“Rough on Rats”
Racism and Advertising in the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century

by James Chan

One of the many functions of the mass media, aside from informing, entertaining, or persuading various segments of society, is cultural transmission. Whether the various forms of mass media intend to or not, they reflect and uphold the culture that they serve. The advertising media are no different. Embedded within our television commercials and magazine ads are the blueprints for the dominant cultural ideology, a sort of cultural DNA that is transmitted to viewers. For example, when we look at advertising, we see what roles men and women take, or are supposed to take, in our society. Certain products and services are for men, certain products and services are for women, and they reflect what men and women supposedly are, or should be, in our society. We also understand through these ads how mainstream American culture views people of color. The advertising media, like all other media, have a target audience, and in this nation that target audience is almost always white and male. Hence, advertising in this country has always mirrored white male cultural values as well as attitudes toward other cultures.

If one can understand the cultural attitudes of a society through its advertising, then one can also understand past cultural attitudes by analyzing advertising from a society’s past. I will discuss the cultural attitudes that American society (as well as other European societies) has had toward Chinese and Chinese Americans and will analyze these attitudes through advertising or trade cards, an advertising medium that is no longer in use.

Advertising/Trade Cards

Long before television commercials and radio advertisements, there was an advertising form known as “trade cards” or “advertising cards”. A trade card, as defined by the Trade Card Journal, was a “single piece of medium weight paper slightly smaller than a post card, printed with decorative images which directly or indirectly promote a commercial product, service, or event. Trade cards were used widely from the 1870s to the end of the 1890s, and were commonly distributed to the public at store counters, expositions, and through the mail.”

Trade cards were a cross between modern-day business cards and advertising flyers, although this analogy is not an adequate description of a trade card. Some had a picture (usually in color) on one side and a paragraph or two on the reverse to describe the product or service. Others would have the picture and an advertising slogan on only one side. The picture could be of the product or the benefits derived from the product, but many times the picture would have absolutely no connection to the product or service. Certain trade cards were like postcards in that the pictures were simply meant to be attractive or interesting.

Methods or producing the trade cards varied. Some were custom-made with pictures and slogans that specifically promoted the products or services. Others were mass-produced and had pictures or cartoon scenarios unrelated to the product or with a tangential connection at best. On these cards, there was usually an empty space in which a store owner could stamp the name and address of his or her business.

Supposedly, trade cards were quite popular during their era or use: The cards were clever, the buying public liked them, and we can presume, they hoped to sell the product. Soon the demand for this advertising medium grew, and with the advent of cheap color lithography firms by dozens were jumping on the trade card bandwagon. Soon every (or almost every) American home had these little gems telling them about every new product that modern technology could offer. For the average citizen, who really couldn’t afford much more than the bare necessities, these cards were avidly collected, treasured, and, most importantly, saved — perhaps as hopes and dreams of the promise of a better life somewhere in the future.

Trade cards were popular during the Victorian era, but by the late nineteenth century their popularity had tapered off. By the early twentieth century, they were no longer being produced. Today, they are little more than collectorÕs items.

At the height of their popularity during the latter half of the nineteenth century, trade cards mirrored the social, cultural, and political attitudes of the era. During this period, white America was hostile toward Chinese Americans, and the portrayals of Chinese Americans in trade cards mirrored the racism of the times. The Ching Collection has over four hundred trade cards produced mostly in the United States but also in Europe that contain racist depictions of Chinese and Chinese Americans. If the advertising media truly reflect the mainstream culture of the times, then these cards will serve as a window into America’s past. In this presentation, a small sampling of the Ching trade cards will be used as a vehicle (1) to discus racist stereotypes of Chinese Americans and their function in advertising psychology and (2) to provide a glimpse into the history of racism toward the Chinese in America.

Chinese Stereotypes in Advertising Psychology

One way to define the term “stereotype” is as a “loaded image,” in other words, and image that is associated with a set of meanings and generalities. Thus, a racial stereotype is an image imposed on a racial group that defines that racial group according to a generality or a set of generalities become associated with an image and become stereotype? It occurs through repetition. Show an image of a Chinese person eating a dog to enough people enough times, and that image will become a stereotype. Eventually, the portrayal of a Chinese person eating a dog will no longer be needed to elicit the stereotype of the Chinese as dogeaters. Simply show a Chinese person, and the stereotype of dogeating will be invoked within the viewer’s mind.

The advertising medium is designed to persuade consumers to buy, and to do so it must elicit particular emotions and ideas from within the consumer to influence him or her to buy. Stereotype can be used to elicit such emotions and ideas, whether or not the stereotypes have any logical connection to the product or service being advertised. for example, in a British trade card for a furniture store, there is a Chinese man with a smirk on his face. Next to him are the words, “What has Ah Sin got up his sleeve?” The consumer is expected to pull a tab from under Ah Sin’s sleeve, upon which a flyer emerges advertising a London furniture store. The stereotype presented in is the sneaky, crafty, and inscrutable Chinese. The emotions being played upon are fear and paranoia. Advertisers play on consumer fear that products and services are scarce and that another consumer (Chinese or other) could have an advantage in procuring those scarce resources. The fact that a Chinese person has very little connection to the subject of furniture does not matter. What matters is the manipulation of consumer emotions to establish associations between the service and the emotions being played upon.

