by E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra
Many years ago, my wife and I cleaned out the basement of a ca. 1910 townhouse in which we rented the upstairs flat. A half-century’s accumulation of broken household tools, corroded cooking pots and unidentifiable jetsam lined the walls and spilled onto the floor. Under several layers of miscellaneous rubbish I found a battered scrapbook. After being cleared of cobwebs and coal dust, the volume revealed dozens of chromolithographed images, ranging from small die-cut ‘scraps’ to elaborate Victorian greeting cards adorned with cloth fringes, tinsel, ribbons and lace. There were many advertisements, given away by local businesses in the 1880s and ’90s, and salesman’s samples of decorated business cards. Several pages had been assembled into collages, prefiguring the ‘Dada’ and cubist creations of the future. Our landlady wanted only to empty the space and told me to keep anything that wasn’t put out for the sanitation crew, so I gratefully accepted the scrapbook.
Judging by content, the scrapbook was most probably compiled by a young girl in Richmond, Virginia, before 1890. The Christmas cards and large die-cuts from The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company were all dated in the 1880s. Most of the subjects tended towards the syrupy and over-sentimental. There were no liquor or tobacco ads, or sports-themed pieces, but plenty of cards from dry goods, sewing supply and household item purveyors. Images of women, children and cute pets predominated. Many of the chromos displayed their European origin. The homeowner was then a woman in her seventies, and I suspect that the collection had once belonged to her mother, aunt or older sister. A single loose card bears an inscription: “Gertrude Mayer/Sunday School/Xmas – 1893.”
The specimens in this and countless albums like it, represented both a quantum shift in advertising methods and a technological triumph in color printing. The years following the Philadelphia Centennial celebration of 1876 were the golden years of American and German commercial lithography, particularly the process of chromolithography, which created bright, glossy images. Combining the process with die cutting and embossing produced the heavy, complicated paper artifacts so dear to the hearts of late Victorians.
The original lithographic process, developed by Alois Senefelder in the 1790s, used fine-grained limestone slabs and greasy crayons and special inks for printing. By the 1860s, zinc plates, treated with photosensitive chemicals and asphalt varnish, used in conjunction with steam printing presses, made mass-produced color prints possible for the first time. Germany and France led the way in the new technology, but England and the U.S. soon had their own color printing industries. The natural grain of limestone slabs created a pleasing range of halftone effects that was replicated to some extent by etching the zinc plates under a mesh screen to raise dots of varying sizes. Modern computer graphics still use this principle in dividing a monitor screen into millions of ‘pixels’ to create the illusion of graded tones. Laser and inkjet printers reproduce these pixel patterns on paper. A detail of an 1880s chromo and a halftone magazine cover from the 1990s demonstrate the refinement in color printing over a century.
Merchants were quick to apply chromo techniques to ‘specialty advertising’ items, given away by the millions. Before radio, television and the Internet, customers could mainly be reached through face-to-face marketing, newspaper and magazine ads, and handbills (which were literally thrown into the air on windy days – hence the nickname ‘flyers.’) Colorful, eye catching trade cards became a staple of advertising until magazines began to use color printing in the late 1890s. The cardboard stiffeners in early packages of mass-produced cigarettes were printed with advertising collectibles to encourage smokers to assemble sets. Sports cards and images of actresses were the most popular and were the forerunners of the lucrative baseball card industry associated with bubble gum.
Full color postcards and ‘trade cards’ for export were cash cows for dozens of German printing firms until 1909, when a U.S. tariff restricted imports. Already crippled, World War I finally killed classic chromolithography. Skilled workers were called up for military service, Germany was blockaded and the munitions industry gobbled up many of the natural chemicals required by the process. Newer techniques rendered it obsolete by war’s end. The advent of economic photo offset printing and cheap color photography brought full-color images into everyone’s home. By the 1980s, color photos were commonplace in daily newspapers. (A small-scale revival has taken place in recent years, but its labor-intensive nature relegates classic chromolithography to a niche fine art handicraft, rather than a process suited to mass production.)
From their inception, colorful trade cards became hot collectibles and the scrapbooking fad blossomed. Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) had already patented a self-adhesive scrapbook for clippings in 1872, which became a steady source of income for the author after trade cards came on the scene.
A cursory check of Ebay will show that trade cards are still popular. Certain examples of embarrassing racist images and other desirable subjects command high prices in pristine condition, but most are still available at modest prices. Complete scrapbooks still go for 20-30 dollars each (presumably after the choicest cards have been “cherry picked”) but these items evoke their era as few others do and provide a link to the children and adults who carefully pasted their personal collections on these now-yellowing pages.
Continue to Part II HERE.