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