Thomas Edison’s Polyform Trade Card is One of His Earliest Issues — and it’s Controversial

This 19th century trade card of famous scientist Thomas Edison might be his first card. If nothing else, it comes with plenty of controversy.

When you think of legendary scientist Thomas Edison, collectible cards probably aren’t the first thing on your mind. But while Edison’s numerous inventions like the light bulb or phonograph might come to mind, the famous inventor did actually appear on a number of trading cards.

Most came later in the 19th century but one of those was from the 19th century and is particular intriguing.

Thomas Edison was born in 1847 and while most know of his electrical and mechanical inventions, Edison also had a hand in medicine.

Edison created a medication that he used to treat his own ailments and for his own assistants. He wasn’t marketing this medicine, mind you. It was only being used for his own use to treat neuralgia.

As the story goes, Edison was approached to market this medication to the public in 1879. He agreed to sell the formula for $5,000 for use by a newly-formed company called the Menlo Park Manufacturing Company. It was soon succeeded by a new company called the Edison Polyform Company, likely to capitalize on Edison’s name.

Like many medicines offered in the 19th century, “Edison’s Polyform” was said to cure a number of illnesses, including rheumatism, neuralgia, headaches, and more. These medicines, of course, did not usually work and most are referred to today as ‘quack’ medicines. That didn’t stop people from buying them, though. We know that because so many were produced. All sorts of trade cards from the 19th century advertised them.

The gist of this particular story is that things went south. While Edison apparently agreed to providing the formula, what he says he didn’t agree to was the use of his image. And that was a problem because the company printed his face on the medicine’s bottles, along with a statement that he personally prepared the formula. Edison reportedly did not want his name or picture on the bottle.

He ultimately took the company to court seeking an injunction to limit their use of his likeness on the bottle. A court did grant him the injunction and the medication sort of faded off into obscurity. As this page points out, the Edison case was one of the earliest cases to test an 1891 ruling by the Supreme Court that a person had the right to the use of their own name. This case, essentially, extended that to a person’s image/likeness.

About the Cards

Now, what does this have to do with trade cards?

Well, just as Edison’s name and likeness was used on the bottles that held the medicine, the company boldly had his name and likeness on a series of trade cards. There are a handful of different variations of these cards that bear his name and picture.

Shown here is one of those cards and it’s very clear that Edison, not the medication, is the focal point.

Instead of a picture of the medication on the front, this card features a large portrait of the inventor himself. Edison’s name appears on it and the bottom of this particular card lists his inventions to date, including the Polyform medication.

The back goes into the medication itself but not before using Edison’s name again, calling him ‘the world-renowned scientist and electrician.’ The card goes on to describe the benefits of the medication before the famous certification attributed to Edison at the bottom, stating that the medication was made according to his own specifications. Also of note is that the cards are printed on a paper thin stock — even thinner than most trade cards. They are quite easy to damage so finding high-grade examples is not at all common.

While these cards are not dated, I have not seen any trade issues that appear to be issued earlier. However, the dating of these cards demands some discussion.

There are several variations of the cards, as mentioned. But unfortunately, dating the different cards can be a challenge. And that is because the history of the company seems fuzzy due to many name and location changes. This page, which has an accounting of the lawsuit, sort of lays it out. It states that the Menlo Park Manufacturing Company was first formed in 1879 before being reorganized as the Edison Polyform Company a year later. A New Jersey company was introduced in 1893. But the company also had a Boston address, as evidenced by one of the trade cards.

Cards that bear the Menlo Park Manufacturing Company name would appear to be the earliest ones issued since that is the first reported name. However, not all of the cards necessarily mention a company name so trying to determine which ones came first if the initial company is not mentioned seems impossible. All of the cards issued, however, seem to be from roughly the same time period.

The cards are fairly rare and, as a result, the values fluctuate. Low-grade cards tend to start in the $40-$50 range but nicer copies can fetch over $100. Given the rarity, age, and potential significance of being Edison’s first cards, that price would seem a bit low. Then again, these are not cards that are commonly known to most collectors.

Still, they are a wonderful look into history and the fact that they are tied to such an important case testing the name and likeness limits makes them even more intriguing.

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