A Work in Progress: The Design and Printing of Eighteenth-Century Trade Cards

This post has been contributed by special guest star Dr. Philippa Hubbard, Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick.

Once a reverse image was marked onto a copperplate, an engraver used a ‘burin’ or ‘graver’ to cut away the lines and a ‘scraper’ to remove the excess copper.  The inked plate and a sheet of paper were finally run through a high-pressure rolling press by a skilled printer who pulled the prints individually and hung them up to dry.  Single sheets were produced in this way with each print revealing the pressure mark of the metal plate indented around the image, as seen in the example for metal-worker Henry Price (right).

It was imperative for trade cards to be correctly designed and printed as the same card might be in circulation for many years.Proof copies of trade cards were usually produced without the accompanying text, which was later applied by the engraver or a professional calligrapher.  An impressive card for upholsterer Christopher Gibson, from the 1730s, survives in a proof state with handwritten text inserted into a simple cartouche at the top of the print.On occasion, the same image was used for multiple tradesmen, with personalised information used to differentiate the advertisement from comparable others. Trade cards were usually produced in batches of hundreds and distributed to privileged shoppers within commercial spaces.  They enabled the goods and services of individual tradesmen to be recognised within an increasingly competitive marketplace.

For Thomas Johnson, his trade card (below) provided an opportunity to create a highly individual design, promoting his skills as a master draughtsman.  By carefully sketching the design before it was applied to a copperplate, Johnson insured that his business card fully represented his expertise and unique services.

Trade cards circulated as commercial notices and artistic prints in the eighteenth century.  The visual splendor of many cards propelled them into the category of collectable artwork, and they continue to inspire interest today – at least for me!  These fascinating prints survive in museums and libraries across the world, and the V&A’s own fine collection is housed in the Prints and Drawings Room.