Root Beer and Ice Cream: Culinary Trade Cards at the Library Company

How do you decide what food to buy? Despite all intentions, everyone’s shopping habits are influenced by the constant presence of advertising. From billboards to newspaper inserts, colorful images try to tell us that their product tastes better, is healthier, and is simply more fun. Yet as annoying as advertisements can be, they leave an unintentionally rich record of Americans’ eating habits.


In the 19th and early 20th centuries the trade card played a key role in the world of advertising. Vendors advertised their products with an astounding array of images and topics, some of which one might not necessarily associate with the product sold. This is especially apparent in culinary trade cards, where merchants used everything from flowers to medical claims to promote their goods.
Advertisement for Colburn’s Philadelphia Mustard depicting a dog's face.

Colburn’s Philadelphia Mustard

This die-cut card in the shape of a bulldog’s head is fairly imaginative. The design was likely used to appeal to children to have them convince their parents to purchase Colburn’s mustard, much like advertising does today. The product is advertised on the back as being the “King of Condiments” and “Always Reliable for Table & Medicinal Uses.”
Trade card for Hires Root Beer depicting a child with a white dress and flower crown. The child holds a box od root beer and sits on a branded Hires Root Beer box.

Hires Root Beer

The entire premise of this trade card is based on the supposed medicinal benefits of Hires Root Beer. The back of the card is covered in testimonials from across the United States claiming that Hires Root Beer had improved the drinkers’ general health. Charles Hires, the proprietor, was a member of the temperance movement, which is reflected in the advertising for his root beer which proclaims it a “delicious sparkling and wholesome temperance drink.”
Trade card for American Machine Co.’s Ice Cream Freezers depicting a freezer and many children.

American Machine Co.’s Ice Cream Freezers

 Culinary trade cards also included cooking implements. This trade card from the American Machine Co. shows a fantasized process of gathering the ice and cream to make the ice cream in the maker at home, the predecessor to DIY ice cream today.

Trade card depicting a basket holding a puppy and kitten. Flowers surround the basket.

Geo. Goetz, Bread, Cake, & Pie Baker

Trade card depicting a girl in a colorful outfit holding a hoop and stick.

Bradley’s Meat Market

Can you tell from the images alone what these last two cards are selling? Trade cards did not necessarily show the product they sold. Some vendors, like the baker Geo. Goetz, used pre-printed designs that had a space for the printer to fill in the name of the company. Because of this, it is not unusual to find several cards that look exactly alike save for the merchant’s name! The other example here is an ad for Bradley’s Meat Market, which would be very difficult to guess from the image of a young girl holding a hoop!


Trade cards provide an amazing opportunity to gain insight into how people shopped and what they bought, information that might not otherwise be recorded in more formal documents. To see more cards, check out the Library Company’s online exhibit of 19th century pharmacist trade cards in the Helfand Collection.


The images in this post are all drawn from a recent gift from Milton and Joan Wohl.


Lydia Bello
Print and Photograph Department Intern Spring 2012


The Library Company of Philadelphia
1314 Locust St., Philadelphia, PA 19107
TEL 215-546-3181 FAX 215-546-5167
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