A Glimpse into the Social History of mid-Nineteenth Century America through Trade Cards and Advertisements

Safford Automatic Draw Bar Co. Business Card [front], 1893

Garrett Jones is a senior History major at the University of Southern Maine; he interned at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education during the spring 2023 semester. His internship was supervised by Louie Miller, Cartographic Reference and Teaching Librarian. In the following post, he reflects on his experiences working with a collection of trade cards and advertisements that taught him a great deal about historical ephemera and social history. 

Most of my time spent studying history at the University of Southern Maine has been focused on grand events, places, and people who have had a significant influence on the state of our present. From Revolutions in China to the Age of Imperialism, these events have left a tangible mark on the trajectory of all of our lives. The grandiose nature of these events, however, can almost make them feel disconnected from the more mundane nature of our daily lives. This is one of the big challenges of looking into the past; how do we actually place ourselves in the shoes of those who came before us? How can we view the world as they did? My time interning at the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education (OML) during the spring 2023 semester helped reconcile these challenges for me personally by offering a direct glimpse into the daily lives of average people living in the past.

My internship at the OML was part of the USM History Department’s “Putting History to Work” internship program, and was focused on the cataloging and analysis of a collection of ephemeral advertising cards held by the map library. These cards consisted of trade cards, transportation tickets, stamps, business cards, and various other materials dating from the mid-1800s to the early-1900s. Over the course of the internship, I gathered relevant information for each individual card, such as a potential date range, place of origin, and some basic historical context surrounding the item with the aim to (hopefully) provide more accurate metadata for each item on the website. 

This type of historical research was a fairly stark departure from the norm for me, as I shifted from researching grand historical events and narratives for my classwork (where I often have an abundance of readily available research material to analyze), to a series of relatively unknown or short-lived businesses and/or individuals which I have garnered a much smaller pool of information in regards to historical context. Most of the trade card and advertising items I analyzed were not initially created with the intention of being historically significant or preserved in any way (many of them were quite literally disposable or used as scrap paper). Indeed, it was the mundane lack of spectacle exhibited by each source that often piqued my interest. Many of these cards offered direct insights into the daily lives of ordinary people, helping me (and hopefully other students and researchers) gain a better understanding of what life was like in the past.

Some of the most interesting items I came across fascinated me not because of the literal trade-related information they conveyed, but rather, due to the clues as to how the cards were used by those who came to possess them. For instance, some of the items I viewed had been utilized as scrap paper for whatever notes their owner had deemed necessary at the time. Some examples of these were a business card dated to 1860 with a list of materials for a chicken coop written on the back in pencil, or a letter concerning housing renovations that was written on the back of a transportation company advertisement from around 1870. Items like this served a dual purpose of highlighting what types of businesses were commonly utilized by average people in this time period (especially related to transportation), as well as showing the direct, unfiltered perspective of the people who owned these ephemeral items via their individual notes. These personal notes significantly contributed towards an understanding of the physical conditions of the items as well as revelations about how people used such advertising materials beyond their initial intentions. In the same way that we might write on the back of an envelope or advertising postcard today, these nineteenth-century trade card owners used the valuable blank spaces for various notes and recipes.

Hillen Road Time Table, May 14th, 1860
Reid & Co’s Express Office Advertising Card, 1870

While some cards were more difficult to research than others, one of the most reliable ways I was able to find information on each item I analyzed was via newspaper articles. Even the most obscure individuals or businesses were likely mentioned in a local newspaper in some form, be it an advertisement, or a report on a building fire or lawsuit. If I was able to find information on an item in a newspaper, understanding how the person/business was portrayed in the paper offered an interesting look into how they fit into society at that time. While most were fairly standard, such as transportation companies offering discounts or steamboats advertising their routes, occasionally I would find a reference to an item I was analyzing in a bizarre excerpt from a local newspaper. One particularly unique example of this was when I was searching for information regarding a business card for Safford Automatic Draw Bar Co. On its surface, the automatic draw bar doesn’t appear to be the most enthralling subject matter; however, after researching the name of the company’s treasurer, J. B. Safford, I was able to find a newspaper article that helped to confirm the card was produced in the 1890s. What was interesting about this specific example was that the newspaper article in question was related to Safford’s lost diary that depicted a sketch of his gravesite. Apparently Safford was quite enamored with the concept of his appearance after his death, a concept that was seemingly quite weird even in 1898, as the paper mentioned, “it isn’t often that one runs across a man nowadays… who takes pleasure in thinking how pretty his last resting place will look when he has been planted there.” While the item itself may seem mundane upon first glance, further research often provided fascinating insight into the drama, gossip, and day to day activities of these business and card owners.

Safford Automatic Draw Bar Co. Business Card [reverse], 1893
Article from the September 10, 1898 issue of the New York Morning Telegraph

Overall, I learned a great deal from my internship at the Osher Map Library. Beyond the new research skills I was able to hone, the internship taught me to broaden my horizons regarding what primary sources I choose to engage with when trying to gain an understanding of the past. It is easy for us to get swept up in the high visibility, grand historical events of the past, but it should be known that it is equally important to approach an understanding of the past from the perspectives of average individuals and the mundane details of their everyday lives.