Friday, April 4, 2014

Except New Jersey

Francis Hopkinson trade card, ca. 1769.

In fall 2013 the Library Company seized upon the tremendous opportunity to acquire the Joe Freedman Collection of Philadelphia Ephemera. A boon to our visual culture holdings, I have recently had the privilege to begin to process this extraordinary collection of over 900 items that speak to the everyday lives of past Philadelphians.

Starting with the path of least resistance, that is, pockets of the collection already somewhat organized by genre, I have begun my archival journey with early trade cards. Unlike the trade cards that come to mind for the Victorian period, these advertising gems serve as specimens of early types and ornaments, verbose and telling promotional text, and the artistry of those who designed in extreme miniature. The materials offer a history of trade card design with cards more indicative of small prints like Francis Hopkinson’s circa 1769 advertisement for his cloth business to mid-19th century ticket-size missives more reminiscent of today’s business cards.

Davis & Birney trade card, ca. 1850.

A few favorites so far include this circa 1850 trade card for Philadelphia commercial agents Davis & Birney. They refer recipients to a long list of references as well as the notice that Birney is “Commissioner for all the States, (Except New Jersey).” Another is this circa 1848 card for the American Hotel. The modern design aesthetic reminds me of magazine advertisements from the1920s.
American Hotel, ca. 1848.

Although smitten with the collection since I was first fortunate to review it, my infatuation with it continues to grow with each piece. With treasures to be found on the front and back of each card from the graphics, text, and personal inscriptions so often left behind, my unending inquisitiveness about the history of Philadelphia’s visual culture thankfully continues on with new acquisition like the Freedman Collection.

Erika Piola
Associate Curator, Prints and Photographs
Co-Director, VCP at LCP   

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