- Historic Sites
An Affectionate Portfolio
THE PICTORIAL PRESS IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
In the pages that follow are some of the actual news pictures and cartoons and historic front pages that marked the rise of pictorial journalism up to the year 1900. All of these are from the collection assembled by Roger Butterfield, author of the accompanying article, and recently acquired by the New York State Historical Association at Cooperstown. With its 200,000 items—books and pamphlets, broadsides and catalogues, newspapers and magazines—it has long been recognized as one of the finest private collections of Americana in this country. The editors of A MERICAN H ERITAGE —a more recent arrival among pictorial magazines—are pleased to present this visual salute to the pioneers of a great profession.
Our two opening pages are devoted to the world’s first picture newspaper, which has appeared each week for 120 years under its familiar heading of the Thames water front and St. Paul’s dome. The parade of top-hatted placard men shown in the woodcut below promoted the sale of the first issue of the Illustrated London News , for May 14, 1842. The first authentic spot-news picture in history appeared on page one of its fourth issue, reproduced on the opposite page; this was in the hands of readers only five days after the “disgraceful attempt” to assassinate the Queen. Color printing was inaugurated in the Christmas supplement for 1855, above. The “house ad” at the right describes its reporting triumphs during the Crimean War.
The first American picture weekly imitated the Illustrated London News even in its engraved heading, which was an obvious attempt to make Boston’s harbor and State House look like the English magazine’s view of the Thames. Gleason’s began on May 3, 1851, changed its name to Ballou’s in 1855, and died in 1859. Although it was printed in Boston, some of its best engravings were created elsewhere, like the splendid double-page spread, below, of Commodore Matthew Perry being rowed out to his flagship off Norfolk, at the start of his voyage to Japan. This was drawn and engraved by New York artists who probably did not see the fleet depart but followed existing pictures of the ships, and their imagination. Such double-page layouts were pioneered by the Illustrated London News , which developed a method of joining small wood blocks into a large engraving surface. In the cuts below, the fine white lines of separation are barely visible.
In the United States the best picture weeklies were Frank Leslie’s and Harper’s , which began in 1855 and 1857 respectively. Both were directly inspired by the success of the Illustrated London News but quickly developed styles of their own. Leslie’s featured hairsbreadth thrills and sensational crusades; the dying cow on the opposite page was one of the many harrowing scenes it printed while battling to clean up the milk supply of New York. Harper’s was more sedate—as befitted “A Journal of Civilization”—but it pulled ahead in circulation by means of its magnificent reporting of the Civil War and by publishing powerful cartoons and editorials. The Union sharpshooter by Winslow Homer, at right, and The Tammany Tiger Loose! by Thomas Nast, below, were perhaps the most famous pictures that Harper’s ever printed. But there were hundreds of others—battle scenes and Lincoln cartoons, Nast’s Republican elephant and Democratic donkey, and his lanky, beaver-hatted Uncle Sam—which entered into the national consciousness and were fixed in history by Harper’s . It was a Nast cartoon that followed the runaway Boss Tweed to Spain and led to his identification and arrest in 1876. Tweed himself blamed his downfall on the cartoons. Even though the voters couldn’t read, he remarked, they could “look at the damned pictures.”