In the last third of the 19th century thousands of advertising trade cards were created and distributed throughout the eastern United States. The ascendancy of trade cards coincided with the years surrounding the first Chinese Exclusion Laws banning Chinese immigration. Because of this suppression, few Americans in the eastern states had direct contact with Chinese people. Nevertheless, hundreds of trade card images depicted Chinese figures and the Chinese image became a familiar icon. Trade card iconography had little to do with the product advertised but was part of the emerging new visual language. Its visual semiotics reflected social and cultural issues arising during this tumultuous period of modernization. Images of Chinese people became part of the changing economy of signs; presented as liminal figures, they allowed Americans to explore social and personal boundaries, and to express unfamiliar sensations that were less readily acknowledged in the written language of the time.