About Trade Literature

Even within “the Nation’s attic,” the Smithsonian Institution Libraries curates one of the most curious collections -- trade literature -- the catalogs and books that were once part of the merchandising of American business. The trade literature collection of the Smithsonian is internationally known as an important source for the history of American business, technology, marketing, consumption, and design. Trade literature includes printed or handwritten lists, usually illustrated, of items offered for sale, ranging in size from small pamphlets to oversized folios of several hundred pages. Manufacturers of all sizes and types issued trade catalogs to promote and sell their products. The present collection contains more than 400,000 catalogs, technical manuals, advertising brochures, price lists, company histories and related materials representing nearly 30,000 companies.

The Smithsonian Libraries generally acquires trade literature through gifts and purchases. The largest single gift, primarily dealing with engineering and industry, came from Columbia University. Other institutions including the Patent Office, Harvard University and the Center for Research Libraries transferred their collections and private collections like the Mel Heinz collection of catalogs for machine tools and metal working, and the Burpee Seed Company have been added over the years. In the early 1990s, the Smithsonian’s Collection Acquisition Fund afforded the purchase of over 56,000 catalogs from the Franklin Institute.

Researchers use the trade literature collection to determine the history of companies or individual industries, describe styles from furniture to machinery, analyze marketing and management techniques, and examine illustrations of every product imaginable. Since the trade literature collection covers a wide variety of American manufactured goods it is invaluable in documenting objects in the Smithsonian’s and other museums’ collections. The collection is frequently consulted by historians, collectors, historical preservationists, authors, industrial designers, home renovators and patent lawyers. One Smithsonian curator estimates that fully half the information in this collection is unavailable elsewhere.

We gratefully acknowledge the Smithsonian National Board, in particular Mr. Edgar Masinter, for their generous support in improving access to these important collections.

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