It might not sound very romantic, but today’s collectors of Victorian and Edwardian printed ephemera should be grateful to the manufacturers of Liebig’s “Meat Extract”, or Oxo as it was later reincarnated.
Founded in 1868, the company soon realised the importance of good marketing and promotional material and until 1975, they published an astonishing array of beautifully printed lithographed cards which was probably never matched by any other business. And that holds true even today.
Not a trade card and 10 times better than cigarette cards, the so-called chromo cards printed for Liebig, issued in around 2,000 different sets, could keep a discerning collector happy for a lifetime.
The original company was named after the German scientist Baron Justus von Liebig (1803-73) one of the discoverers of chloroform.
The invention of a way of preserving the flavour of meat in the form of an extract was one of his many valuable contributions to farming and food chemistry.
Liebig saw that the extract was expensive to produce in Europe, because of high beef costs. But he knew that vast numbers of cattle were slaughtered in South America for hides and that the carcasses were sold off cheaply.
Here was a ready supply of meat, which could be preserved with its nutrients retained and shipped more readily.
Ever the entrepreneur, he offered to make his recipe available to anyone who could produce the extract to his strict standards.
The offer was taken up by the Belgian engineer George Giebert in 1861 and a factory was built at Fray Bentos on the Uruguay River.
The extract quickly became popular, particularly among poorer families, but it also received testimonials from the likes of Florence Nightingale, Captain Scott of the Antarctic and aviators Alcock and Brown.
A jar of extract was even taken on Stanley’s famous expedition to find Dr Livingstone in Africa.
An Antwerp merchant company marketed the product in the UK until 1914, when Oxo Ltd was formed to take over marketing.
They wanted to sell the extract in a form that could be retailed for a penny and the Oxo cube was born in 1910. It was an immediate success, and its price remained the same until 1952.
But I digress. A century earlier, there was no such thing as television, so no snappy commercials, and advertising in what printed publications there were was in its infancy.
Manufacturers keen to promote a new product or service hit on the idea of giving away pretty printed cards in order to spread the word.
Liebig started to produce the cards in around 1870. Each series comprised either six or 12 cards, issued by the retailer in exchange for coupons from the extract, so that the customer was keen to buy the product and complete the set.
Apart from the beautiful, high-quality chromolithographed illustrations, the 4 x 2½-inch cards were printed on the reverse with either convincing advertising from the Liebig company, or else recipes – either simple or elaborate – enabling customers to get the maximum benefit from the product.
Unlike their competitors, who gave out gifts in return for completed albums, Liebig believed the cards were gifts in their own right, with the result that their value started to rise almost as soon as customers began to collect them.
The same is true today. Once you’re hooked — and believe me that isn’t difficult — collectors find themselves paying handsomely (relatively speaking) for either a missing card, or a missing set.
Their joy, apart from the gorgeous colours the printing achieved, is their historical accuracy. A set like the ones illustrated here of British regiments is a true record that stands up to inspection by any military historian.
Over time, a collection of Liebig cards becomes almost encyclopaedic in its breadth, while the information on the reverse makes fascinating reading, particularly for people interested in social history.
The cards cover a vast number of subjects including history, famous people, plants, animals, geography, the arts, sport, pastimes, and many more.
They are still highly affordable. Single cards can be picked up for a few pounds and a set of six for anything between £15 and £50.
Rare early sets can fetch more from a specialist dealer, but the answer is to seek them out in places where there importance is not necessarily recognised.
I don’t pretend to be a collector of Liebig cards, but I have several dozen which have come my way from job lots of books at auctions — people use them as bookmarks — and on flea market stalls where they are sometimes sold for small change.
Find a set of cards that doesn’t have the meat extract jar illustrated on the front and you have dropped lucky.
The first 19 sets produced by Liebig were somewhat less blatant when it came to advertising the product and are considered to be the very best cards among today’s collectors. They date from before 1872
As the product became more successful, so the company started to boast about it.
Cards were then printed with the jar and the inscription “5 Gold Medals and 3 Awards for Merit” on the reverse.
Later still, the cards began to boast about 10 Gold Medals and Diplomas of Merit, by which time to Liebig were selling 5 million jars of its extract annually around the world.
Consequently, the cards were printed in a diversity of European languages and by 1889, two sets, one showing musical instruments, the other illustrated with children skating were printed in Russian.
Watch out also for other Liebig printed cards for menus, place settings and recipes, all of which make charming displays, either for use or mounted and framed for the wall.
A paper handbill handed out to customers to encourage them to buy Liebig’s Meat Extract
Cards from a military series showing uniforms from the 17th Lancers, the 1st Life Guards, and the Grenadier Guards
One of the cards from a sporting series, it shows a trusting individual watching a lady archer who was about to fire at a target