Trade Cards and Masculinity

Racial and ethnic images are ever-present in American advertising. So too are images of gender. Since the late nineteenth century, advertisers have depicted men and women to showcase their products, suggest appropriate consumer behavior, and foster fantasies and aspirations. In so doing, ads contribute to the ways Americans understand ideals of masculinity and femininity. Advertising is so much a part of our everyday experience that those ideals may often be taken for granted. A close examination of the ads on this website, however, suggest how much gender, race, and ethnicity have been intertwined in visual culture—indeed, they are mutually constituted. They not only convey ideas about African Americans, Asians, Latino/as, Jews, and other distinct groups, they also present white women and men as the central figures in the world of production and consumption.

Darwin Fan

Late-nineteenth-century trade cards, such as those in the Warshaw Collection, drew upon stock figures of ladies and gentlemen, maids and servants, white Americans and non-Western people of color. The advertisements reinforced familiar images from minstrelsy, the stage, world’s fairs, scientific illustrations, and magazines. They contrasted upright, even-featured white American men to effeminate Orientals and animal-like Africans. One trade card made this explicit with a picture of a Darwin Fan, which showed the evolutionary stages from the ‘savage’ to the ‘civilized,’ featuring in succession a monkey and African, Chinese, Native American, and Caucasian men.

Keystone Hayloader

Other ads, in that era of imperialism, presented a dominant Uncle Sam offering superior products to the nations and peoples of the globe. 

Uncle Sam, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Gold Dust Twins Fairbank's Gold Dust Washington Powder

In a similar vein, a popular 1910s billboard presented a robust and forceful Theodore Roosevelt returning to the United States accompanied by stereotyped African pygmies. “Roosevelt Scoured Africa,” it said, “the Gold Dust Twins Scour America.”

The go-ahead Man buys...

Theodore Roosevelt was an exemplar and advocate of a new model of masculinity that emphasized physical strength, sports, and competition as the route to male success. This ideal was widely embraced by advertisers in the early 20th century. Tobacco companies created baseball cards to promote their wares; razor manufacturers and clothing stores tied their products to athletes. “Go Ahead Man,” read the title of one clothing ad, featuring a runner on his mark and two men in stylish suits. The emphasis on physicality was, ironically, directed at affluent white men, especially those in the burgeoning urban professional and business class. Fears about such men losing their strength and virility in white-collar jobs were widespread. Roosevelt himself had given a popular speech on the “strenuous life,” and serial fiction and magazines were filled with images of cowboys, Boy Scouts, and soldiers.

Trade Cards and Masculinity