Nineteenth-century advertising trade cards are wonderful on so many levels, but my particular favorites are the comic ones. Predating the appearance of comics in newspapers by decades (the “Yellow Kid” strip first appeared in 1895), the quality of trade card artists’ drawings can be as good as any of the more famous early comic artists. Some comic trade cards even tell a story in series. On July 6, 2014, I published a post on the story of a disastrous feline courtship told through six cards; you can take a look at this in the archives for the this blog. Some comic trade cards are offensive today — they traffic in all sorts of stereotyping — but others are benign, as in the case of the comic cats I share with you here,
Advertising trade card for Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil, around 1890. Chromlithograph, publisher unknown. The corners have been trimmed; they may have been glued to a scrapbook page.
The Excelsior Botanical Company, which began to sell Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil (yes, that’s “Eclectric”) in the 1880s, published a series of comic trade cards featuring anthropomorphic animals that was made specifically for the company. Eclectric Oil, which was sold until at least the 1940s, was recommended for everything from insect bites to earaches. The artist for these is unknown, but the card in my collection, “Grandma’s little Wootsy Tootsy” features a cat scrubbing her “grandchild” in a basin with a sponge. A proper linen towel with a red band hangs nearby. I love her glasses, neck ribbon (she is a proper house cat with a clean white bib and tummy ) and determined expression. And you get all this detail in 3 1/2 inches of paper….
“All Promenade” features the Cat and the Fiddle, who is now performing for two sets of dancing kittens in an alley. They all wear big smiles. I love the pink and blue dresses worn by the girl kittens. This card was copyrighted by Philadelphia printer George M. Hayes, who was probably the artist, too. He copyrighted a number of trade card designs in the early 1880s. They were sold as blanks; the “Presented by” caption was added by E. & H. Dilworth.
“All Promenade.” Advertising trade card for E & H. Dilworth Hardware, Beloit, KS. Published by George M. Hayes, Philadelphia, 1882. Hayes was probably also the artist.
The practice of attributing human characteristics to animals, called anthropomorphism, is an ancient practice; think of Aesop’s Fables, for example. It has had many uses, some quite serious — imparting moral lessons to children, stigmatizing marginalized “others” and critiquing the powerful are just three of these. However, sometimes anthropomorphism was intended simply to delight both children and adults.
These cats delight me, and I hope that they delight you, too!