Sunday 28 January 2018

Trade cards and postcards: Selling Wm. Bell's pianos

Imagine that you are going with your family to buy a piano in late Victorian Guelph. Having looked at the different makes and models, you have settled on a Bell Piano, a quality instrument made right here in the Royal City at the Bell Organ and Piano factory on Macdonnell Street! The whole family troops excitedly to Chas. W. Kelly & Son's music store at 33 Wyndham Street (current home to City Pawnbrokers), the local sales agent for Bell.

In the store, the final decision is confirmed as everyone gathers around the piano soon to join you in the parlor of your handsome abode. Having made the financial and delivery arrangements, Charles Kelly smiles and hands you your copy of the bill of sale and, as a bonus, some trade cards. The cards have an intriguing, colored picture on one side and a drawing of the nearby Bell factory on the other. The children want the cards for their collections! Alright, but only in exchange for practicing on the piano every day! A deal is struck.

Picture postcards have long been used as advertisements for businesses. Before the advent of the picture postcard, many businesses used "trade cards" for this purpose instead. A trade card is typically a small card made out of heavy paper that combines pictures and text for the purpose of promoting a business. Trade cards originated in the 18th century in western Europe and spread to North America with the colonists (Hubbard 2012).

When picture postcards appeared in Canada in the Edwardian era, most businesses made the switch from trade cards to advertising postcards, that is, postcards that combined promotional text and pictures.

In Guelph, one of the most prolific users of trade cards was the Bell Organ and Piano Co. I have traced the history of the Company and its clock tower in a previous posting. It was founded in 1864 by William Bell and his brother Robert but soon taken over by William himself. It became quite successful, reaching its zenith in the 1880s when the new factory and clock tower were built. At the time, the company billed itself as the biggest producer of organs in the British Empire.

It was around this time that advertising cards for the Company seem to have begun to circulate. Here is an example, which is typical for American trade cards of its era:

The picture shows both the front and back. The front features a generic picture of a girl with a dolly and a basket. Space is left front and back for text that describes the business using the card.

Curiously, as the alert reader may have noticed, nowhere is there an organ or piano in sight. In fact, no trade card that I have seen for the Bell Organ and Piano Co. features a musical instrument. It was typical for instrument makers to feature instruments in their trade cards, as the Boston Public Library's gallery on Flickr demonstrates. So, the Bell Co. must have had a particular reason for not following convention, though it can only be guessed at. My own suspicion is that Bell was more concerned to show off the international reach of his business and its fit within the well-to-do lifestyle of his era. In the card above, the text emphasizes Bell organs and pianos as the "standard instruments of the world." Modern advertising psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this approach "social proof," where the implicit approval of others for a product is displayed as an inducement for the viewer to approve of the product as well. After all, if people around the world like Bell pianos, so will you!

The picture of a young girl might remind viewers of the duty of upwardly-mobile parents to ensure that their daughters have all the customary feminine accomplishments, such as being able to play and sing at the piano.

Another Bell trade card shows an even higher degree of specialization.

The front shows a colored drawing of an "Ice Palace" framed by a patriotic maple leaf and a shield identifying the advertiser. The back shows an impressive drawing of the Bell Organ and Piano factories on Carden Street, the smoke of industry belching forth from their chimneys.

The "Ice Palace" is a building made of ice for the Montreal Winter Carnival of 1883, which handily dates the trade card to the mid 1880s. The structure was made with 500 lb. blocks of ice cut from the St. Lawrence and assembled in what was then called Dominion Square.

Here is a photo of the 1883 palace, taken by noted Montreal photographer William Notman & Son:

(Courtesy of the McCord Museum, Montreal.)

Ice palaces of larger and more elaborate design were constructed for the Carnival through 1889. The Ice Palace exemplified the kind of thing that a well-to-do Canadian might travel to see as a winter tourist.

Other trade cards of the same design displayed different items of interest to well-heeled Canadians. Here are the fronts of two more (the backs are the same as above):

The top card shows an image of Niagara Falls, still a premiere regional tourist attraction today. The bottom shows a picture of the S.S. Parisian, which first sailed in 1881 on the north Atlantic route. As the drawing shows, the Parisian was a hybrid ship, propelled mainly by steam engine but also equipped with masts and sails, just in case. Today, the Parisan is best remembered as one of the ships that responded to the distress signals of the Titanic in 1912. She did not find any survivors.

