Advertising was much simpler in the late 19th century. Think of it: no Internet, social media, television or radio. Certainly, there were newspapers and magazines, but enterprising businessmen used a more personal way to tout their companies during the Victorian era.
These were small, illustrated advertising cards. A drawing on the front was usually accompanied by a card back that publicized a business. It was the perfect way to advertise a company’s goods or services. Think of them as 19th century business cards.
Cards illustrated in color were extremely popular, as color lithography was still relatively new.
Baseball was one of the subjects businessmen used to tout their services. And in the 1880s, one of the more whimsical and humorous issues was put out by Merchant’s Gargling Oil Linament, a company that was established in 1833. This was a five-card set that featured caricatures of chubby baseball players in various poses. The cards, measuring 3 ¼ inches by 5 ¼ inches and printed on thin stock, were manufactured in Lockport, New York, which was located near Buffalo.
The card fronts showcased humorous poses, while the backs were used for store advertising. The cards were actually issued with blank backs, and different companies then would imprint their names on the card backs and then pass them out to customers.
Here’s an example. One of the cards shows a chunky baseball player sitting on the ground and cooling off with a hand-held fan. The caption reads, “The Hero of a Home Run. The Ladies’ Favorite.”
Here are the captions for the other four cards: “Struck Out,” “Something must be done ‘Put it there!’” “Bravo! The Pet of the Nine,” and “A close affair: Hugging the Bat.”
There are four versions of the Merchant’s Gargling Oil Linament sets (which have an H804-7 designation). Each has the same design on the card front, but vary in colors and by the company that printed them.
The first version (H804-7A) has red and tan color tones on the card front. They were printed by Clay & Richmond in Buffalo. This is the most common style of Gargling Oil cards.
A multi-color version with blue and yellow tones (H804-7B) is a little tougher to collect. These were printed by Courier Lithograph of Buffalo.
The third version (H804-7C) looks very similar to the Clay & Richmond version, but was put out by Gies & Co. of Buffalo.
Probably the scarcest version is the fourth, or H804-7D. It has the same look as the Clay & Richmond cards, but there are punctuation differences. It was printed by a different company, too — Karle & Co. of Rochester, New York.
The Merchant’s Gargling Oil Linament set cannot be found in the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards. The set is listed, however, in the “Baseball Advertising Trade Cards” book by Frank Keetz (which is now out of print).
The set is not hard to find, and many affordable versions can be found on eBay.
Baseball as a subject soon would make the transition from trade cards to tobacco cards. While cartoons were acceptable to the general public, the idea of cards showing actual photographs of players seemed undesirable to others.
In his book “Mint Condition,” Dave Jamieson tells the story of a New Orleans Daily Picayune reporter, who asked a young woman if she’d allow her photo to be taken for a “cigarette picture.” The woman’s response was emphatic.
“What a horrid suggestion! Only actresses, baseball players, and other dreadful people have such things taken,” she said.
Presumably, trade cards were acceptable.