Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Trade Card Designs

by Kevin MacDonnell (MacDonnell Rare Books)


I began my researches into the trade card designs of Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1997, so Denise Knight's article in the last issue of ATCQ on Gilman's involvement in designing many of the Soapine trade cards captured my attention. After nearly a year of fruitless searching, I contacted the Gilman archives at Radcliffe, and in May of 1998 obtained copies of the drawings and finished cards that were retained by Gilman herself, including a remarkable series of "three ages of woman" drawings and two impressive store hanger sheets (not individual cards). As my research progressed I began assembling collections of the Soapine cards that Gilman designed, and offered them for sale to collectors of her written works. With each purchase, I included a copy of the Soapine documentation I had obtained from Radcliffe. But Gilman was involved in designing trade cards for several other companies besides Soapine, and some of the drawings were difficult to connect to any known trade cards from any company, so I continued my time-consuming and difficult research into those works, and did not make my non-Soapine documentation available to anyone, wishing to present a complete account of Gilman's trade card designs when I published my work. In the meantime, I was flooded with calls and emails from self-described "researchers" who wanted me to provide them with my documentation. Much to my amusement and disgust, most of these requests came from people using fake names, or from emails with no name at all, and many became angry when a lowly bookseller would not hand over the fruits of his ongoing labor so they could publish it under their own (real) names. I find it curious that some of the Soapine materials I supplied with cards that I sold found their way into Knight's article (erroneously identified as cards and not store-hangers, an error easy to make if one does not examine my photocopies carefully). I found it especially curious that she does not touch on Gilman's non-Soapine work even though she claims one of her sources to be the same Radcliffe archive that was brimming with Gilman's non-Soapine card designs. Such are the joys of bookselling.



Now that Denise Knight has spilled the beans on Gilman's Soapine designs, I feel this is the appropriate time to share the results of my own research into Gilman's Soapine cards, as well as my research-in-progress into the cards she designed for other firms. I will also correct and expand the meager "research" of Ms. Knight. The basis for my research, besides the entries Gilman made in her diaries, are a small archive of drawings, both finished and rough sketches, and finished cards, which were preserved by Gilman, whose daughter, Katharine, made the following note about them: "Advertising Cards (& a few pencil ones) by C. P. G. by which she earned money when young." Included in this archive, besides the sketches and individual cards, are two unique store hanger sheets, each of which display the designs of a series of six cards, advertising that every purchaser of a "one pound package or 2 small packages of Soapine is entitled to one Gilt Card." These store hangers are significant for several reasons. First, they clearly establish which cards were in the first series of cards mentioned by Gilman in her diary, and they confirm the groupings postulated by Dave Cheadle in his book on Soapine cards. In addition, when studied in conjunction with Gilman's diary entries and some of the individual cards that Gilman also preserved in her archive, they confirm approximate issue dates for two dozen different Soapine cards.


The Soapine Series of 1881-2

The first store hanger includes all six "fancy back" cards pictured by Cheadle (p. 14). Cheadle speculated that these cards were related to each other because of the common typographic design used on their versos, and this store hanger confirms that Kendall did indeed issue them simultaneously as a series. Included in this series is the "lady archer" card which Gilman records finishing on February 8, 1881. On May 22, 1881, Gilman noted that the set of cards she was then working on was to be increased to a dozen, and sure enough the second store hanger, also showing six cards in a series, includes at least one design ("lady and clothesline") for which an original drawing is preserved in Gilman's archive.  Clearly, these two store hangers represent the first series of a dozen cards which Gilman designed, and based on her diary entries, it is clear that the "fancy back" cards were issued first, probably by mid 1881. Based upon Gilman's rate of completion for other cards, it is reasonable to assume that this series was finished by the end of 1881 or early in 1882.


