories in an effort to impress customers, especially
distant ones, with the firms stability and its buildings
size.16 Others listed or depicted the merchandise with
which they dealt, such as hats, stationery, or eyeglasses. John
Douglas, a postbellum New Orleans engraver and lithographer, combined
a roster of the types of work he did with examples of his skill.
The large vignette at the top of his billhead (see Figure 3) is
typical of designs that symbolized prosperity in America. Here,
two women are seated in front of barrels of goods, sheaves of grain,
and a stalk of corn, with a bag of money and a smoking factory in
the background. A shield decorated with stars and stripes evocative
of the American flag and a quiver filled with arrows rest on the
ground; ships laden with goods sail to and from United States ports.
Below, the customer was billed $11.50 for engraved cards for himself
and his wife.
Posters rose in popularity in the 1860s and, like broadsides and
handbills, were pasted to walls, fences, and other surfaces. Because
of the temperance movement, advertising for whiskey, beer, and wine
was banned from magazines, and makers of alcoholic beverages turned
to posters which could be displayed in bars, restaurants, and taverns
(see Figure 4). In the 1880s the popularity in France of posters
by Toulouse-Lautrec, Cheret, and others led to the American poster
craze a decade later. Exhibitions were held in cities all over the
country, and many American illustrators, including Edward Penfield
and Maxfield Parrish, became involved in the movement.17
Labels, in the nineteenth century a new advertising technique,
existed to attract the attention and interest of potential customers
and to do it rapidly. For many years Americans had not known the
names of growers and processors who produced the food they ate.
Grocers purchased commodities in bulk, unwrapped and unmarked, and
sold them from sacks, bins, or barrels to the customer. Pioneered
in the 1820s by the communal societies known as Shakers, labels
identified the seeds, herbs, and other items the groups sold. In
the 1850s and l860s, the rise of mass marketing, retail distribution,
and especially packaging invested labels with new importance. By
the late nineteenth century, increased competition gave further
impetus to the use of labels, and they became a vital element of
products, and the labels that promoted them, are associated with
certain sections of the country. Georgia, for example, produced
pickles, peanut butter, and cane syrup, and Florida and California
grew fruit. New Orleans specialized in coffee and chicory, packaged
under the Womens Club, Suffragette, Sum-Mo, Sum-Good, Honeymoon,
and French Open labels, to name just a few. Other parts of Louisiana
marketed a variety of other foodstuffs, including Tabasco Oysters
from Avery Island, Liberty Strawberries from Tickfaw, and Hotel
Bentley Pure Spices from Alexandria (see Figure 5). More than three
hundred companies commissioned Walle & Co. a New Orleans lithographer,
to print labels for these products and over five thousand others.19
Vendors Catalogs and Advertising Brochures
Do you like to shop? Vendors' catalogs of yesteryear offered a
shopper the excitement of looking at quality merchandise of all
sorts. To the historian they disclose what goods were available
and at what prices. Bagurs Clothes Shop in New Orleans, for
example, offered hand-tailored clothing for men from Hart Schaffner
& Marx (see Figure 6), and D.H. Holmes and other department
stores distributed Christmas catalogs showing the latest fashions.20
Sam H. James of Mound, Louisiana, promoted the pecans he grew,
and in the l920sand l930s Solaris, a New Orleans food store
since 1861, published catalogs describing its mouth-watering offerings21
Bookstores listed titles to tempt customers, and music stores issued
catalogs of musical instruments, sometimes illustrating the instruments
and band uniforms. Other catalogs listed items scheduled to be sold
at auction.22 Everything one needed could be found in
one catalog or another.
