Another, very cherished reader sent me even more information (link here) related to the Fairbanks Soap Company ads, this more general in scope. It helps put into perspective what I found so fascinating about the ads in the first place. I’ll reprint an excerpt below:

To put the situation in historical context, it should be noted that by 1883 the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had been declared unconstitutional. That ruling alone provided for renewed and widespread discrimination against blacks in public places everywhere.

Moreover, by the 1880s blacks were being viewed as an economic threat even in the Northern cities that had once seemingly tolerated their migration from the South. Given that most trade card publishers and major advertisers were located in such key cities, the results were not surprising.

Writing for the northern-based Century Magazine in 1883, Richard Gilder declared, “… the negroes constitute a peasantery wholly untrained in, and ignorant of, those ideas of constitutional liberty and progress which are the birthright of every white voter . . . they are gregarious and emotional rather than intelligent, and are easily led in any direction by white men of energy and determination.”

Thus there was a commercial edge to be gained in vile and offensive black trade cards.

“By ridiculing blacks,” comments Dave Cheadle author of the book Victorian Trade Cards, “advertisers gained the approval of many of their customers, and customer approval was everything when it came to sales.”

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