Cats are great at stealing people’s hearts. Who doesn’t fall in love with the image of a cute little kitten or a cat doing something funny? That is one of the reasons that companies have been using them in their advertisements for more than a century. All of the cat commercials and advertisements on the internet began with cats on trade cards during the Victorian Era.
Title Photo Credit: Boston Public Library via Flickr
Trade Cards As Advertisements
It was cost prohibitive for many businesses to run an ad in a newspaper or a magazine, so businesses improvised and began to use trade cards. In the early 1800’s they were simply a card that might have a black and white image on one side and always had information about a business or product on the other side. However, in 1870, it became affordable to use color lithography and almost all cards began to use a color image. There were 2 types of trade card, stock, and custom. Stock trade cards had a generic, but interesting, image on one side and the other side was left blank for the advertiser to place their information on. Custom trade cards were made for a specific company. Trade cards with color images became very popular with the people of the Victorian age. Collecting them in scrapbooks was a common hobby.
Trade cards were used in a similar fashion to how business cards are used today. Businesses would hand them out to customers to remind them about the business they had visited or the product they had purchased. They might be given to customers with a purchase or simply placed on racks at the store for customers to choose for themselves. Expositions, like the World’s Fair, were popular places for businesses to hand out their cards as well. The most common categories of goods seen on trade cards were tobacco, clothing, food, medicine, sewing, household, stoves, and farm.
At the turn of the century, the use of trade cards diminished. Magazine advertisements had become more affordable for common businesses. Post cards were the next popular collectible.
The Rise of the Pet Cat
Cats have not always been a popular house pet even though it is believed that they domesticated themselves nearly 10,000 years ago. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria famously kept 2 pet cats that having a cat became a trend. It didn’t take long for cats to capture the hearts of the Victorians. By the late 1800’s the first cat shows and cat fancy groups had begun and Louis Wain had given cats a new anthropomorphic look.
Naturally, cats made their way into advertising just as trade cards were also growing in popularity. The first advertisements using cats were seen around 1874. They were used to promote products from almost every category – some even show cats smoking cigars. No doubt these kitties brought plenty of business to the advertisers that used them.
A Gallery of Cats on Vintage Trade Cards
The vintage trade cards that feature cats are beautiful and clever. Since they were published before copyright laws were established in 1923, they are in the public domain. These images were found on the Boston Public Library’s Flickr account.