The John Evan Bedford Library of Furniture History is a rich resource covering all elements of interior design, furniture, metalwork and even gardening. A particular strength is in its collection of trade cards and advertising ephemera, painstakingly arranged in folders by John Bedford and kept in his sequence to this day.
Trade cards were first used in the 17th century to advertise the services of a trader and their wares and gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries. Most commonly engraved on paper or pasteboard, examples made using other printing methods such as letterpress and lithography also exist. Dimensions vary but most are of small postcard size. Trade cards were given to customers following a sale and acted as an aide memoire to encourage repeat business. Highly collectable, they give clues to social, political and cultural attitudes and assumptions of the time. Prior to the introduction of street numbers in the 1760s, they also served as an important means of direction to a business location. Trade cards are one of the earliest examples of commercial advertising, paving the way for the modern business card and advertising leaflet.
Trade cards in the Bedford collection are predominantly c19th British and Belgian, with other examples from as far afield as America, France, Germany, Holland and Japan. Many items pertain to metalwork, with a focus on Birmingham and London makers. From wire workers whose specialty was in bird cages, gates and other ornate metalwork, to brass founders, ormolu makers, silver and gold smiths, tin plate workers, white smiths and copper smiths, trades associated with metalwork are endless. This advertisement from Wrightson’s Triennial Directory of Birmingham 1818 represents the Phoenix Iron Foundry in the industrial heartland of Birmingham. It depicts various items manufactured here, from fenders to street lamps. The phoenix rising from the chimney is a regularly used nod to the trade.
Thomas Kerslake was a successful wireworker and iron founder, particularly known for ironwork in railway stations, although the trade card below interestingly features brass wire work for libraries and other specialties. His daughter became an apprentice ironmonger aged 17 however she left the business following her marriage to a farmer. After a long career employing numerous men, Kerslake’s business ultimately failed however his work can still be found at Bristol Temple Meads and Exeter St David’s stations. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette from Friday 26 May 1865 notes ‘On Wednesday evening a large wrought iron bridge girder, for the South Devon Railway, was conveyed from Mr. Kerslake’s foundry to the St. David’s station. The girder measures 81 feet in length, 7 feet in depth and weighs nearly 30 tons. It was carried in one piece on Mr. Wall’s waggons.’
The ironmonger, also known as a hardware man was a good example of a jack of all trades. Traditionally considered to simply trade in metal wares, they were much more than that. The ironmonger’s shop was like a modern department store. Many goods could be purchased there at relatively affordable prices, and other tradesmen visited for materials and tools. Ironmongers were quick to react to new inventions and provided a wide range of repairs and other services, from bell hanging and plumbing, to lock smithery and gas fitting. This trade card from J. Strickland is an excellent example of the variety of goods manufactured and sold by ironmongers. From cutlery and lamps to coffin furniture and weaponry, this trader left no stone unturned.
The diverse nature of the ironmonger’s store sadly was to be its downfall when specialist shops flooded the market towards the end of the Victorian period. Unlike ironmongers, specialist shops did not require large stockrooms or warehouses to operate and their expertise in one area was viewed as a selling point. Cycle shops and sports dealers took trade away from ironmongers, who stocked tennis racquets and made bicycle repairs. The introduction of electric light and gas cooking contributed to the movement towards smaller, lighter goods which were easier to handle and took up less space. After the First World War, ironmongers were in short supply. Trade cards reconnect us to this forgotten profession from Britain’s smoky industrial past.