Book and Periodical Illustration

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Between 1820 and 1870, technological developments gave rise to the mass production of images in America. The changes during this fifty-year period were dramatic. In 1820 periodical illustrations were for the most part crude and perfunctory. Illustrated gift books were circulated, by those who could afford them, as tokens of friendship on special occasions. Otherwise, book illustrations were mostly confined to frontispieces, and what would later be called illustrated books were almost nonexistent. Yet by 1870 profusely illustrated children's books and scientific books were commonplace. Popular fiction almost required illustrations in order to sell. Illustrated monthly magazines such as Harper's New Monthly Magazine and Appleton's Journal circulated in runs of 200,000 or more copies. Travel articles especially drew great interest, illustrating sections of the country and the world that most readers had never seen before. Illustrators such as Harry Fenn (1845–1911) became nationally known brand names, whose contributions to books and periodicals were widely advertised. Meanwhile, beginning in the 1850s and rising to prominence with the Civil War, pictorial journalism emerged. Weekly illustrated papers included high-quality images of battles, spectacular disasters, and other current events as well as images of civic buildings and other engineering and technical accomplishments. Certain images, such as that of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train in 1865, became so widely circulated as to be known to virtually every American. Though photomechanical reproduction would not gain widespread use until the 1880s, America was, by 1870, well on its way to becoming a culture of images.


Before the 1840s, most printed images in America were created through intaglio printing from metal plates, whereby a plate is etched or engraved so that ink remains in the recessed areas after the plate is inked and wiped. ("Intaglio" is a word from Italian meaning "engraved" or "cut.") When the plate comes into contact with paper, under pressure, ink is forced from the recesses to create an image. Though intaglio printing produces detailed, high-quality images, the process is not suited for high-volume reproduction for several reasons: it requires pressure; the plates must be wiped between each impression, and wiping wears down the metal; and, perhaps most important, it does not fit with the letterpress method that was used for commerical printing of text. Intaglio plates retain ink in the recesses, while letterpress is a relief process that retains ink on raised surfaces. Intaglio prints thus cannot be integrated with letterpress to produce book and periodical illustration. Intaglio prints must instead be printed on separate pages, often on special paper. This makes the printing process comparatively slow and expensive and not suited for runs in large numbers.

Thus, much of the book illustration of the period took the form of what are now called "gift books" and "annuals." These were literary miscellanies, lavishly illustrated and intended not primarily as reading material but rather as gifts, often called "tokens," "souvenirs," or "keepsakes." Their literary content was generally unre-markable, and publishers of gift books and annuals often engaged in questionable practices such as publishing a new work under a name already established by another publisher or republishing an existing book under a new name, with only minor changes to the plates or the contents. As a result, by the 1840s such books had a poor reputation among American publishers, although many are highly valued by modern-day collectors.

Beginning in 1830 Godey's Lady's Book pioneered the use of fashion plates—mostly intaglio prints from metal plates, showing clothing fashions of the day. These images were then known as "embellishments," not "illustrations." As the historian Frank Luther Mott remarks, the images "did not illustrate the text. The text illustrated them" (1:591). By the mid-1830s, each issue of Godey's featured numerous embellishments, including one per issue that was hand-colored, or "illuminated." The publisher referred proudly to "our corps of one hundred and fifty female colorers" (Mott 1:591). In addition to pictures of outrageous hoopskirts and other fashions, the colored embellishments often portrayed flower arrangements. Other magazines of the period, such as Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, included line and stipple portraits of actors and actresses in costume. Graham's Magazine likewise often included pictures of dramatics scenes. During this period, the plates were very expensive. In the 1830s a publisher might pay more for one new plate than for all of an issue's literary contents. To save money, secondhand plates were often purchased from British periodicals.