The Soapine "crate" Series of 1882-3

In her May 22, 1881 diary entry, Gilman also noted that she was being called upon to design "another similar set later." Preserved as individual cards in the Gilman archive are eight of the cards pictured by Cheadle in the "confusing" Kendall "crate series." Those eight cards (not counting the variants) account for all but the first four cards Cheadle (p. 16) pictures in this series. Cheadle points out that those four cards are the only ones not "in versions both with and without mention of Soapine" and Cheadle postulates that they must therefore have been the last four cards in this series. Interestingly, of the eight cards preserved by Gilman, not a single card is one of the variants mentioning Soapine. Six of those eight cards that she kept ("animated soap bars," "black princess in French crate," "kids play telephone on French crates," "ironing day," "sponge battle, wash tubs, Home soap crate" and "splashing rain barrel, French crate") are exactly the same as those illustrated by Cheadle. But two of the cards are unrecorded variants: Gilman's own copy of "man in pillory" shows a Home soap crate (instead of a Soapine crate), and her own copy of "watering plants in soap boxes" shows two French crates (instead of both a French crate and a Soapine crate). Clearly, Gilman designed the earliest versions of this series, before the designs were altered to promote Soapine. Cheadle is incorrect in his speculation that these cards were being used before 1878 to advertise French Laundry Soap, and then altered after the introduction of Soapine. Rather, it is now clear that Gilman designed this series after she completed the first series, probably in 1882 and 1883, and initially designed it for use in advertising French Laundry Soap. Her work designing trade cards probably ended sometime around March or April, 1884 (based on her final diary entry that alludes to the subject), and it seems certain that the eight cards she designed for this series were produced by that date. It is most likely, based on the convincing stylistic evidence presented by Knight, that Gilman also designed the four final cards in this series, and an unfinished drawing of a similar fisherman also points to her probable design of at least one of these four cards (see below). But copies of these four cards do not survive in her archive (which had not survived wholly intact by the time her daughter had it in her possession), and because those same four cards do not exist in variant form (like the eight cards she did preserve), there is a remote possibility that those cards were not designed by Gilman, and were produced by somebody else after her work ended in 1884. But the dates for the other eight cards in this series can be established as 1882-3, and the evidence suggests she designed the other four cards, which would date them no later than 1884.


The Monster Letters Card

Also preserved in the Gilman archive is an example of the "monster letters" card (Cheadle, p. 19). Gilman's daughter's note on the cover sheet of her mother's trade card archive, and the fact that the other cards Gilman preserved happen to correspond to the two Soapine series she describes in her diary provides ample evidence that Gilman was in the habit of saving finished examples of the cards of her own design. On that basis, this card may now also be attributed to her.


The Large Soapine Cards

Gilman's designs for the "lady and clothesline" and "French maid washes on rocks" are now clearly established, both cards being included in the two series of her design. In the Gilman archives are preserved two large store cards based on her design, each measuring approximately 7 1/2 x 9 inches. The large version of "lady and clothesline" closely resembles the two variants of the trade card pictured by Cheadle (p. 15) but the lettering on the barrel at lower left reads "For Washing & Cleansing" instead of "Soapine Washes Anything" and the top and bottom of the large card carry additional captions for "Kendall M'F'G Co's" "Dirt Killer" and "Providence, R. I." The surviving example is zig-zag cut at the top and hole-punched as if it were preserved as a proof.

The large card version of "French maid washes on rocks" includes the image of the French maid, but is otherwise unlike the trade card. The background shows an ancient arched stone bridge and French country-side with a man in a small boat floating on the river in front of the bridge. The border incorporates ten bullfrogs in various positions. This card appears to be a finished card rather than a proof. While either of these cards could have been used as soap crate labels, no such examples have been recorded. The only designs I can record for soap crate labels are the whale label and French Laundry Soap label depicted on cards in the "soap crate series" (Cheadle, pp. 16-8). Actual examples of these labels are documented as well (Cheadle, p. 2, whale label; and the personal collection of Donna MacDonnell for a fragmentary French Laundry Soap label on the original French Laundry Soap crate).


Two Rejected Soapine designs

Included among Gilman's rough drawings are two Soapine designs that were apparently never used. The first shows a young boy falling off a three-legged stool in front of a window while another young boy peeks in through another window at the far left. The words "Soapine Soap" are written on the window from which the boy is falling, and although the drawing is much faded, the pose suggests he was writing these words on the glass when he lost his balance and fell.

