Binder’s Labels and Trade Cards: Or, Paratexts that Transformed Books into Advertisements

Readers who visit regularly know that I usually post extended commentary about methodological issues on Fridays, but I would like to depart from that today. It has been a while since I featured any marketing materials other than the day’s featured advertisement. When I expanded this project from Twitter to a blog I intended to use the “extra” space available to incorporate posts exploring other aspects of advertising in eighteenth-century America more regularly. After all, my handle on Twitter is @TradeCardCarl, so let’s see some trade cards!

In addition, in the course of my research I have identified more than a dozen forms of printed ephemera that circulated as advertising in eighteenth-century America, including trade cards, magazine wrappers, billheads, furniture labels, catalogues, and broadsides. I would like the Adverts 250 Project to explore all of those, even as it remains faithful to its primary mission, a “new” newspaper advertisement featured every day.

As I include diverse advertising media in the coming weeks and months, much of it will come from decades other than the 1760s. For today, however, I have chosen two items that would have been in circulation at the same time as the newspaper advertisements featured throughout the week: trade cards issued by bookbinder Andrew Barclay in the mid 1760s.

The first, according to the American Antiquarian Society’s catalog, dates to approximately 1764 through 1767. It measures 11 cm x 12 cm (or 4¼ in x 4¾ in).

Feb 26 - Barclay Trade Card 1
Trade card distributed by bookbinder Andrew Bradford (ca. 1764-1767).  American Antiquarian Society.

(Let’s take a little digital humanities detour here. As I have stated repeatedly, digital sources are wonderful and have revolutionized the work done by scholars and opened up new levels of access to historic sources for scholars and general audiences alike. But digital sources are not without their shortcomings. Viewing original sources on screens tends to standardize them. They appear to “be” whatever size the screen happens to be. As a result, all sources take on the same size. Others with much more digital humanities experience have commented on this at great length, but it bears repeating here, especially since I will be returning to the actual size, rather than the virtual size, of today’s featured trade cards later.)

The second, again according to the American Antiquarian Society’s catalog, dates to approximately 1765 through 1767. It measures 6 cm x 9 cm (or 2½ in x 3½ in).

Feb 26 - Barclay Trade Card 2
Trade card distributed by bookbinder Andrew Bradford (ca. 1765-1767).  American Antiquarian Society.

Both trade cards list the same address, but use slightly different language: “Next Door but one to the sign of the Three KINGS … in Cornhill Boston” and “next Door but one North of the three KINGS, in Cornhill Boston.” Thomas Johnston (1708-1767) engraved both. (Johnston’s death explains why both cards have been dated to 1767 at the latest.)

Unlike most of the newspaper advertisements for goods and services printed in the 1760s, these trade cards used both text and images to make appeals to potential customers. In addition to giving Barclay’s location, both announced that he bound and sold books, “Gilt or plain.” Consumers were accustomed to making choices and selecting goods that corresponded to their rank and stature. Offering “Gilt or plain” bindings allowed customers to choose features that corresponded to other decisions they made about how to present themselves to others.

Each trade card included an image of man leaning over a bookbinding press, hard at work. Shelves stocked with books are on display in the background. The books, bookbinding press, and assorted tools were testaments to Barclay’s trade. Both images also suggested an important quality that Barclay wanted past and potential customers to associate with him: industriousness. In both images, a bookbinder wearing an apron could be seen busily at work. Benjamin Franklin did not begin writing his famous Autobiography until 1771 (and it was not published until 1791, after his death), but other eighteenth-century artisans certainly knew the value of industry and the appearance of industriousness that Franklin extolled in his memoir.

Classifying and cataloging early American advertising media is as much art as science. Such items often defy strictly defined categories. I have described both of these items as “trade cards.” In the AAS catalog, however, both are described as “advertising cards” in the genre/form field. That seems like an appropriate description. Although I have heard curators and other staff at the AAS refer to such items as “trade cards,” there are a variety of reasons why catalogers would choose the alternate (and perhaps broader) “advertising cards” to classify these items.

One of these trade cards was featured in The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, the first volume of the impressive History of the Book in America. There it is described as a “binder’s label.” That is a much narrower category than either “trade card” or “advertising card.” It is likely more accurate for its specificity (but I believe that fewer researchers would find it in the AAS catalog if it were classified only as “binder’s label” rather than “advertising card”).

