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Tools of the Trade: 19th- and 20th-Century Architectural Trade Catalogs

August 4, 2015–October 13, 2015

Trade literature—also known as trade, manufacturers’, or commercial catalogs—has been an indispensable tool of the architecture and design profession ever since its popularization in the late 19th century. The earliest precursors to modern trade literature emerged from European publishers and merchants in the 15th and 17th centuries. However, given the degree to which the United States would come to dominate this field, it may arguably be Benjamin Franklin’s book, fireplace, and stove catalogs of 1744 to which the legacy is rightfully owed. Created by merchants and manufacturers to promote their products and services, these publications are among the most widespread forms of early American advertising.

Technological advances of the Industrial Revolution and modernizations following the Civil War brought advances in printing technology that both reduced production costs and improved the quality of printed materials, making the publication of primarily visual materials more viable. And America’s westward expansion, fueled by the Homestead Act of 1862 and the growth of railroads, set the stage for the introduction of the mail order catalog, the first mass-distributed trade literature. By appealing to rural consumers who wanted the selection and pricing of the big city and a “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back” assurance, Montgomery Ward tapped into a growing market that by 1897 was already generating nearly $7 million in annual sales. Architectural building materials were commonly marketed in trade catalogs as early as the 1850s in such publications as Porter’s Stone Dressing Machine (New York, 1855) and the Buffalo Iron Eagle Works catalog of 1854. Beginning around the turn of the century, companies such as Sears Roebuck, Aladdin, Hodgson, and many others started selling “kit houses”—inexpensive, customizable mail order homes shipped straight from the factory for assembly either by the new homeowner or a local contractor. Similarly, businesses such as the William A. Radford Company sold catalogs of well-crafted building plans at various levels of affordability for families and entrepreneurs wishing to build an attractive structure without having to pay an architect's commission.

Despite their ephemeral nature, the trade catalogs featured in this exhibiton remain important primary resources for the study of historical design and construction practices and of trends in both industry and culture.

"Suggestions for the Color Effects in Terra Cotta," 1927. National Terra Cotta Society, New York, NY.