THE ART OF ADVERTISING Patent Medicine Trade Cards Made Early Use of Color Printing

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), March 17, 2011 | Go to article overview
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THE ART OF ADVERTISING Patent Medicine Trade Cards Made Early Use of Color Printing


Byline: Lauren Fox The Register-Guard

Today's world is awash in advertisements. They're on buses, in magazines and delivered to our mailboxes.

But as seniors at the Willamalane Adult Center learned last week, there was a time when people clamored to collect colored propaganda - as art.

Patent medicine trade cards, often bright and visually stunning, were the first freely available art thanks to the invention of the lomography printer, which produced duplications of colored pictures inexpensively.

Phaedra Livingstone, an assistant professor and museum studies coordinator in the University of Oregon Arts Administration Program, presented "Snake Oil and Mothers' Milk: Victorian Patent Medicine Advertising" to a small but keenly interested audience.

The UO's Center for the Study of Women in Society started its "road scholars" program nine years ago. In that time, presenters have addressed dozens of topics with more than 2,500 community members in at least 40 venues across the state.

A love of picture trading cards is nothing new for Livingstone. As a little girl, she remembers her grandparents mailing her tiny trading cards from their Rose Tea boxes; the cards were provided in each package a customer bought.

"I can understand people's desires to collect these cards back in the 19th century, because I remember how it felt to have a missing card in my (Rose Tea) collection when I was a kid," she said.

As part of a curator's fellowship she was awarded through the Museum of Healthcare in Kingston, Ontario, Livingstone began researching a collection of patent medicine trade cards - and particularly the way in which women were depicted in the advertisements in the late 19th century.

Livingstone began her presentation by discussing the mass popularity of patent medicines during the 19th century, especially for people who could not afford more expensive prescription drugs.

"People had difficult lives and even shorter life spans," she said. "Medical care was expensive, so you bought cheaper patent medicines hoping they would work."

One of the most interesting aspects of her research, Livingstone said, is the great disconnect often found between what is shown in the advertisements and what the products are billed as providing.

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THE ART OF ADVERTISING Patent Medicine Trade Cards Made Early Use of Color Printing
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