This is where the size of these items becomes important. Most trade cards were larger, making them easier to pass from hand to hand, but also significant enough that they would not be misplaced easily. Many also tended to be large enough that vendors could record purchases and write receipts on the reverse (transforming them into billheads, of sorts).

These relatively small items, on the other hand, would have much more easily gotten lost in the shuffle or discarded … unless they were secured inside a book. Andrew Barclay likely pasted one of these labels inside some of the books he bound for his patrons. In the process, he transformed both the service he provided and the goods he sold into advertising media. When that happened, colonial consumers did not possess their books exclusively; instead, they shared ownership with an artisan who left his mark on a material object that happened to be in their possession. Some readers pasted their own bookplates in the volumes they owned, but Andrew Barclay’s binder’s label pre-empted that practice. Consumers could still place a bookplate in books bound by Barclay, but unless they pasted their own bookplate over his label, their act of taking possession competed with, rather than negated, Barclay’s label.

In the end, readers who took their books to Barclay to be bound ended up purchasing an advertisement that they would later encounter every time they used the item they had purchased from him.  Every time they opened a book bound by Barclay consumers were once again exposed to his binder’s label advertisement.

A Counterfeit Advertisement for Counterfeit Currency


NY Gazette 1777 Apr 14
New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (April 14, 1777)

On April 14, 1777, the above advertisement appeared in Hugh Gaine’s New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury. Printed in New York City, which was occupied by the British during the American Revolution, the unusual advertisement alerted readers that anyone “going into the other Colonies” could buy “any Number of counterfeited Congress-Notes, for the Price of the Paper per Ream.”

Americans eagerly seized upon the advertisement as evidence of British support for the counterfeiting of Continental currency. Four days after its publication, George Washington wrote to Congress and included, among other intelligence, a copy of the advertisement, noting “that no Artifices are left untried by the Enemy to injure us.”[1] When on May 12, the Connecticut Courant informed readers that two men had been taken north of New York City with quantities of counterfeit notes on them, it re-printed the advertisement, noting that “it seems they are tempted to follow this desperate employment by the terms offered in the following advertisement, taken from Hugh Gaine’s gazette.” The account of the counterfeiters’ capture and the re-printed advertisement subsequently appeared in newspapers throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Virginia.[2] By 1778, this one advertisement had been exaggerated into “weekly” and “repeated” advertisements in New York papers.[3] Similarly, when nineteenth- and twentieth-century historians have weighed the possibility that the British sponsored counterfeiting, they have pointed to this advertisement as a smoking gun. The only problem with all of this? The advertisement is almost certainly a fake!

Counterfeit paper money proved a significant problem during the American Revolution. In the early years of the war, printing paper money was one of the only ways the Continental Congress could finance the war effort. Maintaining the integrity of the paper money was thus of the utmost importance. Counterfeiting, however, began from virtually the first emission of Continental bills by Congress in 1775. American newspapers were full of notices warning people about various counterfeits, both of Continental notes and notes printed by individual states. And it is clear that some of these counterfeits came from New York—for those with the skill to do it, the occupied city provided a perfect base of operations: British officials in New York had little incentive to prosecute people for producing the money of the rebel government.

While some people did produce counterfeits in the New York City, and likely sold them to others to pass, it seems unlikely that the advertisement in the New-York Gazette is a real advertisement for them. Appearing on the third page of the New-York Gazette, in form and in placement in the paper it looks much like any other advertisement. Though the items being sold are a bit unusual, the description of their quality seems like what we would expect from such a piece of marketing: the bills are “exactly executed” making “risque” of passing them minimal, as “proved” by the many that had already, according to the advertisement, been circulated. It’s the last line of the advertisement that raises suspicion: the hours to inquire are listed as “11 p.m. to 4 a.m.”—the middle of the night. Even more suspicious is the pseudonym given to direct enquiries to: Q.E.D., an abbreviation for the Latin quod erat demonstrandum, a phrase typically used in mathematical proofs to indicate that what was set out to be proven has been proven.

So what exactly is going on here? Why would a loyalist newspaper run a counterfeit advertisement for counterfeit notes? And why was the advertisement re-printed and referenced so often by the Americans, despite the signs that it was a hoax?