According to English custom, employers gave gratuities to tradesmen,
servants, and other hirelings who called at their homes on New Years
Day. As early as 1666, London bellhops offered printed messages
while lingering for recompense. Newspaper carriers, with access
to the donated services of journalists, illustrators, and printers,
regularly proffered such missives to subscribers. By 1720 carriers
addresses, as the newsboys bulletins came to be called, had
spread to North America, where the earliest extant editions date
from the 1730s. Few addresses were signed, but some have been attributed
to prominent nineteenth-century politicians and writers. Notables
who penned addresses for New England papers included Daniel Webster,
John Greenleaf Whittier, Edward Everett Hale, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"A Visit from St Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore was
among memorable poems that first appeared in print as carriers
texts included, alone or in combination, a parody of a literary
work; commemoration of social, historical, or political events;
praise for the newspapers locality; observance of the old
year s departure and the new ones arrival; and a plea
for alms. Louisiana addresses, most of them written in verse, emphasized
the passage of time (see Figure 7) and the virtues of newsboys and
the press. Carriers addresses disappeared from the scene during
the early twentieth century, annihilated by abuses and by the commercialism
of stock addresses that varied only in the name of the journal with
which they were overprinted. To some extent, other annual giveaways
filled the void left by their demise.25
Giveaways became a popular aspect of American commerce. Customers
expected tradesmen to provide, at no cost, calendars, bookmarks,
almanacs, and a variety of other tokens of appreciation for their
patronage. Calendars, which were consulted often and kept the merchants
name before the patron all year, ideally suited this purpose. Every
kind of business distributed them. The Whitney Central Trust and
Savings Bank in New Orleans, for example, provided calendars in
several formats, including a series of postcards called "Art
Mailing Cards." In addition to a one-month calendar, one side
depicted a famous painting, a verse about the virtues of saving
money, and the banks name, address, and rate of interest on
savings the reverse resembled a modern postcard.
Printers, grocers, bankers, booksellers, druggists, and other merchants
gave away inexpensive bookmarks which presumably brought their names
to the shoppers attention whenever he opened his book. Illustrated
with flowers, ladies in lacy bonnets, and children playing, many
were stock designs with blank spaces to be overprinted with the
names of the merchants who purchased them. A particularly charming
example from D.H. Holmes was a die-cut egg from which a baby chick
emerged; lettering announced a "Spring Opening." Although most businessmen
handed giveaways to customers, the manufacturers of Mullen-01, a
patent medicine, mailed a set of six bookmarks upon receipt of the
carton from a ten-cent bottle of Mullen-0l or six cents in stamps.
Second only to the Bible as the most plentiful products of American
publishing, almanacs were a mainstay of the colonial household dining
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They provided such useful
information as astronomical data, tides, the distances between towns,
and the best times for planting and harvesting, calculated for use
in specified geographic regions. Most early almanacs were intended
for farmers; later, specialization gave rise to comic almanacs,
medical almanacs issued by manufacturers of patent medicines, and
others, many of them replete with advertising. The first almanac
known to have been published in Louisiana was Barthélemy
Lafons Calendrier de Commerce de la Nouvelle-Orléans,
pour lAnnée 1807. Many other Louisiana and New
Orleans editions followed, including a series of southern agricultural
almanacs issued by New Orleans publisher B. M. Norman during the
antebellum period. From these nineteenth-century publications, the
World and Information Please almanacs descended.26
Many firms found creative ways of boosting sales. Dixie Baking
Powder, for example, collaborated with Gulf Manufacturing Company
to publish a complimentary cookbook containing recipes that required
the use of Dixie ingredients.27 Casey & Casey, sellers
of antiques, endeavored to spur interest in their stock with a brochure
that provided background information on styles.28 In
1921 the Southern Pine Association issued a brochure containing
fifty floor plans for building a house and offered to assist the
homebuilder to calculate costs of the requisite labor and materials.29
The same year the Merchants Coffee Company of New Orleans
issued a coloring book depicting scenes from fairy tales, complete
with watercolor paints, and offered prizes to the children who best
colored the pictures and drew the companys trade mark30
Just as advertising of the past opens a window on an earlier era,
so will the ephemera of today shed light on our generation for future
historians. They will see flyers that ask "Have you seen this
child?," educational leaflets from organizations seeking to
stem the spread of AIDS, printed grocery bags, and a plethora of
other ephemerathat is, if librarians and collectors save it.
