Harry Twyford Peters was born in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1881, the son of Samuel T. Peters and Adeline Peters (née Mapes Elder). Peters entered the coal business after graduating from Columbia College in 1903. He worked at Williams and Peters, his father’s firm, later becoming a partner and its president. Peters inherited $500,000 dollars upon the death of his father in 1921–the equivalent of over $6 million dollars by today’s standard–making him a very wealthy man.
Peters was an avid collector of American prints and a leading authority on the firm Currier & Ives, a prolific American printmaking firm that operated out of New York City. With generous support from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, the Museum has begun to digitize Peters’ extensive collection of trade cards, and manuscripts.
In May of 1876, the Prussian-born American lithographer Louis Prang (1824-1909) set up his booth at the American Centennial fair in Philadelphia and began to print trade cards for fairgoers. Trade cards–a predominantly visual precursor to modern-day business cards, first introduced to the US in the 18th century and updated with color in printing in the 1840s–were initially used as a form of advertising by local businesses. Eventually eclipsed by magazine advertising, trade cards enjoyed a brief period of commercial prominence in North America from the early 1860s to the late 1880s. Initially, small businesses would commission the cards in small orders from local lithographers and craftsmen. Businessmen would commission specific images relevant to their trades from local engravers, print the name and address of their business on the back, and then distribute them among their customer base. Ideally, trade cards would make a visual impression, leaving the name of the tradesperson’s business in mind for future purchases. Usually, this visual impression would be left by lithography.
Having been part of everyday commerce for well over a century, Prang–a fascinating figure in his own right, a Georgist who fled Prussia after his involvement in German revolutionary activities in 1848–brought an interesting innovation to the field of trade card lithography . Prang’s 1876 booth promised the innovation of stock trade cards–cards whose images were broadly applicable to a wide range of uses. Historian Jennifer M. Black argues in her 2009 paper “Corporate Calling Cards: Advertising Trade Cards and Logos in the United States 1876-1890” that the American Centennial was where trade cards became a true token of American economy, visually linking large corporate brand- recognition between states and hamlets. In addition, Black argues that Prang’s innovation of stock cards, and the fact that they were distributed so widely at the American Centennial was instrumental in elevating stock cards’ role in the US economic culture. Black writes that “trade cards fused consumption with entertainment, gift culture, and sentimentalism.” Through a certain economic-cultural lens, trade cards were a perfect summary of American culture: At once whimsical, frivolous, pseudo-relational and deeply economically motivated. In short, according to Black, trade cards’ function followed two primary avenues: One economic, the other expressive.
Elsewhere at the fair, Mary Florence Potts (1850-1922) was extolling the virtues of her recently patented invention, the “Cold Handle Sad Iron.” Potts, a self-described “inventress,” came of age in a time when irons were heavy metal behemoths that weighed anywhere between five and ten pounds and required dense mittens during use in order to avoid burns. Potts’ invention improved the traditional iron in two primary ways. First, her patent was the first to include multiple bases to the iron, so that the person ironing would not have to pause the work while waiting for the iron to heat back up again–they could simply keep an extra base warming during the first segment of ironing, then swap out bases when the first cooled down. Second, as the name of her patent suggests, Potts’ iron posed no real threat to the ironer, temperature-wise. Whereas burns and mittens were a part-and-parcel aspect of ironing in the past, Potts’ iron made it so that people, usually women, could iron in relative comfort.
Born in 1880, Harry T. Peters would have barely missed the trade card Heyday, and the revelation that was Potts’ cold-hand iron. But he held a collection of documents that reflects both Prang’s innovation in the trade card-sphere, and Potts’ invention of the cold-handle sad iron: That is, a lithographic trade card extolling the virtues of Mary Potts’ new invention.