As with the first one, these trade cards evoke not musical instruments as such but rather the lifestyle of the potential customers of the Bell Organ and Piano Co. The Company has its quarters in an impressive, world-class facility in Guelph, with offices throughout the province. Its products comport well with the lifestyle of upwardly-mobile Canadians who might hop on a train to Niagara Falls, Montreal, or even to take ship to the Old Country.

The variety of pictures also reflects an awareness of how trade cards of the era circulated. They were given out to customers who expressed an interest in a company's products and also with the products upon purchase. One reason was perhaps to look for repeat business. Another reason was that some people collected these cards or circulated them among family and friends. Having a variety of cards on offer might result in a broader interest in the cards and, thus, more market exposure for the Company and its offerings.

Around the same time that Bell Organ and Piano Co. started circulating these trade cards, changes began to take place in the postcard market. Previously, postcards had no illustrations; regulations stipulated that a message should appear on one side and an address on the other. (See a German example in this posting about F.C. Harrison of the O.A.C.) Yet, advances in printing technologies allowed for the inclusion of small illustrations on inexpensive cards.

Some European makers began to include small illustrations that left sufficient space for messages or addresses. Postcards featuring illustrations on the address side of the card became popular souvenirs at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Postcards of this design were officially allowed under Canadian regulations in 1895. Businesses began to produce them for correspondence and advertising.

Ever sensitive to the latest advertising trends, Bell got in on the act. Below is a trade postcard printed for Bell and mailed to Mr. G.N. Ackerman of Norwood, Ontario, postmarked in Guelph on 8 April 1901.

Ever consistent, the card does not feature any musical instruments.

The card looks like a kind of hybrid. Like earlier trade cards, it features a picture of the Bell Organ and Piano Co. factories in Guelph as well as printed text lauding the Company. Like later postcards, it contains spaces expressly for an address and a message. Unlike later postcards, the illustration is a small one printed on the address side instead of on the opposite side, by itself.

Perhaps the most significant difference between this advertising postcard and previous trade cards was that this card could be sent through the mail just by sticking a stamp and address on it. Postcards rule!

Time moved on. The modern form of postcard found its way to Canada around 1904, where an image dominates one side while the other is divided into halves, one for an address and the other for a message. Because of this design, such cards are referred to as "divided back" among deltiologists, that is, people who study postcards.

Still keen on trade postcards, the Bell Organ and Piano Co. came out with a new set. It will not surprise you to learn that these cards do not feature organs, pianos, or other musical instruments. Instead, they feature images of young women, perhaps English actresses, whose job, it seems, is to confirm that to own a Bell piano would be a beautiful thing indeed. Here is one example:

The young lady sports a fashionable dress and broad "Merry Widow Hat," items made internationally popular by Guelph's own Lady Duff-Gordon. Perhaps this young woman should be viewed as a predecessor to the modern promotional model (or "booth babe").

This card is also the only Bell trade postcard that I know of that was actually postally used. The message reads:

from Luella Barrett // Dear Sister: I am well & hope you are the same. This girl on this card is called the Bell Princes [sic]
It is addressed to Miss Della Barrett, Natural Bridge, N.Y., Route 1 and was sent from Sydenham, Ontario (near Owen Sound). The message suggests that Luella had some experience with a Bell Co. representative. It may be that she got the card while shopping for a piano. Was she due to have music lessons?

Unfortunately, there are no later Bell Organ and Piano Co. trade postcards that I am aware of. The company was at its height in the 1880s, when its first trade cards appeared. It was sold to a British syndicate in 1888 but seems to have declined over the years. It was sold to a Brantford syndicate in 1928 but went bust in 1931, the Great Depression having administered the coup de grace.

Still, in the late Victorian era, the Bell Organ and Piano Co. was a world leader in production of those instruments. In addition to its wares, its advertising trade cards and postcards carried its name and the Royal City with it far and wide. Today, the persistence of the Company in advertising with these cards provides us with an interesting opportunity to see how they were used for commercial promotion at the dawn of the golden age of postcards.

Your piano arrives at last and it looks beautiful. The neighbors will be jealous!

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