Willimantic Thread Saves Lives! Nineteenth-Century Trade Cards at the MHS

by Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

Cloth masks
Cloth masks. Photograph by Anna Clutterbuck-Cook.

Effective May 6th, by executive order, Massachusetts residents over the age of two are required to wear a cloth face covering or mask in public spaces where social distancing is not possible. So, I imagine like many of my fellow residents of the commonwealth, I spent some time earlier this week at the sewing machine making cloth face masks (I used this great online tutorial courtesy of Gather Here in Somerville, Mass.) so that my wife and I are equipped to continue our morning walks and weekly trip to the grocery store. The act of sitting at the sewing machine, wrestling with box pleats, brought to mind a whimsical sewing-related item in the MHS collections that I had pulled for a colleague at the end of last year. Happily, I had a copy of the image that I snapped at the time — so now even though we don’t have ready access to our physical collections I’m able to share the item with all of you.

Lifeguards depicted on trade card
Lifeguards depicted on trade card produced by Willimantic Star Thread Co. (Willimantic, Conn.). Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

This delightful illustration, depicting elves leaping to the rescue of their distressed fellows with the help of Willimantic Six Cord Thread is on the front of a trade card produced by Willimantic Star Thread Co. (Willimantic, Conn.). Brightly-colored print trade cards, such as this one, were popular in the latter half of the 19th century. A precursor to the modern business card, they were made to be both eye-catching advertisements and desirable collectables in and of themselves. The colorful illustrations — with varying degrees of connection to the product or service the business offered — were often intended to be humorous, and were frequently produced in sets to create added incentive for people to collect, arrange, and display them. This Willimantic card was collected by an unknown individual and pasted into an album that now resides in the Society’s collection alongside trade cards from a variety of New England businesses. Here are several other examples from the surrounding album pages.

Horsfords trade card.
Horsfords trade card. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
American Antelope
American Antelope depicted on Arm & Hammer trade card. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.
RI State Fair trade card
Rhode Island State Fair trade card. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds over 200 specimens of these advertising cards, although having looked over most of them myself I say few are as charming as the life-saving elves. A subject search in our catalog ABIGAIL for “Advertising cards – Specimens” will provide you with a list of catalog entries — most for individual cards (descriptions only, no images sadly). While MHS staff cannot currently provide reference reproduction services as we are working remotely, you are welcome to contact our reproductions coordinator if you would like to request a quote for services upon our return to the building.

In the meantime, stay safe!