The economic news of the 1980s was that Japan had begun to conquer America. The Aesthetic news of the 1880s was identical. This article will examine the use of Japanese design concepts, Japanese imagery, and references to Japan itself on American trade cards from 1875 to 1890. It is concerned with a now obsolete form of advertising-the trade card-and the use of visual references to a then unfamiliar and exotic culture in promoting products and services both nationally and locally.1
"From 1873 to 1898 excess capacity in the American economy was chronic and it afflicted virtually every industry...excess capacity to mill flour, to make watches, to manufacture stoves" (Ginger 55, 57). This was a period of declining prices, with major economic depressions in the years 1873-76, 1884, and 1893-97. During 1870s, with overproduction widespread, the goal of advertising began to change "from an emphasis on providing information to an attempt to influence buyers by any means possible" (Strasser 91). The trade card was the preferred method for obtaining publicity and generating good will from the time into the 1890s.
Trade cards of the later nineteenth century are individual advertisements produced on lightweight card stock, ranging in size from about the dimensions of a modern business card to approximately those of a postcard. They are almost invariably illustrated, usually by chromolithography, on one side only. The verso, and often a space on the recto as well, was left blank for the user to have this own text added by letterpress or rubber stamp. Trade cards were produced in prodigious numbers, made possible by steam powered presses, and were intended for free distribution to the general public by merchants and manufacturers, in much the same way that bookshops give away bookmarks or restaurants offer free matches today. Because they were colorful and attractive they were collected and preserved-commonly in albums-and hundreds of thou- sands have survived, making this study possible.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, manufacturers frequently offered their products without a developed advertising plan or definable set of marketing principles. They were only beginning to see the advantages of brand names, trademarks, and visual identities for their goods. An estimated 98 percent of all trade cards are of the "stock" variety-i.e., not custom-designed for the individual user-and thus the product or service advertised often has no relationship to the image on the card (Dilg: 1). An 1889 advertising manual recommended that "when ordering in quantities exceeding twenty thousand, little additional expense will permit the chromo being specially designed; but unless a very large number be desired, the so-called stock chromos will, considering the price, do as well" (Fowler, About Advertising and Printing 103).2 Trade cards are often unsigned by the lithographing companies that produced them, and their artists or designers are almost never identified (for an exception see Fig. 1).3 The cards were issued by lithographers both famous and obscure, as single or series designs (Fig. 2), and were usually sold to advertisers through agents or middlemen, including printers and stationery stores. They were even offered directly to collectors, who sometimes referred to them as picture cards.
The use of trade cards declined markedly during the 1890s, their importance as an advertising medium eclipsed by the mass circulation magazines (Strasser 165; Jay 99-101). Fowler's Publicity, a one thousand page text on advertising produced in 1899, discusses everything from newspapers and periodicals to billboards and fence painting to samples and hand-bills, but makes no mention of the trade card. Its author, who commenced his career "at the beginning of art in commercial lithography," noted that by the late 1890s lithography was "almost exclusively confined to advertising [via posters] and illustrating the higher grade of books. …