The second drawing depicts a hatted male figure fishing while he straddles a log that is lettered "SOAPINE." The drawing is unfinished and it is difficult to tell whether the figure is young or old, and his clothing shows no detail. It is worth noting that one of the last four cards in Kendall's "crate series" also depicts a fisherman, this time standing by a gate. In this card the fisherman is a bearded man wearing a hat with a shape and brim identical to that in Gilman's unfinished drawing. While this drawing does not correspond to any known card, it does provide stylistic evidence of Gilman's probable design of the "crate series" card depicting the fisherman, which in turn would suggest that she designed the other three cards at the end of that series.



The height of the trade card craze was over less than ten years after Charlotte Gilman designed her last soap card, but the Kendall Manufacturing Company remained in the soap business for another seventy years. The ultimate fate of the Kendall Soap Company has always been a question with no firm answer, and only recently did I track down the story of its last years. So far as was known until now, the Kendall Soap Company moved to Syracuse, New York in 1929, and there the trail grew cold, 102 years after the company had been founded.

I located a few Kendall family descendants, who had a few mementos that must have come from whatever company archive existed toward the end, but a diligent search of institutional and public libraries failed to locate any surviving archive for the Kendall Soap Company. It seems most likely that whatever archive existed in the late 1940s was stripped of souvenirs by the family, and the rest soon discarded. The family descendants I spoke with knew that the company was still in business until the late 1940s, but had no knowledge of any archives or business papers that might have survived, nor any idea of what happened to the company itself.

My inquiries finally led me to the son of the last general sales manager for Kendall Manufacturing Company, a job his father held in the 1940s and 1950s, who confirmed that the company closed its doors in the late 1950s. His father then bought the name "Soapine" and formed the Kendall-Castile Corporation on November 13, 1962, and continued to make a private label brand by that name for several more years, closing down his business sometime before 1970. By the time Kendall Manufacturing Company itself closed, there were no older company records intact. In the 1950s Kendall was still making Soapine laundry detergent at a plant in Lawrence, Massachusetts operated by Lever Brothers. The cardboard boxes of Soapine laundry detergent that appear sometimes in the market these days are from the inventory on hand when that plant ceased operations, although the graphics on the boxes, unchanged since the 1880s, frequently cause them to be mistaken for relics of much earlier vintage.   



Curtis Davis Welcome Soap

Preserved in the Gilman archive along with her Soapine cards are four Curtis Davis trade cards for Welcome Soap. These four cards show many of the stylistic features previously discussed by Knight. The four cards are fairly common and each depicts two or more figures facing each other toward the center of the card. They can be described as "slender man shakes hands with rotund gentleman," "sailor greets woman with barking dog," "old man admires laughing baby in arms of maid," and "Cupid delivers pair of Valentines to pair of young ladies." The four cards comprise a series based on the common theme of "welcoming" scenes involving contrasting individuals: thin versus fat, seafarer versus landlubber, and old versus young. The fourth card, with the double Valentines shows two young ladies of opposing comportments. One is brunette and elegantly attired; the other is a blonde, in a flimsy gown with a low neckline, and she is lifting the hem of her skirt to reveal her legs. Unlike the other three cards, the contrasting individuals on this card are not welcoming each other, but instead standing side by side, inviting the obvious comparison. The extreme contrast of the two young women on this Curtis Davis trade card parallels the powerful dual themes of Gilman's stock cards for "the three ages of woman" (see below). These cards display a more confident artistic talent than Gilman's Soapine cards, and therefore probably followed her Soapine work. Welcome Soap was sold by Curtis Davis & Co. from Boston, and these cards were printed by Donaldson Brothers, Five Points, New York, the same firm that produced most of Soapine's custom trade cards, including those designed by Gilman.


James Pyle's Pearline Soap

Another card preserved in Gilman's archive is a James Pyle's Pearline Soap card. This is not a lithographed trade card, but a rather plain typographic card printed on bright pink paper, the only art work being the firm's logo, a heart with the letters "OK" surrounded by a sun-burst border. The verso of the card contains an amusing puzzle text telling the story of Adam and Eve, making clever use of numbers substituting for words, beginning with the fact that Eve 8 an apple and Adam 812, after which Eve 8124 Adam, etc., and eventually concluding that they ate a total of 81,896,864 apples. Pearline Soap was manufactured in New York, and the printer of this card is unknown. It shares no stylistic features with Gilman's documented cards. Other than her habit of keeping cards of her own design, there is no other evidence for attributing this card to Gilman.


Napheys, Pratt & Co.

