‘Selling Consumption’: An Examination of Eighteenth-Century English Trade Cards

‘Selling Consumption’: An Examination of Eighteenth-Century English Trade Cards

Ashley Sims

Shift: Graduate Journal of Visual and Material Culture Issue 5 (2012) 


Many eighteenth-century tradesmen actively engaged in the promotion of their shop and wares using what is now an outmoded form of advertising: trade cards. The combination of text and image on a one-sided portable card enabled the card to function both aesthetically and practically. Through a language that was both visual and textual, these cards provided basic information such as the location of the shop and a list of goods it offered. Additionally, the cards’ aesthetic enticed consumers by using themes, images, and language which would have been associated with innovation, originality, and luxury. Eighteenth- century trade cards reveal a wealth of information concerning the retailer, the consumer and the world of goods in a period that witnessed the development of what is considered the first “consumer society.”1 In order to gain a greater understanding of the patterns of consumption in early modern English economies, a study of such advertisements is essential.

I will argue that trade cards prove particularly useful in exposing the attitudes of both retailer and consumer toward goods and consumption. It is clear that these cards can be connected to three key themes in eighteenth-century English society: the culture of credit, the creation and maintenance of polite society and the importance of reputation. While there are other lenses through which to view such developments, trade cards can furnish scholars with a tidy, yet incredibly intricate and symbolic, piece of England’s material culture. Accessing these important segments of the period’s advertising enables further understanding of the development of consumer societies.

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