The first trademark granted in the United States involved an American eagle, and into the 21st century, marketing textbooks recommended using the Capitol to give products “borrowed interest” from patriotic consumers. Ambitious soap makers in the late 1800s used the iconic U.S. Capitol to give their wares a patriotic shine. So did tobacconists, whiskey distillers, and even con artists making patent medicines. It seemed like patriotic imagery, particularly of the seat of democracy, gave any product a sense of authority and national pride.
Trade cards, the first widely available color advertisements, made frequent use of the Capitol and Congress. These small, often high-quality, lithographs were part of product packaging or handed out to retailers. Their popularity made them an enormous part of the explosion in American advertising, which grew tenfold from 1870 to 1900. Avid fans pasted them in scrapbooks, sometimes gathering whole series of the miniature prints on themes like “Clipper Ships” or “Birds of America.” Trade cards featuring Congress, Uncle Sam, and Lady Liberty reinforced America’s national symbols, and in the case of the Capitol, established national landmarks for the country. The sales boost caused by the advertiser’s “patriotism” did not hurt, either.
Clark’s, a maker of sewing thread, produced some of the most sophisticated trade cards. For most households, thread was as common as flour. Brand-name competition in the growing market was fierce. Clark’s high-quality trade cards gave their mundane product an air of aesthetic sophistication.
One diamond-shaped card for Clark’s was part of a set showing four major buildings in Washington and New York. The dreamy image of the Capitol, with gradations of color blending and then fading into the background, showed off the subtle effects lithographic printing could achieve. Buyers associated Clark’s delicate images not just with pride in American democratic institutions, but also with the nation’s architectural and artistic triumphs.
Another Clark’s card showed the Capitol again, this time framed by a spray of goldenrod, from a series of “National Flowers" trade cards. At the turn of the last century, America’s indigenous goldenrod earned the title “Queen of the American Autumn.” For years it was considered the United States’ unofficial national bloom, and the odds-on favorite to receive a formal endorsement from the government. Not until 1986 did the rose beat out the goldenrod to become the official national floral emblem.
The Capitol was part of the logo for Congress Bitters’s trade card. The eminent New York lithography firm Schumacher & Ettlinger created a skillfully rendered view, giving the product a sense of delicacy. Fine details of a carriage and the building’s innumerable columns were set in a frame of flowers and ferns. The sophisticated design belied the cruder approach to the reverse. A tightly packed mass of text argued the benefits of the tonic “for Invalids, Females and delicate persons.” Like many widely distributed trade cards, this one provided a space at the bottom for a local merchant to print its retail information.
Congress proved a successful name for another drink: Samuel Suit’s “Congress Brand Whiskey.” Suit also produced whiskey named for the Senate, and he made a fortune through effective marketing of his legislative line of spirits. This trade card showed the House Chamber, with gold-framed portraits flanking the white marble Speaker’s rostrum and a mass of Representatives lounging in blue and brown suits. The company’s name and elaborate swirls and vines completed the attractive advertisement. As with Congress Bitters, the image carried all the weight of associating the beverage with the seat of democracy, and the back provided helpful information on how to obtain one’s supply.
Interest in depicting Congress and the Capitol reached Europe’s shores, too. Schicht’s Soaps, an ambitious manufacturer in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, marketed its soap with a trade card based on a photograph of the empty House Chamber. The impression is entirely different from the abundant activity of the Congress Whiskey card. Tidy rows of desks and chairs ranged in a semicircle around the Speaker’s rostrum, and the gallery level above was vacant. Stray papers on the desks provided the only relief from regularity. As with other trade cards, text on the back extolled the product’s virtues: Schicht’s Swan Soap was “indisputably the best household soap." In the 19th century, manufacturers found that using the Congress in its advertisements was indisputably the best choice, too.
Sources: Dave Cheadle, Victorian Trade Cards (Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1996); Leah Dilworth, Acts of Possession: Collecting in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003); Robert Jay, The Trade Card in Nineteenth-Century America (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1987).Follow @USHouseHistory