Yet another finished card is preserved in the Gilman archives for Napheys, Pratt & Co., Choice Family Lard, Philadelphia. This is a business card rather than a trade card, and depicts two tumbling figures at the far left. Like the previous card it provides scant material for comparison, but does share some stylistic features with Gilman's documented work.


A Mystery Card

Finally a third card, as yet unidentified, depicts a small boy in uniform, saluting with his right hand and presenting a package in his left, with the caption below: "Everybody Likes It." This card provides scant design features for comparison, but it does share some stylistic features with Gilman's documented work.


And a Mystery Drawing

Among the drawings in Gilman's archive, only three cannot be tied directly to a finished trade card by Soapine or another company. Two of these drawings were clearly designed as Soapine trade cards, but never produced as cards. The third drawing for which no card can be found has no lettering or indication that it was produced for Soapine and depicts a young girl gazing to the left out an open window, her arms crossed and resting on the ledge. Behind her a drape is pulled back and a tassel hangs just above and to the right of her head. The style of this card is somewhat similar to Gilman's drawings for her "three ages of woman" series. That stylistic resemblance, and the fact that it contains no lettering would suggest it may have been intended as a stock card design.



Charlotte Perkins Gilman's most carefully preserved series of drawings and finished cards is a remarkable series of six stock cards depicting the "three ages of woman." Gilman must have been proud of this work and rightly so, for it displays a level of sophistication never approached in her Soapine designs. She preserved all six cards in the series, as well as the original drawings for five of those six cards, a more complete record than she bothered to keep for either of her larger Soapine series. To produce this set of cards, she drew upon a keen knowledge of the symbolic "language of flowers," a familiarity with religious iconography, well-known images from popular culture, emblems of female sexuality, and a knowledge of old master artistry. She blended all of these themes and motifs into a set of six cards (consisting of two parallel three-card sets) that reveal her dual conceptions of the three ages of woman; one secular, the other religious.

These six stock cards depict various females, each with their head enveloped by a different flower, each dressed differently, all vaguely reminiscent of the extremely popular modern images of babies dressed in flowery garb by New Zealand photographer Anne Geddes. To the modern eye, Gilman's images at first glance merely look cute, and upon closer inspection, perhaps a little freakish, but the modern viewer is not equipped to spot the visual clues, iconography, and context that would have been immediately recognized by Gilman's contemporaries. By studying the flower used on each image, the dresses, the poses, and the settings, the symbolic meanings behind these seemingly superficial cards becomes astonishingly clear.

The six cards can be divided into two distinct and parallel sequences. The first card in each series depicts a baby, the second a young girl, and the third a young woman. One sequence shows a woman's maturing through three stages of social expectations in the secular world; the other shows three parallel stages of spiritual growth in the context of religion. The contrasts between the two worlds could not be more startling, and when the symbolism and imagery used by Gilman are explored in more detail in these six images, we are given a glimpse into Gilman's early perception of the conflicting expectations placed on women in the society of the 1880s (and today). These cards can most clearly be explained by examining each card along with its parallel card, in sequence.


The Babies

The first card in the secular series shows a baby whose head is framed by a brilliant pink morning glory. In the Victorian "language of flowers" the morning glory stood for affectation. No contemporary viewer of this card could mistake the intent of this obvious symbolism. At the very same time that Gilman was laboring on these cards, an article about the language of flowers appeared in COLLIER'S CYCLOPEDIA OF COMMERCIAL AND SOCIAL INFORMATION AND TREASURY OF USEFUL AND ENTERTAINING KNOWLEDGE (1882) which listed the explicit meanings behind more than 700 kinds of flowers, some dating back thousands of years in mythology and folklore. The language of flowers was complex. For example, different kinds of roses had very different meanings, and the meaning of any flower could change with its color, whether it was a bud or a blossom, and even by its position in relation to other flowers in a drawing or bouquet. Knowledge of the "language of flowers" was far more widespread in Victorian culture than now, and young girls, the primary collectors of trade cards, were especially well-versed in this floral vocabulary because the "language of flowers" played a critical role in courtship rituals. This baby is dressed in a gown and has a doll dangling from her hand, and she stands on a fancy carved Victorian bed with a pillow, all symbolic of the affectations of Victorian materialism. 