Most other times, however, racist stereotypes of the Chinese were used in trade cards to promote products that had a stronger connection to those stereotypes. Trade cards is an American trade card for a pest control product called “Rough on Rats.” It shows a Chinese male about to eat a rodent. The advertising premise for this product is based on the stereotype that Chinese eat rats and mice and are therefore good rodent exterminators. The Chinese become part of the commercial image of the commodity, in other words, the Chinese have become “commercial mascots.”

Trade cards manufacturers exploited other racist stereotypes of the Chinese. The Ching Collection has a number of trade cards advertising laundry-related products, such as soaps, detergents, wringers, and celluloid waterproof collars, cuffs, and shirt bosoms. Trade card for “Lavine Soap” capitalizes on the stereotype of Chinese Americans as laundrymen. If a Chinese person endorses a particular soap, then that soap must be good. After all, it is ‘common knowledge’ that all Chinese are laundrymen. Therefore, Chinese laundrymen make the perfect commercial mascots for laundry products. The Chinese drawn in this trade card have a cheerful quality to them, as if to say, “We’d be happy to wash your laundry. That’s what we do.” They are also drawn diminutively to fit in a person’s hand. Most commercial mascots are diminutive and have a “cute” quality to them. Some claim such depictions are positive and show respect to the Chinese for being good laundrymen. However, in the final analysis, the qualities of these commercial mascots (cheerfulness, smallness, and cutenes) trivialize and gloss over the suffering, hardship, or injustice that Chinese American laundrymen endured in nineteenth-century reality.

A Glimpse of History through Trade Cards

White labor in the late nineteenth century rallied to stop the flow of Chinese immigration into the United States and chanted “The Chinese Must Go!” This rallying cry shows up in trade cards and demonstrates the political stance that trade cards often took. The above-mentioned Rough on Rats trade card uses the slogan “They Must Go” to refer not only to the rats, but also to the Chinese. Some cards advertised that their product was the solution to the “Chinese Question.” Advertising cards for laundry products and laundry-related products tended to use this approach. A good example is a trade card that’s a fold-out card advertising the Peerless Wringer. At the top are the words “The Chinese Question Solved by the Peerless Wringer.” At the bottom are the words, “What makee dis?” said bland Ah Sin. Said Dennis, “Put your pigtail in.” When the card is folded out, the bottom caption reads, “Ah Sin obeys, though rather slow! The Question solved, Chinese must go.” This trade card shows the consumer how to solve the “Chinese Question.” The message is: if you buy the wringer, you can do your own laundry, which means the Chinese will have no business, then the Chinese will leave, and hence the Chinese Question will be solved. In advertising psychology, not only is the quality of the product itself promoted, but so are its supposed benefits. Aside from clean laundry, you will get the side benefit of forcing the Chinese to leave.

In addition to reflecting the political and nativist sentiments of the time period, trade cards also reflected some of the hostility (emotional and physical) that white people directed at Chinese Americans. Historians can gauge racist sentiment against Chinese Americans in the late nineteenth century through trade card depictions as well as depictions in other forms of media.

One recurring theme frequently found in trade cards is “pigtail pulling.” The Chinese men wore queues that were often pulled or cut for white amusement. This mean-spiritedness shows up in a number of trade cards and hints at the violent tendencies many white people harbored toward Chinese immigrants. Violence was not just targeted against Chinese adults, but against Chinese children as well. Several trade cards in the Ching Collection show Chinese boys with their pigtails being pulled by white boys. A French trade card shows a Chinese boy’s queue being pulled so hard that he is decapitated over a sharp rail.

Trade cards with depictions of juvenile violence directed at Chinese and Chinese Americans indicate an overt and deeply rooted form of racist hate existing within white society at the time. The fact that white children would commit acts of hate against the Chinese demonstrates that overt racism was very much a part of American culture.

“When I first came,” Andrew Kan told an interviewer in 1924, forty-four years after his arrival, “Chinese treated worse than dog. Oh, it was terrible, terrible. At that time all Chinese have queue and dress same as in China. The hoodlums, roughnecks and young boys pull your queue, slap your face, throw all kind of vegetables and rotten eggs at you.” “The Chinese were in a pitable condition in those days,” recalled Huie Kin in his account of San Francisco’s Chinatown during 1870s. “We were simply terrified; we kept indoors after dark for a fear of being shot in the back. Children spit upon us as we passed by and called us rats.”

Trade card depictions of Chinese children as the recipients of hate violence demonstrate even more profoundly the high level of Sinophobia and racism that permeated American culture in the late nineteenth century.


Additional research is needed on the trade cards in the Ching Collection. One difficult area of research involves dating. If trade cards are to serve as windows into years past and as cultural and political barometers, then their copyright dates and dates of usage need to be identified. Most of the Ching cards bear no dates. A second area that deserves further attention is the popularity of these particular trade cards. There are indications of their popularity, especially when the Ching Collection has multiple copies of one card or trade cards stamped with addresses from London, France, and Germany as well as all over the United States. Further studies might provide historical patterns in the depiction of Chinese American: did the caricatures of the Chinese become more grotesque and exaggerated during certain periods, and if so, did that parallel an increasing anti-Chinese sentiment of the times? The cultural artifacts found in the Ching Collection provide a forgotten piece of Americana and, more important, an aspect of Chinese America that has not before been considered.

The Ching Project would like to thank Dr. Marilyn J. Boxer, Vice President, Office of Academic Affairs at SFSU, for providing research, travel, and work-study support. Research support was also received from SFSU’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.