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[ADVERTISING] 19th Cent. "Trade Cards" Display Racist Depictions of the Chinese

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  • madchinaman
    Rough on Rats -- Racism and Advertising in the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century by James Chan One of the many functions of the mass media, aside from
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 19, 2003
      "Rough on Rats" --
      Racism and Advertising in the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century
      by James Chan

      One of the many functions of the mass media, aside from informing,
      entertaining, or persuading various segments of society, is cultural
      transmission. Whether the various forms of mass media intend to or
      not, they reflect and uphold the culture that they serve. The
      advertising media are no different.

      Embedded within our television commercials and magazine ads are the
      blueprints for the dominant cultural ideology, a sort of cultural
      DNA that is transmitted to viewers.

      For example, when we look at advertising, we see what roles men and
      women take, or are supposed to take, in our society. Certain
      products and services are for men, certain products and services are
      for women, and they reflect what men and women supposedly are, or
      should be, in our society.

      We also understand through these ads how mainstream American culture
      views people of color.

      The advertising media, like all other media, have a target audience,
      and in this nation that target audience is almost always white and
      male. Hence, advertising in this country has always mirrored white
      male cultural values as well as attitudes toward other cultures.

      If one can understand the cultural attitudes of a society through
      its advertising, then one can also understand past cultural
      attitudes by analyzing advertising from a society's past.

      I will discuss the cultural attitudes that American society (as well
      as other European societies) has had toward Chinese and Chinese
      Americans and will analyze these attitudes through advertising or
      trade cards, an advertising medium that is no longer in use.

      Advertising/Trade Cards

      Long before television commercials and radio advertisements, there
      was an advertising form known as "trade cards" or "advertising
      cards". A trade card, as defined by the Trade Card Journal, was
      a "single piece of medium weight paper slightly smaller than a post
      card, printed with decorative images which directly or indirectly
      promote a commercial product, service, or event. Trade cards were
      used widely from the 1870s to the end of the 1890s, and were
      commonly distributed to the public at store counters, expositions,
      and through the mail."

      Trade cards were a cross between modern-day business cards and
      advertising flyers, although this analogy is not an adequate
      description of a trade card. Some had a picture (usually in color)
      on one side and a paragraph or two on the reverse to describe the
      product or service. Others would have the picture and an advertising
      slogan on only one side. The picture could be of the product or the
      benefits derived from the product, but many times the picture would
      have absolutely no connection to the product or service. Certain
      trade cards were like postcards in that the pictures were simply
      meant to be attractive or interesting.

      Methods or producing the trade cards varied. Some were custom-made
      with pictures and slogans that specifically promoted the products or
      services. Others were mass-produced and had pictures or cartoon
      scenarios unrelated to the product or with a tangential connection
      at best. On these cards, there was usually an empty space in which a
      store owner could stamp the name and address of his or her business.

      Supposedly, trade cards were quite popular during their era or use:
      The cards were clever, the buying public liked them, and we can
      presume, they hoped to sell the product. Soon the demand for this
      advertising medium grew, and with the advent of cheap color
      lithography firms by dozens were jumping on the trade card

      Soon every (or almost every) American home had these little gems
      telling them about every new product that modern technology could
      offer. For the average citizen, who really couldn't afford much more
      than the bare necessities, these cards were avidly collected,
      treasured, and, most importantly, saved -- perhaps as hopes and
      dreams of the promise of a better life somewhere in the future.

      Trade cards were popular during the Victorian era, but by the late
      nineteenth century their popularity had tapered off. By the early
      twentieth century, they were no longer being produced. Today, they
      are little more than collectorÕs items.

      At the height of their popularity during the latter half of the
      nineteenth century, trade cards mirrored the social, cultural, and
      political attitudes of the era. During this period, white America
      was hostile toward Chinese Americans, and the portrayals of Chinese
      Americans in trade cards mirrored the racism of the times.

      The Ching Collection has over four hundred trade cards produced
      mostly in the United States but also in Europe that contain racist
      depictions of Chinese and Chinese Americans. If the advertising
      media truly reflect the mainstream culture of the times, then these
      cards will serve as a window into America's past.

