Smithsonian Libraries' Trade Literature Collection

Cover of Columbia bicycle catalog, 1912, showing a woman kneeling painting the words "Columbia" while crowning a bicycle with a laurel wreath.

This collection --the catalogs and books that were once part of the merchandising of American business-- is internationally known as an important source for the history of American business, technology, marketing, consumption, and design. Trade literature includes printed or handwritten lists, often illustrated, of items offered for sale ranging in size from small pamphlets to oversized folios of several hundred pages. Manufacturers of all sizes and types issued trade catalogs to promote and sell their products. The present collection contains more than 460,000 catalogs, technical manuals, advertising brochures, price lists, company histories and related materials representing over 36,000 companies.

Search for items, companies or titles in our Trade Literature Inventories

The majority of the Trade Literature Collection has not yet been digitized. You can search an inventory of our collections, which is organized by company name, using the search box above.
Tips: you can search by company name: e.g., Studebaker, or keywords describing the items produced or industry, e.g., car or automobile.


Trade Literature Collections Online

Seed and Nursery Catalogs

Colorful collection of catalogs that document the history of the seed and agricultural implement business as well as ornamental and edible plants in the U. S.

Instruments for Science

A collection of uniquely valuable trade literature that tells the history of 19th c. science through instrument catalogs.

Sewing Machines: Historical Trade Literature in Smithsonian Collections

A popular collection of catalogs, manuals, and brochures showing the range of material published by and about American sewing machines companies from the 1840s to the early 20th c.

About the Collection

The Smithsonian Libraries generally acquires trade literature through gifts and purchases. The largest single gift, primarily dealing with engineering and industry, came from Columbia University. Other institutions including the Patent Office, Harvard University and the Center for Research Libraries transferred their collections and private collections like the Mel Heinz collection of catalogs for machine tools and metal working, and the Burpee Seed Company have been added over the years. In the early 1990s, the Smithsonian’s Collection Acquisition Fund afforded the purchase of over 56,000 catalogs from the Franklin Institute.

Researchers use the trade literature collection to determine the history of companies or individual industries, describe styles from furniture to machinery, analyze marketing and management techniques, and examine illustrations of every product imaginable. Since the trade literature collection covers a wide variety of American manufactured goods it is invaluable in documenting objects in the Smithsonian’s and other museums’ collections. The collection is frequently consulted by historians, collectors, historical preservationists, authors, industrial designers, home renovators and patent lawyers. One Smithsonian curator estimates that fully half the information in this collection is unavailable elsewhere.

Outside researchers may make appointments to use the collection in person by contacting the staff of the National Museum of American History Library.

We gratefully acknowledge the Smithsonian National Board, in particular Mr. Edgar Masinter, for their generous support in improving access to these important collections.

Additional Resources

Online Resources