Cover image designed and painted by Patrick Smith of P.G. Smith Design
A show card is defined as an advertising sign that is traditionally hand-lettered on paper or cardstock and placed in a shop window to promote retail sales, events, or other temporary opportunities. An offshoot of sign painting, the trade of show card writing rose to proliferation in the late 19th century, helping to make show cards a ubiquitous marketing tool well into the 20th century. As a method of advertising, early show cards played an important role in the way that shops and other businesses presented their wares by drawing the attention of passersby to shop windows that, in the 19th century, were newly utilized as a way to merchandize products.
Though at a glance, show cards may seem simpler and therefore easier to design and execute than a fully hand-painted sign, a closer look reveals that they actually require a greater level of mastery. Show cards differ from signs in that they are intended to be temporary, tossed away as soon as the sale ends or the event concludes. Because of their ephemeral nature, they’re traditionally painted on porous materials such as paper or cardstock, which are unforgiveable should a mistake occur. The necessity for speed in order to make show card writing a profitable endeavor, combined with the precision required by the materials, make experienced show card writers some of the best in the sign business.
In its heyday, show card writing was touted as an egalitarian profession that gave the average, hardworking citizen an opportunity to advance in a profitable career. The Pre-Vinylite Society Show Card show explores show card writing as a significant facet of advertising and sign painting history by featuring work from sign painters, card writers, and sign enthusiasts of all skill levels whose work pays homage to “that great silent salesman—the show card.”