Even before the rise of its automobile industry, Detroit was a major manufacturing center. The city’s foundries and factories were fueled by Michigan’s abundant mineral resources and forests, combined with access to materials from the Great Lakes shipping lanes. A key industry in Detroit during this time was stove and furnace manufacturing, headed by the original “Big Three:” Detroit Stove Works, Michigan Stove Company, and Peninsular Stove Company. At the turn of the twentieth century, Detroit was the world’s stove manufacturing capital.
Competition between stove manufacturers was fierce, requiring companies to constantly innovate and market their products to stay in the game. A common form of marketing put out by these companies was trade cards, small paper cards usually featuring illustrations or lithographs on their front and advertisements for specific stove brands, models, or companies on their backs. Some illustrations and lithographs were simple stock images with stove company logos, but others featured specially commissioned images of stoves with company slogans (designed by companies such as Detroit’s Calvert Lithographing company). These images ranged from amusing to sentimental in character, being chosen to best catch the attention of potential customers and increase brand awareness.
The advertisements on the back of trade cards would announce new models, promote specific brands such as the Detroit Stove Works’s Jewel Stoves and Ranges, and give directions to stores which sold stoves and furnaces.
Trade cards are examples of early mass-marketing, being produced and distributed at prodigious rates and effectively spreading awareness of the companies and products of industries. They were also early examples of keepsakes and collectibles put out by companies. Even when recipients did not buy the products these cards were advertising they often kept the cards upon their mantles or placed them in scrapbooks. They offer a window into the business and popular art sensibilities of their time, and are often still in good condition a century later. The Detroit Historical Society maintains an extensive collection of trade cards, and other materials, from Detroit’s stove companies and other businesses, accessible via its online collection and by request.