1 The Oxford English Dictionary. 1st ed., s.v.
2Robert Jay, The Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century
America (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1987),
3 Ibid.; Jack Golden, "Business, Advertising,
Printing and Ephemera," Ephemera
4Albert Rosin, "La bibliothêque, mémoire
de la vie locale dhier et aujourd'hui" [Translated The
Library, Memory of Local Life Yesterday and Today"], Mediathêques
Publiques 69 (1984): 27-30 (LISA Abstract # 85-1246); David
Reid, "Ephemera and Loca1 Studies," New Library World
80 (1979): 174-176; Nik Pollard," Arty Choke: Acquisitions
and Ephemera," Art Library Journal 2 (1977): 4-15; François
Hauchecorne, "Fonds local et regional" [Translated: "Local
and Regional Collections"], Bulletin Bibliothêque
Française 27 (1982): 25-30 (LISA Abstract # 82-5650).
5 Golden, "Business," 3.
6 Pamela Walker Lurito, "The Heritage of Victorian
Progress: American Advertising Ephemera in Historical Perspective,"
Ephemera Journal 1 (1987): 15.
7Golden, "Business," 4.
8 Ibid., 7-10; Maurice Rickards, Collecting
Printed Ephemera (New York: Abbeville Press, 1988), ; Lurito,
"Victorian Progress," 15-16.
9 Golden, "Business," 14-15.
10 Ibid., 17-18.
11 Lurito, "Victorian Progress," 16-18.
12Rickards, Collecting Printed Ephemera, 104.
13 "Ibid.; Golden, "Business," 10.
14 Jack Golden, "Trade Cards: Advertising of Yesteryear,"
The Encyclopedia of Collectibles: Telephones to Trivets (Alexandria,
Vs.: Time-Life Books, 1980), 112.
15 Rickards, Collecting Printed Ephemera, .
16 Ibid., 114-117.
17 Golden, "Business," 10-11.
18 Rickards, Collecting Printed Ephemera, 118;
Jay T. Last, "California Orange Box Labels," Ephemera
Journal 1(1987): 11; Ray Soper, "Fruit-Crate Labels: Glowing
Promises of Goodness," The Encyclopedia of Collectibles:
Folk Art to Horse-drawn Carriages (Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life
Books, 1978), 30, 38.
19 Soper, "Fruit-Crate Labels," 38; Larry
Bartlett, "From Yesterdays Grocery Shelf," New Orleans
Times-Picayune (Dec. 4, 1977): Dixie, 4049.
20 Style Book, Spring and Summer 1911 (Chicago:
Hart Schaffner & Marx, );
e.g., D.H. Holmes Co., Ltd., Christmas 1952 ([New Orleans:
The Company, 1952]). These and other ephemera cited herein are available
at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
21 Sam James Pecan Catalogue (Mound, La.:
S. James, 1910); Good Things to Eat from All the World ([New
Orleans]: A.M. & J. Solari (Firm), [1920s-1930s]).
22 E.g., F.F. Hansell & Bro., Booksellers, Selected
List of Books for Boys and Girls ([New Orleans]: Hansell, [ca.
1930s?]); D.H. Holmes Co., Ltd., The Latest Books (New Orleans:
Holmes, 1925); e.g., Louis Grunewald, Illustrated Catalog
(New Orleans: L. Graham & Son, [1880?]).
23 E.g., Catalogue of the Splendid Library of the
Late L. Placide Canonge, to be Sold at Public Auction... ([New
Orleans: s. n., 1894?]).
24 Mary Russo, "Carriers Addresses, 1720-1900:
Stirring Newsboys Stanzas Struck Responsive Chord with Patrons,"
Ephemera Journal 1 (1987): 33-36.
25 Ibid., 36.
26 John Tebbel, A History of Book Publishing in
the United States, Vol. I: The Creation of an Industry, 1630-1865
(New York: Bowker, 1972), 34, 545-548; Florence M. Jumonville,
Bibliography of New Orleans Imprints, 1764-1864 (New Orleans:
Historic New Orleans Collection, 1989), passim.
27 Dixie Pastry Cook Book (New Orleans: Gulf
Manufacturing Co., [1893?]).
28 Useful Information on Furniture Periods (New
Orleans: Casey & Casey, [19-]).
29 Modern Homes (New Orleans: Southern Pine
30 Our Little Artist (New Orleans: Merchants
Coffee Co., ).
Earl D. Hart is associate professor of library science at
the University of New Orleans.
The Ephemera Society acknowledges with thanks the editor of Louisiana
Libraries for granting permission to reproduce this article from
Volume 53, Number 2, published in Fall 1990.