As we have previously explored in the blog, Pepys liked to collect ephemeral and everyday items which have now become rarities. Another such collection is a group of 17th century trade cards which Pepys had bound into albums.
During the 17th Century London was becoming a thriving metropolis, with shopping as a leisure activity dramatically increasing. Pepys often mentions in his diary going to the Royal Exchange and the New Exchange (situated on Threadneedle Street and the Strand respectively). They were both centres of luxury goods, but also acted as venues to hear the latest information about shipping, foreign affairs and matters concerning the Navy. The Royal Exchange was destroyed in the Great Fire of London, and thus the New Exchange benefitted from its demise. However, the Royal Exchange was rebuilt in 1669 on an enlarged site. Another shopping area was Old London Bridge, also badly damaged in the fire.
Foreign visitors to London commented on the commerce and overseas trade: The French physician Samuel Sorbeière said that ‘perhaps there is no City in the World that has so many, and such Fine Shopps’.
These trade cards, then, are an early form of advertising for the shops and the pictorial element of the cards almost certainly would have been replicated on the shops’ signs outside their premises. Buildings were not assigned street numbers until the mid-18th century, and so the shop sign was very important in distinguishing one business from another. The engraving work on these trade cards is of an exceedingly high standard. This may have been the reason why Pepys thought it was worth adding these to his albums of prints, and is consistent with his enthusiasm for collecting ephemeral items.
These trade cards increase our understanding of the history of commerce, and also are a useful primary source for social historians. The images above show two interesting examples of these cards. The first shows surgical instruments commonplace in the time of Pepys, and the second is a fine depiction of a three-masted galleass alluding to the importance of maritime trading.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Galinou, M. (ed) (2004): City merchants and the arts 1670-1720. Wetherby : Oblong for the Corporation of London.
Heal, A. (1948): ‘17th-century booksellers’ and stationers’ tradecards’, Alphabet & Image, Vol.8.
Heal, A. (1933): ‘Samuel Pepys : his trade cards’ The connoisseur, Vol. 92.
Heal, A. (1931): ‘Old London Bridge tradesmen’s cards and tokens.’ In : in Home, Gordo: Old London Bridge. London, John Lane, the Bodley Head.
Latham, R.C. and Matthews, W. (eds) (1983): The diary of Samuel Pepys. Volume 10 : Companion. London : Bell & Hyman.