Victorian Culinary Trading Cards Are a Feast for the Eyes
November 24, 2018 10:51 AM   Subscribe

Victorian Culinary Trading Cards Are a Feast for the Eyes. But maybe not for your stomach. In 1983, Nach Waxman sought to stock his new bookstore, Kitchen Arts & Letters, with curiosities that weren’t cookbooks. He soon discovered Victorian-era advertisements known as trade cards. “I thought it would be a really interesting item to have in the store,” he says. “They’re attractive images and they’re small, so people could frame them, put them in their room, and put them on their kitchen walls.” The name “trading cards” is thought to come from the phenomenon of collectors exchanging these cards, which advertised baking powder, Heinz tomato soup, and everything imaginable with images of chefs emerging from giant pickles and poetry-spouting pigs.

Trade Cards: A Short History: Trade cards proved extremely popular with the public. Distributed by businesses of every kind, from thread to stoves to tobacco and medicine, they were often inserted into product packaging as a prize or bonus. Color printing was still very much a novelty, and the cards were valued for their radiant images. Thanks to the Victorian penchant for preserving keepsakes, many people began to actively collect trade cards, frequently mounting them in albums and scrapbooks. Most of the cards seen here are part of the Waxman Collection in Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Nearly all—the majority dealing with food and related subjects—were at some point removed from Victorian albums and scrapbooks.

Exhibition: Discovering What Trade Cards Can Tell Us: Although the primary purpose of trade cards was, unquestionably, to advertise a product or service, we appreciate today that they reveal much that goes beyond that original intent. They show us, for example, what the late Victorians, the men and women addressed by these cards, looked like: What clothing was worn? What were the favored hair styles? How was body language used to convey social information? Similarly, they help us learn much about these people’s values: What evoked positive sentiments, and what was considered repellent? How did they spend their new-found leisure time?

Selected sections from Exhibition:

Fashion and Style: To make their offerings appealing, advertisers frequently featured well-turned-out men and stylishly dressed women on their cards, as well as home interiors representing the very best in current trends and taste. The goal, of course, was to associate the advertised product with middle- and upper-middle-class attainments. Fashionable attire—and a well-turned ankle—seem to have played a part even in such mundane activities as washing down the walls and cabinetry.

Home Decor: Kitchen design, as seen in this card for a major brand of stoves, is simple and functional except for the highly ornamental cast-iron range. Note the “modern” water heater attached at the left of the stove.

A Woman’s Place: Technology and industry may have undergone revolutionary changes during the Victorian period, but public attitudes toward gender roles were strictly conservative. With very few exceptions, the cards show middle-class women confined not only in their corsets, but tethered to their homes and household responsibilities. These trade cards, celebrating the daring investigative journalist Nelly Bly (1864-1922), seem to suggest that change for women could be on the horizon. This card is one of a series of six about Bly, who shocked and thrilled the public when she traveled around the world in 72 days.

A surprisingly useful How to Do It series of mid-19th century cigarette trade cards
Bisland v. Bly: A Race Around the World
posted by cynical pinnacle (5 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I, too, know a chef who lives in a pickle. Is this supposed to be strange to people?
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:36 AM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is a great post. I like trade cards and have some from my town's once-great industry, the Willimantic Thread Company. Was fascinated to read the bit about the Victorian obsession with Jumbo, as some of the Willimantic Thread Company's cards feature him and I never quite got the connection. I think about this within the obsession with trademarking and exclusive deals that characterize today's advertising and marketing and I can't imagine how that worked with Jumbo in multiple (even competitive!) products.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:48 AM on November 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is so up my alley that I'm amazed that I've never come across these before. Thank you, cynical pinnacle!
posted by ninazer0 at 3:14 PM on November 24, 2018

Oh man these are so amazingly bad! Today's consumers would never fall for such blatant fearmongering.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:16 PM on November 24, 2018

Red Dead Redemption 2 has a Cigarette Card collecting minigame! Nothing as useful as How To Do It, but there's a set of Gunslinger cards to collect and a set of Amazing Inventions and a set of Prominent Americans. So many sets. It's inspired people to dig up old cards in the attic.
posted by Nelson at 5:06 AM on November 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

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