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Trade cards and bill-heads

Trade cards

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Trade cards are single-sheet notices produced by trades-people to promote their businesses. At the very least, trade cards feature the name of the owner of the business and their location(s), but there is usually also an image, perhaps a depiction of the shop sign that hung from a bracket outside the shop, a coat of arms, or an example of the goods or services they supplied. Some trade cards of this period of the eighteenth century (1765-85) are similar in size to modern-day business cards, but they are often much larger, the equivalent of A5 or A4 paper sizes, with an extended inscription and an elaborate frame.

Trade cards from this period were printed from etched or engraved copper plates, from letterpress alone (sometimes referred to a 'tradesmen's lists'), or letterpress in combination with woodcut. Some trade cards feature very simple images, such as this one of Thomas Griffith, trunk maker, showing his shop sign (top right), while others are often rather more elaborate, such as the one illustrated here (right) by Benjamin Cole (1697-1783), for Mary Knight & Son, fish hook makers. Most trade cards are unsigned, so the appearance of a well-known printmaker's signature is a clue to determining the proprietor's status. Hardly anything is extraneous on a trade card; other printed inscriptions, such as a declaration of royal patronage, convey how the trades-people wanted to be seen. Trade cards carry other useful pieces of information, such as other avenues of trades, terms of trade (wholesale or retail), previous addresses, or the names of predecessors or former masters. Sometimes this information was provided years after a former owner's death, particularly if their status was high.

These qualities are very true of an English style of trade card. Collections of trade cards at the Fitzwilliam Museum and elsewhere show that there was a significant number of trade-people from other cities in Europe operating in London. Trade cards produced in France were very different in design. The card illustrated below is of the shop of Monsieur Papegay, ladies shoe maker, from around 1779. The design, an oblong frame with projecting corners complete with classical motifs (an urn or chalice, laurel leaf garlands, a festoon of flower and ribbons), is comparable to contemporary French trade cards, and the plate was probably copied from an old one, since it would have been too difficult to erase and re-engrave the lettering in English ('He has the secret of making shoes / That never give way in the Quarters') around the oval border.

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If there was room after the practical information, valuable space was reserved for messages to entice customers. The messages are couched in polite language and would have been particularly effective when seen in combination with an elaborate design by a competent printmaker, creating a sense of polite consumer culture that would arouse interest in potential customers. The messages cover everything from promises of 'Reasonable Rates' (James Wingfield, hat maker), exclusivity ('...which can be had no where else in London') and punctuality ('Those who please to Favour him with their Orders, shall be punctually & carefully served, & the Goods send to any part of England, Carriage free' (Robert Blunt, linen draper), to reliability ('Also safely Pack'd up', Benjamin Layton, china-man).


As the name suggests, bill-heads or bill-headings were used as headers for invoices. Plenty of entirely hand-written receipts survive, but having a printed header would save time and give the receipt a more professional appearance. The typical shape of the plate was a long oblong, engraved with an inscription giving the proprietor's name, their avenue of trade, address and space for recording the date. The plates were printed at the top of a sheet of paper so that itemised purchases could be listed below. Because the primary function of the bill is to record information about the purchaser and their purchases, there is limited space for decoration.

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The tight space in the plate depictions are pared down versions of what might appear on a trade card. In the example illustrated above of the bill-head of Joseph Rendall, the depiction of a sun and anchor in a frame records important information about the name of the shop sign, which isn't included in the printed inscription. More prestigious businesses, such as the wealthy mercers, had rather larger plates. Some trades-people wrote on a back of a sheet printed with a trade card (for an example, see James Butler), while others commissioned separate trade card and bill-head plates (see Thomas Moore).

Used bill-heads are rich sources of information because unlike trade cards they carry a full date, the name of the debtor and the purchases. They are usually concluded with the handwritten line 'Received the Contents in full...' and signed. The signature, if it is not the hand of the proprietor themselves, provides interesting information about other unnamed members of the business, including spouses and apprentices, see Andrew Schabner. The list of purchases would need to be described in enough detail for the purchaser (often receiving the invoice months after making the purchase) to remember the transaction. Some bills were paid straight away, but it was also quite normal for traders to wait a couple of months for payment. One example in the Fitzwilliam Museum's collection shows how bills accrued interest free: the Blathwayts' bill from Bromwich's firm of paper stainers shows that the account was begun on 15 December 1772 and continued until 29 November 1773. The account was not settled until 26 February 1774. The inscription on the bill-head of one of the silk weavers, Van Sommer & Paul, shows that some businesses gave discounts for cash transactions.

Researching the collection

Trade cards, unlike bill-heads, do not feature a date because they were meant to be used over a period of time (sometimes long after the plate was printing clearly). They can be approximately dated by tracing particular addresses in trade directories or newspapers. These directories list the name of the business, the address and the trade, but they do no usually include the wonderfully evocative names of the shop signs. Sometimes this information is only conveyed in the image on the plate, such as in this instance in the card of Joseph Rendall, shown above. Directories are also not entirely trustworthy, since a business might be recorded in one (e.g. Lowndes) but be missing from another (e.g. Kent) of the same year. Other nuances, such as changes in partnerships, aren't always dutifully updated.

Helpfully, more accurate dates of operation and changes of address or partner and bankruptcies can be found in advertisements in London newspapers. There was an abundance of newsprint in the 18th century. By 1750 there were six daily newspapers and twice as many that were published less frequently. Some of the lower classes of trades, such as tallow chandlers and breeches makers, do not appear in directories at all.

Lastly, comparison with large collections in other institutions is enormously helpful, notably the Banks and Heal collections in the British Museum's Prints and Drawings department, the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the collection at Waddesdon Manor, National Trust, Buckinghamshire. A great proportion of this material has been digitised and is available to view online.