Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.

Images of Women on Clipper Ship Sailing Cards


In the mid-nineteenth century, ship owners and shipping lines used sailing cards to advertise voyages of clipper ships. These cards, slightly larger than today’s postcards, announced that Ship A would leave Departure Point B for Destination C on or about Date D, and that you should contact Agent E if you had goods and/or yourself to transport. Shipping managers sent cards by private courier to commission merchants and exporters, and these cards were posted any place that might catch the eye of a potential customer. Most clipper cards advertised sailings from New York and Boston to San Francisco.

The casual observer might associate clipper cards with the California Gold Rush. While the discovery of gold had certainly kicked the building of clipper ships into high gear, the Gold Rush ended in the early 1850s. People and goods continued to come to California, but increasingly this was by steamship and, later, railroads. The heyday of the clipper card was between about 1856 and 1868, a time when the clipper ship industry was actually in decline.

Just about anything imaginable was pictured on a clipper ship sailing card at some time or other. Illustrated cards often sported nautical imagery, knights and warriors, characters from mythology, patriotic scenes, historical figures, and Native Americans.

And, there were women. Sometimes they assumed one of the roles just listed; often, they were just . . . women.

Images of Women on Clipper Ship Sailing Cards

Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards

Gallant warriors charging into battle. Frontier conquerors. Wild landscapes. Noble Savages. Patriotic images from the early republic. Glorious clipper ships sailing to distant lands. Such visions might resemble sensational Hollywood depictions of the wild United States frontier. In fact, they represent one of Readex’s most interesting collections of nineteenth-century ephemera. Known as Clipper Ship Sailing Cards, they offer scholars a myriad of opportunities to explore relationships between maritime commerce, cultural representations of U.S. expansionist policies, and mid-nineteenth constructions of gender.

When gold was discovered on the American River near Sacramento, California, in January of 1848, news spread quickly and northeastern clipper ship companies scrambled to transport large numbers of prospectors to the west coast as fast as possible. Scholars estimate that within ten years, well over 500,000 men made the trip, with most braving the long voyage in clipper ships sailing around the tip of South America. In order to compete for passengers, ship companies began promoting the size, weight and speed of their ships by displaying 4 x 6 inch, vividly illustrated cards in office windows throughout port districts of cities such as Boston and New York.

Nineteenth Century Imperial Manhood in Clipper Ship Cards

The Development of the American Advertising Card

Advertising cards, also known as trade cards, were issued by businesses to advertise their wares and services. They appeared in England in the seventeenth century, eventually following the colonists to America and coming into use here in the early eighteenth century. Advertising cards changed little for more than 100 years, but then made up for lost time by evolving rapidly over the last quarter of the nineteenth century. And then, they all but disappeared.

At every stage of their existence, American trade cards reflected the state of the country. Before there were large companies, trade cards advertised individual merchants and craftsmen. Cards were produced by local printers and engravers, solely in black and white and usually without illustration.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, businesses grew in size. This expansion included printing establishments, where advances in printing technology yielded quality improvements and the option of color. All of this is documented on advertising cards. And as national pride, power, and confidence swelled, the ethos of “America Ahead” imbued many trade cards of the late nineteenth century.

The American Broadsides and Ephemera, Series I digital archive contains 129 different genre-based repositories, one of which is Advertising Cards. Entries for nearly four thousand trade cards reside therein. We will use six examples from this archive to map the development of the American advertising card.

1774: Philip Godfrid Kast, Pharmacist

The Development of the American Advertising Card

Welcome to The Readex Report

This online publication explores diverse aspects of digital historical collections and provides insight into web-based resources, including the Archive of Americana and Archive of International Studies.

Stay in Touch

Sign up to receive product news, special offers and invitations.

Recent Issues

Back to top