Starting in England at the end of the eighteenth century, a technological revolution in printing began, a development that offered many advantages over intaglio printing and that would find its fullest expression in American books and periodicals fifty years later. The so-called "white-line" or woodcut process pioneered by Thomas Bewick (1753–1828) involved the creation of relief plates engraved on the endgrain of boxwood blocks. Small blocks produced by sawing against the tight grain of Turkish boxwood are extremely hard. When polished, the endgrain provides an excellent surface for engraving. Lines incised with a graver on such surfaces appear in white, on a black background, in the resulting print. The hard wood lends itself to the type of detailed, fine work that was previously only associated with intaglio printing from metal. In addition, the wood is hard enough to withstand many thousands of impressions on a press, and, since the blocks produce relief prints, they can be set directly onto a plate alongside typeface. The first great work that Bewick produced through this method was A General History of Quadrupeds, first published in 1790, which includes more than two hundred images integrated with type and which is considered a landmark in printing. It is said that King George III would not believe Bewick's images were from woodcuts until he was shown the blocks.

In America, Bewick's method was copied by Alexander Anderson (1775–1870), a New Yorker who produced a copy of Quadrupeds published in 1804. Though the images in that book are generally not as good as those in Bewick's, Anderson quickly became proficient with the endgrain woodcut relief method, producing blocks for, among other works, editions of Noah Webster's dictionary and for various publications of the American Tract Society. By the 1840s Americans began to take the technological lead from the British in printing from woodcuts. One notable work, Harper's Illuminated and New Pictorial Bible, published by Harper & Brothers in 1846, included nearly sixteen hundred illustrations and made extensive use of a process called electrotyping, whereby a mold was made from a plate that included both letter-press and woodcuts. (The initial mold was made in wax. A galvanic battery was then used to coat the wax mold in copper, which was in turn backed with metal to produce a durable and finely detailed relief plate.)

With the widespread use of "electros," as they were called, in the 1840s, began the rise of illustrated books and periodicals in America. Notable illustrated books from this period include The Big Bear of Arkansas and Other Sketches (1845), edited by William Trotter Porter (1809–1858), featuring a title story by Thomas Bangs Thorpe (1815–1878) and woodcut prints from drawings by Felix O. C. Darley (1821–1888); an 1848 edition of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon by Washington Irving (1783–1859), also illustrated by Darley; and the 1853 edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), which included 117 illustrations by Hammatt Billings (1818–1874), who had created the seven drawings that appeared in the novel's 1852 first edition (although dated 1853, the "Illustrated Edition" was actually rushed to market at the end of 1852, to be sold for the Christmas trade, and was wildly popular).


In 1850 Harper & Brothers issued the first number of Harper's New Monthly Magazine (known as Harper's Monthly), a publishing venture designed to take advantage of the maturing print technologies. The magazine distinguished itself with a quantity of wood-cut illustrations considered lavish for the time. Circulation rose from 7,500 in 1850 to more than 100,000 in less than three years. The owners bought thirty-five steam-powered presses (so-called Adams presses, developed in Boston) to meet rapidly rising circulation demands. Though the magazine started as an "eclectic," reprinting mainly pirated texts from English authors, illustrated with original woodcuts, by 1853 it was beginning to "Americanize" its content.

One notable contributor was David Hunter Strother (1816–1888), who authored travel articles about the American South, illustrated from his own drawings, under the pen name "Porte Crayon." (Strother's pseudonym was a nod to Washington Irving, Strother's hero. Born in Berkley Springs, [West] Virginia, Strother proposed to do for the Shenandoah Valley what Irving had done for the Hudson River Valley.) Strother's humorous articles about hunting and sporting in Virginia were so well received that, shortly after his first contribution appeared in 1853, he received a standing commission from the magazine. By the end of the 1850s he was its highest paid contributor, and the popularity of his articles is credited with helping raise the magazine's circulation from 100,000 in 1853 to over 200,000 by the start of the Civil War. The success of Harper's Monthly inspired competitors. By 1870 Scribner's Monthly and Appleton's Journal had emerged, ushering in the era of the illustrated magazine, which would see its heyday in the 1880s.