The other baby stands in stark contrast. She is enclosed in a calla lily, the widely recognized symbol of youthful innocence, purity, and chastity. Tradition says that lilies sprang up where Eve's tears fell as she fled Paradise. The lily appears in paintings of the Annunciation, and St. Joseph is often seen in Christian art holding a lily as a sign of Mary's virginity. If the flower was not enough, this baby stands in a setting familiar in Christian iconography. She stands barefoot in water, wearing nothing but the lily that covers her body, flanked by bulrushes, and holds a cattail like an oar. The story of Moses set afloat in the Nile as a baby and being found among the bulrushes was familiar to every Victorian. The image of "Moses in the bulrushes" is an icon in Christian art, and he is sometimes shown wrapped in a white sheet that closely resembles the lily that wraps tightly around this baby. The best-known images of Moses in the bulrushes are those of Titian, Veronese, and Poussin, and variations of those images were a popular subject for prints in the 1880s, and familiar to any pious young girl. Every illustrated edition of the Bible included this image, and even Mark Twain reproduced Titian's version as the frontispiece to his best-selling book, A TRAMP ABROAD, published in 1880 --the same year Gilman began designing trade cards. This baby, a symbol of purity, posed like Moses, was nothing like the affected little baby, surrounded by the trappings of wealth.


The Young Girls

The soft pink of the morning glory around the secular baby deepens into a deep red dress when she becomes a young girl, and her head is enclosed is a yellow poppy, the instantly recognized symbol of extravagance. She is sexualized as well, as far as Victorian mores would allow such a depiction. Her waist is pulled tight and thin, a classic image of Victorian sexiness, and she wears a bodice laced tight over her bright blue blouse to accentuate her budding breasts. Her face no longer has the baby fat and round cheeks in her previous image, and she holds two emblems of fertility: a pail of splashing milk and a bouquet of fresh flowers. Her legs are apart as if she is standing tiptoe or dancing, a shopworn pose common to depictions of carefree children in Victorian children's books. She is an extravagantly sexual fertile milkmaid.

The young girl depicted in the religious sequence of the three ages of woman stands demurely with a sunflower blooming all about her head, the symbol of adoration, an ancient symbol that originated with the death of a water-nymph (Clytie) who was in love with the Sun god, Apollo. When she died, she was turned into a sunflower, and still in love with Apollo, she turned her head every day in devoted adoration of her true love, the sun, as he arced across the sky. This young girl has her feet firmly planted on the ground, even pigeon-toed, as if to signal her shyness, and her fat-cheeked face looks virtually identical to her face when a baby. No dancing tip-toe for her. Her dress is a dark muted shade of brown (no bright red and blue for her), and her hands are empty of any emblems of sexuality and are instead placed modestly in her pockets. Although she wears an apron that resembles the apron worn by the secular milkmaid, it lays flat across her chest and her arms hide her waist altogether. She is everything the carefree sexy dancing milkmaid is not.


The Young Women

The secular young woman, born to affectation and growing up with extravagance, now finds herself in the bloom of a brilliant red moss rose. Not just any rose, but the bright red tight and narrow petals of the moss rose, a symbol of voluptuous love and sexuality. And not a bud (symbolic of one to young to love) but a moss rose in unambiguous full bloom. The moss rose was a popular rose during Victorian times, as popular and readily familiar as hybrid tea roses are today. Her elaborate dress, with hoop skirt, lacy fringe, and pleated lining echo the gaudy dresses seen in the fancy fashion plates familiar to every reader of popular Victorian magazines. In her hand she holds a fan, a symbol of flirtation. Her breasts no longer need the assistance of a bodice, her arms do not hide her slender waist, and her hoop skirt amplifies her hips (exaggerated hips are an ancient symbol of fertility, a look achieved in Victorian times by hoop skirts). Her image comes as close as decorum would allow, without actually depicting a courtesan. If her neckline was cut lower, or her fan raised in a flirtatious gesture, she would have been the stereotypical Victorian hussy.

