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Oskar Diethelm Library, Weill Cornell Medical College

Introduction to Advertising Cards

Lactart Milk Acid

Patent medicines were wildly popular. One estimate puts the amount of money spent per year at $75 million at the turn of the century and by 1917 the AMA estimated that $150,000,000 a year was spent on them. Advertising helped the popularity of these medicines to soar. They were particularly successful in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The history of advertising cards can be traced back to early eighteenth century Britain, where illustrated engraved cards for tradesmen were a popular advertising medium. Cards were found in large American colonial cities like Boston, where skilled craftsmen made them for a more elite audience. Engraving was an expensive process but by the first quarter of the nineteenth century, lithography had proven to be a viable alternative. By the 1860s chromolithography took over as the printing method of choice. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia saw exhibitors handing out ads for the first time in the shape of these advertising cards, which ranged in size from as small as two inches by one inch, and as large as five inches by six inches. Enticed by the cards’ compelling visual nature, visitors started collecting them in droves, beginning a trend that took America by storm.