Trade literature 1880–1940

Bicycle

The trade literature collection offers researchers an insight into the industrial, commercial and domestic landscape of Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

About the collection

From the late 19th century to the late 1930s the Patent Office Library collected trade catalogues and product literature covering everything from musical instruments to heavy industrial plant. In all some 7,500 firms of the period – manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers - are represented in the collection. Most of them are British, but material from companies in other industrialised countries (principally the US, France and Germany) was also collected.  

We believe that the collection developed chiefly as a result of the introduction of patent novelty searches in 1905. From this date onwards Patent Office staff would have needed to consult relevant trade catalogues and product literature when examining the novelty British patent applications. For the firms supplying their literature to the Patent Office Library it was a way of ensuring that their existing products and markets were not compromised by patents granted to potential competitors.   

Trade catalogues and product literature are, by their very nature ephemeral – they are updated and reprinted frequently and old copies are discarded – which means it is likely that many of the items in this collection are of considerable rarity and would be difficult (if not impossible) to find elsewhere.

So the trade literature collection which we have inherited from the Patent Office Library offers researchers a rare and fascinating insight into the industrial, commercial and domestic landscape of the UK in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What is available online?

An online catalogue is not yet available but researchers are welcome to contact the reference team in the Business and IP Centre reading room for more information.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

A company name card index to the collection is available in the Business and IP Centre reading room and it may also be possible to search for material on a particular industry or product by using the original manuscript cataloguing slips. The reference specialists in the Centre are always happy to help researchers explore the collection and will be able to contact the collection curator for advice if necessary.   

Most of the items in the collection can consulted in the Business and IP Centre reading room. A few items are extremely fragile and may be subject to handling restrictions or be unavailable to Readers. For this reason we strongly recommend that you contact us before making a visit to ensure that the material you want to use is available.

What is available in other organisations?

A number of other British libraries and museums have collections of trade literature. These include

  • Glasgow University Archive Services – records of various companies linked to South-Western Scotland, especially in shipbuilding, including advertising and marketing material
  • 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, a collection of almost 30,000 digitised TV advertisements
  • 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
  • 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
  • London Metropolitan Archives - material from a large number of companies based in London
  • 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 19th century to the present
  • Science Museum Library and Archives, London and Swindon – Collection of trade literature on a wide range of mainly science and technology subjects.
  • 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

Further information

Our Evanion Collection of Victorian ephemera will also be of interest to researchers. Digital images are available for a large proportion of the items in this collection which includes posters, advertisements, trade cards and catalogues.

How to guides

Find early British patents

A guide on finding British patents from the period 1617-1899

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass

Get a Reader Pass

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