As historian Benjamin Irvin has pointed out, Continental bills were widely ridiculed by British commentators.[4] On October 28, 1776, for example, the same New-York Gazette that printed the counterfeit advertisement ran a mock wanted ad for Continental money:

NY Gazette 1776 Oct 28
New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury (October 28, 1776)

In this context, it becomes easy to see the advertisement for counterfeits as a humorous piece meant to denigrate Congress’s paper money—it was not worth more, the notice implied, than the paper it was printed on. Perhaps, in a tongue-in-cheek way, it was a joking answer to assertions that American officials were beginning to make about British-sponsored counterfeiting; the reference to Q.E.D. certainly suggests that the advertisement might be playing with the idea. The counterfeit advertisement joined other items, ranging from poems about Continentals to reporting on their depreciation, that regularly appeared in New York papers during British occupation.

For American officials, however, the advertisement was the perfect polemical tool. The Continental had depreciated severely—by the end of 1777, the notes had lost 70 percent of their face value.[5] In January 1777, Congress had been forced to pass a resolution maintaining that paper money should pass on par with gold and silver; they also urged states to put in place legal tender laws that would make it possible to prosecute those who did not accept paper money at its full value. As faith in Continentals waned and notices of counterfeits in American newspapers mounted, it became politically convenient to blame the British for the currency’s woes. As the war wore on, British counterfeiting became one of a series of accepted explanations for paper money’s depreciation and a common trope in articles that mocked or criticized the British, including a faux runaway advertisement for General William Howe, which included, in a list of his misdeeds, “being concerned in counterfeiting the currency of this Continent.”[6]

Continental Journal 1777 Aug 14
Continental Journal (August 14, 1777).

Unpacking and tracing the history of this advertisement for counterfeit notes allows us to see the political significance of counterfeits during the American Revolution. In a loyalist paper, the advertisement served as a humorous commentary on the worthlessness of Continentals; in patriot hands, it became proof of a nefarious British plot to, as one commentator put it “cut the sinews of war.” It’s also a testament to the richness of early American advertisements—a form that could include humor and pointed political critique!


Katherine Smoak is a Ph.D. candidate in the History department at Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation, tentatively entitled “Circulating Counterfeits: Making Money and its Meanings in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic,” recovers the importance of counterfeits to economic and political life in the eighteenth century.


[1] “From George Washington to John Hancock, 18–19 April 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives ( [last update: 2015-12-30]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 9, 28 March 1777 – 10 June 1777, ed. Philander D. Chase. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 201–204.

[2] Connecticut Courant, May 12, 1777 and reprints in Pennsylvania Gazette, May 14, 1777; Continental Journal, May 15, 1777; Providence Gazette, May 17, 1777; Boston Gazette and Country Journal, May 19, 1777. A version that condenses the story of the counterfeiters’ capture, but still reproduces the full advertisement, appears in Virginia Gazette (Dixon and Hunter), May 23, 1777.

[3] See Thomas Paine’s open letter to Howe in a 1778 pamphlet that remarks that there were “repeated advertisements of counterfeit money for sale,” The Crisis, Vol. 5 (Middleton, NJ, 1839), 135 and a letter printed in multiple newspapers describing the British’s behavior in America which observes they “weekly advertised their money for distribution in a New York paper.”

[4] Benjamin Irvin, Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 92-96.

[5] Ben Baack, “Forging a Nation State: The Continental Congress and the Financing of the War of American Independence,” Economic History Review, LIV, 4 (2001): 643.

[6] Continental Journal, August 14, 1777.

Happy Birthday, Benjamin Franklin!

Today is an important day for specialists in early American print culture, for Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston.  Among his many other accomplishments, Franklin is known as the “Father of American Advertising.”  Although I have argued elsewhere that this title should more accurately be bestowed upon Mathew Carey (in my view more prolific and innovative in the realm of advertising as a printer, publisher, and advocate of marketing), I recognize that Franklin deserves credit as well.  Franklin is often known as “The First American,” so it not surprising that others should rank him first among the founders of advertising in America.

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin (Joseph Siffred Duplessis, ca. 1785).  National Portrait Gallery.

Franklin purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729.  In the wake of becoming printer, he experimented with the visual layout of advertisements that appeared in the weekly newspaper, incorporating significantly more white space and varying font sizes in order to better attract readers’ and potential customers’ attention.  Advertising flourished in the Pennsylvania Gazette, which expanded from two to four pages in part to accommodate the greater number of commercial notices.

Jan 17 - Pennsylvania Gazette 1:9-16:1736
Advertisements with white space, varying sizes of font, capitals and italics, and a woodcut from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette (December 9-16, 1736).

