On the surface, trade cards -- those little slips of card
stock intended to advertise a business--send a simple message. "Come here and buy my wares," they say in various tones from respectable to louche. Today, the subject matter of trade card imagery tends to be connected to the trade being promoted. A card for a paint store might show a can of paint; a pet food purveyor might show a cute cat or dog. So much seems self-evident.
But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, merchants would sometimes choose stock images for their cards
that had no apparent connection to their trade whatever. Perhaps, the thinking went, customers would associate a good joke with a pair of shoes from Mr Muggins, and would therefore enter the store well-disposed toward the proprietor. Or the pretty shepherdess on the carpet-seller's card would lull the buyer into dreams of the quasi pastoral pleasures that could be obtained by buying a rug from Mr Scoggins.
Even allowing all this, one cannot help but think that some of the images must have formed counter-productive associations in the mind of the customer. Here are four examples from our collection of hundreds of trade cards, some of which can be seen online.
Shoe stores in particular seemed unaware that the medium is the message. Mr Healey, of Healey's Shoe Store at 341 Myrtle Ave (above) evidently thought his shoes could best be used for whacking an unfortunate child's backside. While adults may have frequented the store, I imagine children throwing tantrums outside to avoid buying the shoes that would be the instruments of their torture.
Customers of C. Ruppel's Boot and Shoe Store at 385 Grand St in Williamsburgh may not have enjoyed the suggestion that domestic violence would erupt in their household as soon as they took home a pair of Ruppel's shoes.
And look what happens to you if you buy boots from Huggins of 125 Bridge Street. "Try one pair," says the advertisement, failing to mention that customers risk a peculiar metamorphosis. I bet no one ever went back for a second pair.
But shoe stores were not alone in mixing their messages. S. Young, perfumer at the corner of Myrtle and Carlton Avenues, seems not to have noticed his trade card's suggestion that Wenck's Celebrated Perfumes might turn you into a two-headed monster. And that's not all: one spray of that scent and your father will likely go out and lose your beloved poodle, leaving you to search for her all over Brooklyn. No Wenck's for me, thank you very much.