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The Trade Literature Collection

Collection Profile

What did assembly lines look like before Henry Ford's methods standardized them? As the United States underwent intense industrialization in the period 1870 to 1930, how were women workers portrayed in industry literature? You have acquired a very old foot-operated treadmill sewing machine with the words "Domestic Sewing Machine Co." on it. As a curator, you would like to refurbish it, but what parts are missing? Are there seed/nursery catalogs from around 1910 that would verify the original layout of the Biltmore Estate gardens?

The Smithsonian Institution Libraries curates one of the most unusual collections, trade literature: the trade catalogs and books that were part of the merchandising of American business. There are trade catalogs throughout the Smithsonian's libraries; a substantial collection is at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum library in New York City but most are housed in Washington, DC, at the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center. A Smithsonian curator estimates that fully half the information in this collection is unavailable elsewhere.

"Trade catalog" derives from the expression "to the trade," and the materials were originally produced by manufacturers and wholesalers for their salesmen to market to retailers. The Trade Literature Collection is internationally known as an extraordinary source for the history of American business, technology, marketing, consumption, and design. Trade literature includes printed or handwritten documents, usually illustrated, of items offered for sale, ranging in size from small pamphlets to oversized folios of several hundred pages. The Smithsonian collection contains more than 500,000 catalogs, technical manuals, advertising brochures, price lists, company histories, and related materials, representing more than 30,000 companies. The largest single component, primarily dealing with engineering and industry, was a gift from Columbia University. Other large collections came from the US Patent Office, Harvard University, and the Center for Research Libraries and were augmented with private collections, such as the Mel Heinz collection on machine tools and metal working and the W. Atlee Burpee and the J. Horace McFarland Collections of seed and nursery catalogs. In the early 1990s, the libraries purchased over 56,000 catalogs that had been originally owned by Philadelphia's Franklin Institute.

Researchers use the trade literature collection to determine the history of companies or individual industries, identify design styles from furniture to machinery, analyze marketing and management techniques, learn how products operated, and study their impacts on society. Since the trade literature collection covers a wide variety of American manufactured goods, it is invaluable in documenting objects in museum collections. Historians, collectors, historical preservationists, authors, industrial designers, home renovators, and patent lawyers are among the most frequent users.

Whereas contemporary catalogs are printed in the millions and distributed to consumers through the mail, early trade literature exists only in libraries. The Smithsonian Libraries is committed to cataloging and digitizing this priceless collection. Two substantial collections of sewing machine and scientific instrument catalogs are available online.

Collection Profile and Overview: Mary Augusta Thomas
Illustrations: Smithsonian Institution Libraries

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