Victorian Trade Cards, Lincoln’s Fingerprint, and the First American Board Game: You’ll Be Amazed at What You’ll Find at Miami University’s Walter Havighurst Special Collections
by Betsy Butler, Special Collections Librarian, Miami University
The Akron, Ohio-based Firestone Tire and Rubber Company became a household name during the 20th century, whether it was producing tires for Henry Ford or Indianapolis 500 winners. Today, an example of Firestone ephemera is one of a collection of thousands of colorful trade cards at Miami University’s Walter Havighurst Special Collections that illustrate how companies like Firestone promoted innovative products through clever advertising strategies during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Charles and Laura Dohm Shields Trade Card Collection at the Walter Havighurst Special Collections contains examples of cards that promote products in business trades, such as patent medicines, tobacco products, farm equipment, and domestic furnishings. Today, they are rich cultural artifacts for students, faculty, and other researchers.
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Victorian trade cards, also known as advertising trade cards, originated in the 17th century. At first, they were a simple piece of paper printed with a tradesman’s name and address in order to publicize a shop. As color lithography and more efficient, affordable printing options developed in the 19th century, trade cards became especially popular. Almost the size of a postcard, these brightly colored cards featured eye-catching illustrations or caricatures on the front, and business information or a publicity message printed on the reverse. Trade cards were free for the taking on the countertops of local merchants, or were distributed by “drummers” who paced the streets in search of potential customers. Some trade cards were issued in a series, tempting customers to return to the store and collect other cards to complete the set. The sought-after souvenirs were widely distributed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and other major events of the day.
As color advertising in magazines grew, trade cards became less popular, but intrepid collectors continued to amass them. The high-quality ink and paper used to create trade cards made them an especially appealing type of ephemera to acquire. One of those collectors was Laura Dohm Shields. In 1987, her son, Charles, donated the collection of trade cards that she began to Miami University.
Today, digitized versions of these trade cards are available online through Miami University’s Digital Collections program (http://digital.lib.muohio.edu/). The online version of the Shields Collection is searchable by the advertiser’s name and location, product name, printer/lithographer, Standard Industry Classification code, publication date, and various subjects depicted on the card. Scans of both the front and the back of each trade card capture handwritten notes, vendor stamps, and even the common practice of including multiple advertisers on one card. Access a direct link to the digitized Shields Collection at http://digital.lib.muohio.edu/tradecards/.
The Shields Trade Card Collection is just one of the interesting discoveries awaiting visitors to the Walter Havighurst Special Collections. Established in 1970, the collection includes more than 65,000 volumes, plus numerous manuscripts and archives. A hand-illumined Book of Hours from 1450 and a page from an original Gutenberg Bible demonstrate historical developments in printing, while Civil War enthusiasts will find over 700 letters of Jefferson Davis and his Confederate generals, together with soldiers’ diaries documenting the conflict, particularly insightful. Several thousand books about Russian culture, the papers of Mexican playwright Rodofo Usigli, and an archival collection documenting Miami’s role as a “Cradle of [Football] Coaches” are other unique resources at this southwest Ohio library. Over 15,000 juvenile books, periodicals and schoolbooks provide insight into the activities of children since the 17th century. More than 700 copies of the Readers created by William Holmes McGuffey, a professor of ancient languages at Miami University from 1826 to 1836, can also be found here.
What’s more, the collection includes the first authenticated fingerprint of Abraham Lincoln, found on a slip of paper on which Lincoln wrote his name in 1864. A letter that George Washington wrote on October 31, 1781 from Yorktown, Virginia – ten days after Cornwallis surrendered at the last battle of the Revolutionary War – recommending General Louis Le Begne de Presle Duportail for promotion is currently on loan from the collection for exhibition in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at Mount Vernon, Washington’s Virginia home. The collection also includes “The Mansion of Happiness,” the first board game published in the United States in 1843; Special Collections is one of only four libraries worldwide to own this item.
The Walter Havighurst Special Collections welcomes e-mail, telephone and in-person inquiries from researchers wishing to study or request copies of items from this closed-stack, non-circulating collection. Visit http://spec.lib.muohio.edu/ for more information and links to the Miami University Libraries’ online catalog and finding aids for selected manuscript collections, and the Miami History Digital Archive, an online collection of primary resources documenting the history of Miami University from its founding to its current bicentennial celebration (http://digital.lib.muohio.edu/portal/). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (513) 529-3323 for assistance.