      In this presentation, a small sampling of the Ching trade cards will
      be used as a vehicle (1) to discus racist stereotypes of Chinese
      Americans and their function in advertising psychology and (2) to
      provide a glimpse into the history of racism toward the Chinese in

      Chinese Stereotypes in Advertising Psychology

      One way to define the term "stereotype" is as a "loaded image," in
      other words, and image that is associated with a set of meanings and
      generalities. Thus, a racial stereotype is an image imposed on a
      racial group that defines that racial group according to a
      generality or a set of generalities become associated with an image
      and become stereotype? It occurs through repetition. Show an image
      of a Chinese person eating a dog to enough people enough times, and
      that image will become a stereotype. Eventually, the portrayal of a
      Chinese person eating a dog will no longer be needed to elicit the
      stereotype of the Chinese as dogeaters. Simply show a Chinese
      person, and the stereotype of dogeating will be invoked within the
      viewer's mind.

      The advertising medium is designed to persuade consumers to buy, and
      to do so it must elicit particular emotions and ideas from within
      the consumer to influence him or her to buy.

      Stereotype can be used to elicit such emotions and ideas, whether or
      not the stereotypes have any logical connection to the product or
      service being advertised. for example, in a British trade card for a
      furniture store, there is a Chinese man with a smirk on his face.
      Next to him are the words, "What has Ah Sin got up his sleeve?" The
      consumer is expected to pull a tab from under Ah Sin's sleeve, upon
      which a flyer emerges advertising a London furniture store.

      The stereotype presented in is the sneaky, crafty, and inscrutable
      Chinese. The emotions being played upon are fear and paranoia.

      Advertisers play on consumer fear that products and services are
      scarce and that another consumer (Chinese or other) could have an
      advantage in procuring those scarce resources. The fact that a
      Chinese person has very little connection to the subject of
      furniture does not matter. What matters is the manipulation of
      consumer emotions to establish associations between the service and
      the emotions being played upon.

      Most other times, however, racist stereotypes of the Chinese were
      used in trade cards to promote products that had a stronger
      connection to those stereotypes. Trade cards is an American trade
      card for a pest control product called "Rough on Rats." It shows a
      Chinese male about to eat a rodent.

      The advertising premise for this product is based on the stereotype
      that Chinese eat rats and mice and are therefore good rodent
      exterminators. The Chinese become part of the commercial image of
      the commodity, in other words, the Chinese have become "commercial

      Trade cards manufacturers exploited other racist stereotypes of the
      Chinese. The Ching Collection has a number of trade cards
      advertising laundry-related products, such as soaps, detergents,
      wringers, and celluloid waterproof collars, cuffs, and shirt bosoms.
      Trade card for "Lavine Soap" capitalizes on the stereotype of
      Chinese Americans as laundrymen. If a Chinese person endorses a
      particular soap, then that soap must be good. After all, it
      is 'common knowledge' that all Chinese are laundrymen. Therefore,
      Chinese laundrymen make the perfect commercial mascots for laundry

      The Chinese drawn in this trade card have a cheerful quality to
      them, as if to say, "We'd be happy to wash your laundry. That's what
      we do." They are also drawn diminutively to fit in a person's hand.
      Most commercial mascots are diminutive and have a "cute" quality to
      them. Some claim such depictions are positive and show respect to
      the Chinese for being good laundrymen. However, in the final
      analysis, the qualities of these commercial mascots (cheerfulness,
      smallness, and cutenes) trivialize and gloss over the suffering,
      hardship, or injustice that Chinese American laundrymen endured in
      nineteenth-century reality.

      A Glimpse of History through Trade Cards

      White labor in the late nineteenth century rallied to stop the flow
      of Chinese immigration into the United States and chanted "The
      Chinese Must Go!"

