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Pictures In The Papers
Born in the 1840’s, the era of the woodblock and the “view taken from nature,” early pictorial journalism left behind a matchless treasure of history
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
It was the Herald that began the practice in America of printing pictures of living persons directly involved in sensational news. This was a distinct step in enlarging the freedom of the press. But some editors thought it nothing less than criminal. In 1843 a picture was published of Miss Sarah Mercer, a young Philadelphia lady who had been seduced, and whose brother had shot and killed the seducer. The Public Ledger in her home town could scarcely contain its editorial rage at this invasion of privacy: If we admit that curiosity is natural, we must insist that the eagerness, the voracity with which it is indulged, encourage a very fraudulent, as well as a very impertinent, inquisitive, eaves-dropping, scandalous spirit, in the newspapers. … [The young lady’s] misfortunes are not enough! The afflictions of her family are not sufficiently heavy! She must bear the additional load of exposure to idle curiosity all around the country, laid upon her by a pack of mean, unmanly, lowbred, low-minded ministers to low passions! And she must bear this, to enable such vile prostitutes of the press to put a few pence in their pockets! Language is hardly adequate to express our scorn for such creatures and their detestable practices.
Bennett cared nothing for such criticism, which came his way all the time. But the Herald gradually stopped printing pictures as it became more prosperous. Since paper sizes and press runs were limited, Bennett preferred to give his valuable space to news and paid advertisements. After about 1850, and even during the Civil War, the leading daily newspapers of the country carried almost no news pictures. When Joseph Pulitzer revived the idea in the New York World in the 1880’s, it was hailed as something startling and new.
Inevitably American publishers gazed longingly across the Atlantic at the tremendous success and profits of the Illustrated London News . But the dearth of good artists and engravers delayed the appearance of the first American picture weekly until 1851. Rather surprisingly, when it did appear, it was published in Boston. Its founder was Frederick Gleason, a self-promoting Yankee of the P. T. Barnum stripe, who had already made a success of a sensational story paper called The Flag of Our Union . The complete title of his new publication was Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion Devoted to Literature, Arts, Amusements, News, Etc.
This arrangement of topics was significant. Gleason’s Pictorial was not much more than an ordinary fireside story paper with a sugar coating of pictures. Woodcuts appeared on the front and back pages, and in alternate spreads. The rest was filled with soggy fiction and poems, generally by third-rate authors. Gleason’s seems never to have had any system for covering news events at any great distance from Boston. Yet many interesting sketches and views were sent in by artists in other cities, and some of them made handsome engravings. Especially notable were the early views of California gold mines and unflattering portraits of miners mailed in by Daniel W. Nason, a forty-niner from New Hampshire.
Possibly Gleason’s masterpiece was a superb drawing of Commodore Matthew Perry’s squadron leaving Norfolk for the Orient in 1852. (It is reproduced in the portfolio.) By allowing the edges of this majestic picture to “bleed” almost entirely off both pages of a center spread, the editors—perhaps without intending to—provided an early example of the “Gee whiz” school of layout which is faithfully followed in the mass magazines today.
Although its national coverage was spotty, Gleason’s early volumes are rich in attractive pictures of Boston buildings, streets, omnibuses, firemen’s parades, ship launchings, political meetings, and snowstorms. Along with these are appealing bits of local color such as Coot Shooting at the Glades, Cohasset , and The Learned Seals at the Boston Aquarium . (One of these learned seals, named Ned, knew how to drill with a musket. The artist who drew him was the Londonborn Alfred Waud, who was soon to win fame as a combat artist for Harper’s during the Civil War.)
An 1851 Gleason’s picture of The Smokers’ Circle, on Boston Common , was explained in the following caption: It is a well known fact that—while a man may enjoy the weed by inhaling the fragrant fumes of a cigar in any other city of the Union—in Boston a fine is extracted from any person who presumes to smoke on the streets. Our worthy mayor, sympathizing with the oppressed … has had a circle of seats arrayed in a shady grove of our beautiful park; and here scores of persons resort each afternoon and evening … Let our readers drop round that way, and see how truthful a picture we have given them …