The popularity of Strother's work says something about the appeal of illustrated monthlies in the years around the Civil War. The staple of these magazines was illustrated travel writing, featuring views of places most readers would never see for themselves. The magazines capitalized on Victorian readers' growing interest in distant regions of America and the world. Strother's works, for example, appeared at a time of growing sectarian tension, when northeasterners were increasingly interested in the South. Likewise, alongside Strother's domestic travel pieces, Harper's published articles from the far reaches of the British empire, at a time when England was establishing control over vast parts of the globe. For example, volume 16 (1858), the same volume that includes Strother's "A Winter in the South," includes "Livingstone's Travels in South Africa," "An American in Constantinople," and "Hasheesh and the Hasheesh-Eaters"—all of which articles are profusely illustrated. The growing prevalence of woodcut illustrations was thus an important influence on—and was in turn influenced by—Americans' evolving conception of the nation, and of their place in the world.


The first edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper appeared in New York in December 1855. This was not the first American illustrated weekly, but it was the first to achieve national prominence, and it ushered in the era of pictorial journalism. Leslie (1821–1880) was born in England and in the 1840s worked as head of the engraving department for the Illustrated London News, founded in 1842. (Leslie's given name was Henry Carter; he adopted his nom de crayon when he moved to London as a teenager.) Leslie's great innovation in New York was to perfect a system that allowed large woodcut blocks to be produced quickly. The system involved brass bolts and latches designed for the back of small boxwood blocks, so that those blocks could be locked together. Boxwood is a shrub or small tree, so blocks sawn from the endgrain were necessarily very small—usually no more than two-and-a-half or three inches square. Leslie's system allowed engravers to lock numerous blocks together in a larger grid, upon which an artist could draw his design. The grid could then be disassembled and the time-consuming work of engraving could be farmed out on smaller blocks to a team of engravers. The blocks were then reassembled, and the engraved lines from block to block were smoothed out and made consistent. Through this system, large images of recent events could be brought to press in a timely fashion.

Less than two years after Leslie founded his newspaper, the Harper brothers began a weekly to compete with it, using the same methods. Harper's Weekly would go on to dominate the market and to make celebrities of some of its illustrators, most notably of the caricaturist Thomas Nast (1840–1902), whose work would come to influence the course of New York and national politics. The illustrated weeklies focused on current events and news. They delved into political affairs that were generally avoided by the more aloof and apolitical monthlies. As events precipitated the American Civil War, demand for illustrated accounts of those events drove circulation of the illustrated weeklies. At the height of the war, Harper's had as many as a dozen artists in the field, often under fire. Their sketches would be sent to New York by courier, to be reproduced by the weekly's engraving staff. The Harper's war illustrators included Winslow Homer (1836–1910), who launched his career as a war artist and went on to become an influential illustrator and painter.

See alsoBook Publishing; Gift Books and Annuals; Godey's Lady's Book;Harper's New Monthly Magazine;Literary Marketplace; Periodicals; Pictorial Weeklies


Primary Works

Bowker, Richard Rogers. "Great American Industries VII: The Printed Book." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 75 (July 1887): 165–188.

Linton, William J. "Art in Engraving on Wood." Atlantic Monthly 43 (June 1879): 705–715.

Secondary Works

Brown, Joshua. Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting,Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded-Age America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Hamilton, Sinclair. Early American Book Illustrators andWood Engravers, 1670–1870: A Catalogue of a Collection of American Books, Illustrated for the Most Part with Woodcuts and Wood Engravings in the Princeton University Library. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Library, 1958.

Horning, Clarence P., and Fridolf Johnson. 200 Years of American Graphic Art. New York: Braziller, 1976.

Ivins, William M., Jr. Prints and Visual Communication. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Vol. 1, 1741–1850. Vol. 2, 1850–1865. Vol. 3, 1865–1885. Vol. 4, 1885–1905. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938–1967.

Rainey, Sue. "Wood Engraving in America." In Sue Rainey and Mildred Abraham, "Embellished with Numerous Engravings": The Works of American Illustrators and Wood Engravers, 1670–1880, pp. 7–29. Charlottesville: Department of Rare Books, University of Virginia Library, 1986.

Wakeman, Geoffrey. Victorian Book Illustration: The Technical Revolution. Detroit: Gale, 1973.

Kevin E. O'Donnell