      This rallying cry shows up in trade cards and demonstrates the
      political stance that trade cards often took. The above-mentioned
      Rough on Rats trade card uses the slogan "They Must Go" to refer not
      only to the rats, but also to the Chinese. Some cards advertised
      that their product was the solution to the "Chinese Question."
      Advertising cards for laundry products and laundry-related products
      tended to use this approach.

      A good example is a trade card that's a fold-out card advertising
      the Peerless Wringer. At the top are the words "The Chinese Question
      Solved by the Peerless Wringer." At the bottom are the words, "What
      makee dis?" said bland Ah Sin. Said Dennis, "Put your pigtail in."
      When the card is folded out, the bottom caption reads, "Ah Sin
      obeys, though rather slow! The Question solved, Chinese must go."

      This trade card shows the consumer how to solve the "Chinese
      Question." The message is: if you buy the wringer, you can do your
      own laundry, which means the Chinese will have no business, then the
      Chinese will leave, and hence the Chinese Question will be solved.
      In advertising psychology, not only is the quality of the product
      itself promoted, but so are its supposed benefits. Aside from clean
      laundry, you will get the side benefit of forcing the Chinese to

      In addition to reflecting the political and nativist sentiments of
      the time period, trade cards also reflected some of the hostility
      (emotional and physical) that white people directed at Chinese
      Americans. Historians can gauge racist sentiment against Chinese
      Americans in the late nineteenth century through trade card
      depictions as well as depictions in other forms of media.

      One recurring theme frequently found in trade cards is "pigtail
      pulling." The Chinese men wore queues that were often pulled or cut
      for white amusement. This mean-spiritedness shows up in a number of
      trade cards and hints at the violent tendencies many white people
      harbored toward Chinese immigrants. Violence was not just targeted
      against Chinese adults, but against Chinese children as well.
      Several trade cards in the Ching Collection show Chinese boys with
      their pigtails being pulled by white boys. A French trade card shows
      a Chinese boy's queue being pulled so hard that he is decapitated
      over a sharp rail.

      Trade cards with depictions of juvenile violence directed at Chinese
      and Chinese Americans indicate an overt and deeply rooted form of
      racist hate existing within white society at the time. The fact that
      white children would commit acts of hate against the Chinese
      demonstrates that overt racism was very much a part of American

      "When I first came," Andrew Kan told an interviewer in 1924, forty-
      four years after his arrival, "Chinese treated worse than dog. Oh,
      it was terrible, terrible. At that time all Chinese have queue and
      dress same as in China. The hoodlums, roughnecks and young boys pull
      your queue, slap your face, throw all kind of vegetables and rotten
      eggs at you." "The Chinese were in a pitable condition in those
      days," recalled Huie Kin in his account of San Francisco's Chinatown
      during 1870s. "We were simply terrified; we kept indoors after dark
      for a fear of being shot in the back. Children spit upon us as we
      passed by and called us rats."

      Trade card depictions of Chinese children as the recipients of hate
      violence demonstrate even more profoundly the high level of
      Sinophobia and racism that permeated American culture in the late
      nineteenth century.


      Additional research is needed on the trade cards in the Ching
      Collection. One difficult area of research involves dating. If trade
      cards are to serve as windows into years past and as cultural and
      political barometers, then their copyright dates and dates of usage
      need to be identified.

      Most of the Ching cards bear no dates.

      A second area that deserves further attention is the popularity of
      these particular trade cards. There are indications of their
      popularity, especially when the Ching Collection has multiple copies
      of one card or trade cards stamped with addresses from London,
      France, and Germany as well as all over the United States.

      Further studies might provide historical patterns in the depiction
      of Chinese American: did the caricatures of the Chinese become more
      grotesque and exaggerated during certain periods, and if so, did
      that parallel an increasing anti-Chinese sentiment of the times? The
      cultural artifacts found in the Ching Collection provide a forgotten
      piece of Americana and, more important, an aspect of Chinese America
      that has not before been considered.

      The Ching Project would like to thank Dr. Marilyn J. Boxer, Vice
      President, Office of Academic Affairs at SFSU, for providing
      research, travel, and work-study support. Research support was also
      received from SFSU's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.
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