The card that depicts her spiritual counterpart is, like all the previous cards, a startling study in contrasts, and the most overstated contrast in the series. A nun stands with her head lowered in contemplation, while the petals of a deep violet wild geranium extend around her face, the symbol of steadfast piety. Her drab robe is without feminine shape and her arms cover her non-existent bosom as she clutches a rosary for counting her prayers. No bright colors, high fashion, or flirtation for her. And she is in no danger of being mistaken for a sexual object. She stands on a floor composed of octagonal tiles and alternating smaller cabochons, a floor frequently associated with European monasteries of the 17th and 18th centuries, and familiar to Victorian art-lovers through the paintings of Dutch artist Pieter de Hooch and earlier religious art.

Gilman's dual images of the three ages of woman are disturbing and raise questions whose answers are even more disturbing. Victorian society expected women to be pious and pure, but at the same time saw them as sexual objects. Did it expect them to be both at the same time? Could a woman be both, or did a woman have to choose? In these cards Gilman presents images that seem to say these roles are mutually exclusive; she certainly did not produce a third sequence of cards depicting some reconiliation of these conflicting roles. It seems doubtful that Gilman's lily-clad baby could remain pure and innocent if surrounded by the affectations of a materialistic society. And it seems impossible to reconcile the quiet adoration of the shy young girl on one card with her counterpart, the sexually-charged milkmaid. Finally, the fully blossomed vuluptuous sexuality of the young woman with her fan could not peacefully coexist in a single personality with the devout nun and her prayer beads. In her early twenties Gilman was clearly struggling with these conflicting expectations and expressing her views in her art. Her first marriage would end in disaster, she would suffer an emotional break-down, and she would flaunt convention later in life as she emerged with a surer sense of herself, but at the time she designed these six cards she was just beginning her lifelong struggle with women's dual roles and her own emotional stability. She communicated her anxiety in a way that would have been easily deciphered by any young Victorian girl looking at a complete set of these incredible trade cards.   

These cards are rigidly thematic, richly allusive, heavily laden with symbolism, and even form dual narratives --each with a beginning, a middle, and an end-- and although they contain not a word of text these six simple looking cards can rightly be viewed as their creator's first literary work, as provocative and layered with meanings as anything she ever wrote.


Who Printed These Stock Cards?

My research into this remarkable set of stock cards was still in progress when Knight's article appeared, so I am unable at this time to identify with certainty the lithographer who printed them, but the surviving cards I have located do provide some clues. All but one of the firms whose advertising I have found on these cards were Providence, Rhode Island companies. The fact that Gilman was living in Providence the entire period while she was designing trade cards and the fact that most of these stock cards seem to have been used by Providence businesses, points to a local lithography firm. Of the handful of printing firms operating in Providence during this period, I can confirm only one lithographer who produced trade cards, L. Sunderland, and unless a more likely candidate can be found in or near Providence, they are the most likely printer of these cards.  



Long after her career in trade card design ended, Gilman once again found herself selling soap. Between 1909 and 1916 Gilman edited and wrote virtually the entire contents of a progressive feminist magazine, THE FORE-RUNNER. She later claimed that the text she wrote for this magazine was enough to produce twenty-eight books. Indeed, nearly every issue of her magazine included a chapter from one of her current novels-in-progress, and she published several books whose texts had first appeared in its pages, usually in small editions of 300-500 copies. Unfortunately, her magazine never had a circulation as high as 1,000 subscribers, so she had to generate additional income from advertisements that appeared in its pages. Gilman herself wrote most of the ad copy, her initials often appearing in the corner of an ad. And what kinds of ads supported her magazine? Among others, she wrote the texts for the soap ads that ran in THE FORE-RUNNER.

By the time she was editing her own magazine she had resolved many of her conflicts about women and their roles in society, and she was happily married. In the pages of her magazine she often explored the effects of religion on women, and constantly wrote about the relative roles of men and women. She drew an image of a man and woman supporting a gender-neutral baby on top of a globe, which appeared on the front cover of every volume of her magazine, a symbol of her utopian vision of society. It is a sad irony that at this point in her life, thirty years after her youthful experience designing soap advertising cards which circulated in the hundreds of thousands, one of the nation's foremost feminists was struggling to sustain her magazine by writing soap ads that would be seen by less than 1,000 readers.



Copyright 2001 by Kevin Mac Donnell. All rights reserved. First published in The Advertising Trade Card Quarterly 8:3 (Fall) 2001


 **This article has been reprinted here with the permission of the publication and the author. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without their express written permission.



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