Sewing Machines | Historical Trade Literature in Smithsonian Collections
IntroductionExplore the CollectionAbout the Smithsonian Trade Literature Collections

To the Trade . . . The Trade Catalog Collection in the Smithsonian Libraries

If you were to consider the words 'book' or 'magazine,' there are few among us who would not have an image in mind of what these are. This is not necessarily true of the term 'trade catalog,' the name applied to commercial trade literature. As it is most often defined, the trade catalog is a multi-page listing of manufactured or produced items of any kind offered for sale by stock number or specific name. These include sale and parts catalogs, technical manuals, company histories, instructions for using the product, testimonials from satisfied customers, pattern books, design books, price lists, and internal factory record books. The earliest catalogs were directed 'to the trade,' meaning wholesalers and retailers. Today many trade catalogs are published for the ultimate consumer as well as for the sales and repair industries.

The trade catalog developed as a result of and along with the industrial revolution. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the growing factory system enabled workers to do twice to ten times the work of a single individual. Production rose, leading manufacturers to substantially increase their market territory to stimulate demand. The trade catalog became a critical means by which the resulting demand was met.

Trade literature is a primary historical record of innovations in machinery and industrial processes, in new techniques introduced for merchandising, and of other economic data relating to energy, manpower, and finance. The research value of these catalogs to the history of business, labor, and technology has only recently been fully recognized. The catalogs form both a by-product of and an index to industrialization and mass production.

The range of research possible in these materials is enormous. A researcher can trace a patent dream to reality. Outstanding authors and historians often wrote the copy, and accomplished artists and engravers provided the woodcuts and lithographs. Manufactured objects, including products that no longer exist, are fully documented as to size, materials, and operation, providing invaluable information to museum curatorial staff and collectors. Illustrations of the workplace may display labor conditions or manufacturing procedures and perhaps the function of tools. The items offered for sale are of special interest to those doing historical preservation or re-creations of interiors as indicators of cultural values and perceptions of status at that time. The history of technology and industry as they evolved emerges from a broad study of this literature. Throughout, trade catalogs reveal the shift of the consumer base from the privileged few to the general population, which products were commercially successful and which disappeared from the market, and the spread of innovations and techniques to different cities and regions.

Lawrence Romaine, a collector and dealer in trade catalogs, was the first to document and champion the trade catalog in the United States. In his 1960 book, A Guide to American Trade Catalogs, 1744 - 1900, he wrote, "It is high time that someone compiled and printed a record proving that Americans recognized the value of advertising catalogs and the mail order business even before they recognized the real value of freedom. There are ten thousand volumes that tell and retell the story of the American Revolution. I offer one that will, without bloodshed, convince you of the creative ability, imagination and Yankee ingenuity of the builders of this Republic throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries' collection of historical trade catalogs contains over 285,000 items representing approximately 30,000 companies dating from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is the largest collection of its kind in the United States and encompasses the full range of products - from porcelain dinnerware to pipe fittings, seed catalogs to tractors, automobiles to medical equipment. This is one more national treasure being protected, preserved, and made accessible by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. It is our hope that this guide to one small segment of Smithsonian Institution Libraries' trade literature collection will form a catalyst to others in the goals of preservation, access to researchers, and recognition of a rich source for historical research.

Rhoda S. Ratner
Head, History, Technology, and Art Department
Smithsonian Institution Libraries
October 2000

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