Our trade literature collection contains items from over 12,000 companies dating from the mid-19th century to the present day.
The roots of our collection began when a number of companies started to deposit their catalogues and product literature with the Patent Office Library. This was to help prevent unoriginal ideas from being granted patents. We still collect catalogues, brochures and technical information sheets from a range of companies. We try to collect material on innovative products and services, and material that will be of interest to tomorrow’s social historians.
They cover a wide range of products including:
- heavy machinery
- photographic equipment
- computer graphics
- banking and financial services
- security equipment
- street furniture
- sports equipment
Most of the material is from British companies and has been acquired through donation. As a result we have often only been able to acquire one or two catalogues from a company. Material is only selected if it provides a good description of products.
Not all of the items in the trade literature collection are in the British Library general catalogues. Items collected after the mid-1980s are included in Explore the British Library. You can do a search for a company or subject and then refine your results to the Trade Literature collection by picking "trade literature" from the list of filters on your left, under "Material type". There is a paper subject index, and a card index by business name, to material collected before 1940, which can be viewed in the Business & IP Centre. Material from circa 1940 until the mid-1980s can only be searched by our staff by business name. Please contact us or ask us in the Centre.
Please note that some of our pre-1940 collection is extremely fragile and may be subject to handling restrictions or be unavailable to readers. Any enquiry or order may be slightly delayed to allow the condition of the items to be assessed.
Trade Literature Collections from the 'British Museum Library'
The former British Museum Library collections included some trade literature, mainly consisting of substantial catalogues of products rather than leaflets or datasheets. Most of these are held in secure storage as part of the general British Library book collection, and can be found and ordered on Explore the British Library by searching for the name of the company. There are a few collections of trade and advertising material, especially company prospectuses, bound into scrapbooks or manuscript files and with no detailed list of the contents. These can be found and ordered on Explore the British Library by searching for words such as “prospectuses”, “catalogues”, “ephemera”, or “leaflets” in the titles of records and browsing the resulting lists of results.
The Evanion Collection
If you are looking for trade literature from the 19th century, you should also search the Evanion Collection of Victorian ephemera, which is part of Early Printed Collections. The material in this collection is too fragile for the paper copies to be made available, but a large proportion of it has been digitised in full.
The Ettridge Collection
A separate trade literature collection held by the Business & IP Centre is the Ettridge Collection. This contains over 1,000 items covering the design of domestic appliances. It was acquired in 1997 from Mr Ian Ettridge who, prior to his retirement, had worked for over 45 years in the field. During this time he worked for household brands such as Electrolux, Hotpoint, Morphy Richards, Moulinex and Swan. The collection includes company brochures, design manuals and product samples. It also contains many of Mr Ettridge's technical drawings for appliances he worked on such as a two-cup beverage maker, an electric frying pan, a steam iron, and a vacuum cleaner. It is arranged by the type of item or part, rather than by company, but is not fully catalogued. Please contact us if you believe that this collection is of interest to you, so that we can search it for relevant material.
If you are interested in using trade literature, please contact us in advance of your visit, so that we can determine whether we have material useful for you and if so arrange for it to be ready for you to use when you arrive.
Other Trade Literature collections in the UK
A number of other British libraries and museums hold significant trade literature collections. Please note that the following list is a work in progress. If you are aware of significant trade literature collections which are accessible to researchers and not mentioned here please email us.
Please note that only some of these collections are remotely searchable on the internet and some require payment or a proof of a significant research need for access.
As well as these trade literature collections, some company archives, which may include trade literature, are now stored in county or municipal archives, or the local studies sections of public libraries. If you are researching a particular company, it would be a good idea to contact the central public library or local government archive facility covering the area where they were based. Good portals to try are Access To Archives for archive collections and UK Public Libraries for details of public libraries.
Many museums hold trade literature collections relevant to their specific subject areas. If you are in the British Library, museum directories are held at the Reference Desk in Humanities Level One. Otherwise, free listings of museums in the UK are provided at Culture24 or MuseumNet.
The Society of American Archivists maintains an online directory of archive contacts for major American companies.
General Trade Literature Collections
Glasgow University Archive Services – records of various companies linked to South-Western Scotland, especially in shipbuilding, including advertising and marketing material.
Guildhall Library, City of London – collection of trade cards from City businesses dating from the 18th century to the present day.
History of Advertising Trust, Raveningham, Norfolk - collects advertisements as well as the archives of advertising agencies, trade associations and regulatory bodies. Also has archive material from a number of large companies covering their advertising and marketing activities. Additionally collects books and journals on the subject. Online catalogue promised in late 2013. The website also has a collection of almost 30000 digitised TV advertisements from 1977 to date which were submitted over the years to the British Television Advertising Awards: these are free to stream but downloads and detailed credit lists must be paid for. Personal visits to use the collections are free for non-commercial research but must be pre-booked.
Ironbridge Gorge Museums, Coalbrookdale, Shropshire - collections on the firms based around Ironbridge Gorge, the industries which they participated in (in particular iron and ceramics), and the early Industrial Revolution in general. Includes company records, trade literature and other ephemera.
John Johnson Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford – ephemera on a wide range of subjects, mainly from the 19th and early 20th centuries but with some material dating back to the 17th century.
Manchester Museum of Science and Industry – science, engineering and technology material, especially from companies connected to Greater Manchester
National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, London – a large collection of trade literature on various subjects, especially furniture, fashion and decorative arts and crafts, from the nineteenth century to the present. A web catalogue is available, although this does not include all the trade literature.
Science Museum Library and Archives, London and Swindon – Collection of trade literature on a wide range of mainly science and technology subjects. Under the new plan for the Science Museum Library trade literature will be held in Swindon but can be brought to London for consultation by prior arrangement.
Warwick University Modern Records Centre – Collection of business archives, including publicity and marketing material and trade literature, with a focus on the motor and cycle industries.
Specialist Trade Literature Collections
Geffrye Museum, Dalston, London - trade literature on furniture from 1760 to the present day. No online searching available.
Museum of English Rural Life, Reading – material on agriculture and food production, from the 18th century to the present day. A web catalogue of the collection is available.
National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, Dorset – “Around 50000” manufacturers’ sales catalogues dealing with motor vehicles, parts and accessories. Charge for access and remote searching.
National Railway Museum, York – Trade literature and advertising material produced by railway companies and companies in the rail industry. Web catalogue available.
National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire – Trade literature on the tramway industry. A catalogue is available on the website.
Rapra Technology Ltd., Shawbury, Shropshire – Collection of trade literature related to the rubber and plastic industry, including products, materials, and production and processing machinery. Searching the collection requires access to the commercially-produced Polymer Library database, which can be accessed free by the public in the Science reading rooms of the British Library.
Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library, London – large collection of catalogues of plants, garden furniture and garden equipment, dating largely from 1860 to the present with a little older material. A catalogue is available online, and can be restricted to trade literature by going to the Advanced Search and selecting “Trade Catalogues” from the “type” pull-down menu, although some older literature is not on the public web catalogue. The collection is open to the general public for reference access, but only members may borrow material.
Thackray Museum, Leeds – Wide-ranging collection of medical trade literature, including mainstream and alternative/complementary treatments. A pdf document listing medical catalogues held is available from the website.
The Welding Institute, Cambridge – Trade literature relating to welding equipment and consumables. A library catalogue is available on the web site, but it is not possible to restrict a search to trade literature. Library access is restricted to members only, but remote ordering of document copies is not.
Business and Intellectual Property enquiries
The British Library
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Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7454
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