Many historians of the press and print culture in early America have noted that Franklin became wealthy and retired as a printer in favor of a multitude of other pursuits in part because of the revenue he collected from advertising.  Others, especially David Waldstreicher, have underscored that this wealth was amassed through participation in the colonial slave trade.  The advertisements for goods and services featured in the Pennsylvania Gazette included announcements about buying and selling slaves as well as notices offering rewards for runaways.

Jan 17 - Pennsylvania Gazette slave 1:9-16:1736.gif
An advertisement for slaves from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette (December 9-16, 1736)

In 1741 Franklin published one of colonial America’s first magazines, The General Magazine and Historical Chronicle, for all the British Plantations in America (which barely missed out on being the first American magazine, a distinction earned by Franklin’s competitor, Andrew Bradford, with The American Magazine or Monthly View of the Political State of the British Colonies).  The magazine lasted only a handful of issues, but that was sufficient for Franklin to become the first American printer to include an advertisement in a magazine (though advertising did not become a standard part of magazine publication until special advertising wrappers were developed later in the century — and Mathew Carey was unarguably the master of that medium).

General Magazine.jpg
General Magazine and Historical Chronicle, For all the British Plantations in America (January 1741).  Library of Congress.

In 1744 Franklin published an octavo-sized Catalogue of Choice and Valuable Books, including 445 entries.  This is the first known American book catalogue aimed at consumers (though the Library Company of Philadelphia previously published catalogs listing their holdings in 1733, 1735, and 1741).  Later that same year, Franklin printed a Catalogue of Books to Be Sold at Auction.

Franklin pursued advertising through many media in eighteenth-century America, earning recognition as one of the founders of American advertising.  Happy 310th birthday, Benjamin Franklin!

Bonus: Edward Pole’s Advertising Campaign

Yesterday evening I discovered that the American Antiquarian Society included a newspaper advertisement in its Instagram feed earlier in the day, a delightful surprise made even better by a generous reference to the Adverts 250 Project.  Please visit the AAS Instagram feed to see the advertisement and their commentary.

I was also excited because I recognized the advertiser, Edward Pole, a “Fishing-Tackle-Maker” who also operated a wholesale and retail grocery store in Philadelphia in the 1770s and 1780s.  Unlike most newspaper advertisements featured in the Adverts 250 Project so far, Pole’s advertisement (from fifteen years later, June 1781) included a woodcut to catch readers’ attention:  a striking image of a fish, certainly appropriate for an entrepreneur who peddled fishing tackle.  Woodcuts accompanying newspaper advertisements became more common during the last third of the eighteenth century.  Some advertisers, like Pole, used them as brands for their products and businesses.

Pole’s woodcut probably looked familiar to consumers in Philadelphia in 1781.  It appeared regularly in the Pennsylvania Packet (at least as early as May 1774), but that was not the only newspaper that included a woodcut of a fish with Pole’s commercial notices.  Pole placed advertisements for fishing tackle, including a very similar fish (this time with a decorative border), in the Freemen’s Journal in 1784.

Pole Newspaper Advert
Advertisement from the Freemen’s Journal (March 24, 1784).  Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

In addition,the savvy Edward Pole made use of multiple advertising media.  He distributed an engraved billhead for his receipts as early as the 1770s.  The billhead’s elaborate engraving featured a triptych logo in the upper left corner of the sheet, complete with rococo-style frames surrounding casks, crates, and scales on the left and right and the words “Edwd Pole’s GROCERY STORE Wholesale & Retail” in the center.  This billhead, with manuscript notations from 1771, is part of the Norris Papers at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Sometime in the late 1770s or early 1780s, he also distributed engraved trade cards featuring a rectangular vignette of two gentlemen fishing in a stream above a description of the wares stocked in his shop.  Pole eventually resorted to broadsides (or, in modern terms, posters) for his business ventures.

Edward Pole Trade Card
Edward Pole’s Trace Card (ca. 1780).  Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

In addition to trade cards, billheads, and broadsides, Pole most prolifically advertised in several of Philadelphia’s newspapers, often distinguishing his advertisements from others on the page by including a woodcut of a fish, as we have seen.  Pole’s use of multiple media allowed him to publicize his wares widely.  Most advertisements relied exclusively on newspapers for their marketing, but Pole took an innovative approach by experimenting with other forms as he encouraged potential customers to visit his shop.