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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
In 1855 Gleason sold the paper to his editor, Maturin Ballou, who changed the name to Ballou’s Pictorial . Under his regime it published fewer and fewer interesting engravings, and more and more cheap fiction. Just how cheap this was became public record when the paper gave up the ghost in 1859. In a complacent farewell editorial, Editor Ballou—who had fumbled one of the greatest opportunities in the history of American journalism—added up the paper’s costs during its whole nine years. His table showed that printing paper, at $423,000, was its largest expense. Drawings and engravings came next, at $161,000. Well down on the list was the $28,000 “paid to authors for manuscripts.” This averages out to $62 for each of the 451 issues. Since every issue usually had eight or ten signed stories and poems, it is obvious that writing talent was no great drain on the paper’s treasury.
The end of this uninspired publication is easy to explain. In its final number, for December 24, 1859, Ballou’s carried just two sizable engravings, one showing a sleighing party in New England, and the other a rustic view on the Harlem River in New York. There is no mention whatever of the great and controversial news of the day—John Brown’s raid and his public hanging, which had occurred three weeks before. In fact, under Ballou’s ownership, there was almost no news in the paper at all.
Now turn to the same week’s issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper , a lusty four-year-old in New York. On page one is a picture of the jail at Charlestown, Virginia, with a sentinel firing at two of Brown’s men, Coppoc and Cook, as they try to escape from their death cells. The double spread in the center gives an eyewitness view of the execution of the same men, “From a Sketch by our own Artist Taken on the Spot.” The hanging took place at 1 P.M. on Friday, December 16; immediately afterward the artist left for New York, arriving late on Saturday. A staff of copy artists and engravers were awaiting him in a suite of hotel rooms near the office. They worked through the night transferring his drawing to a large sixteen-section woodblock, and the presses were rolling with the picture early on Sunday morning.
Aggressive, unabashed newshawking like this was the trademark of Frank Leslie, who deserves to be called the founder of pictorial journalism in the United States. His real name was Henry Carter, and he was born at Ipswich, England, in 1821. As a young man he was thrilled by the early numbers of the Illustrated London News , and secretly sent some drawings to the paper, signing them “Frank Leslie” to hide such Bohemian skills from his prosperous, middle-class father. Later he went to London to work as a drygoods clerk, but soon moved to the Illustrated London News office, where he was an engraver at twenty-five.
In 1848 he came to America, where Barnum gave him employment on circus posters and Jenny Lind programs. For a while he worked in the engraving room at Gleason’s , and signed some of its best woodcuts. In 1853 he was hired by Barnum and the wealthy Beach brothers to start a new pictorial weekly in New York, the Illustrated News . This paper, though well financed and loudly promoted, was allowed to die in less than a year, largely because its owners grew tired of its endless technical problems.
Meanwhile Leslie was hoarding his capital in preparation for the great dream of his life—an American pictorial as bold, enterprising, and artistically excellent as the Illustrated London News . He launched it in December, 1855, more than a year before its arch-rival, Harper’s Weekly . Up to the Civil War at least, Leslie’s was by far the more interesting of the two papers. Its speed in producing and printing news pictures was phenomenal for the time; many appeared a week after the event, as compared to the four-day span which is normal for Life today. Leslie’s gave sensational coverage to crimes and prize fights as well as to significant news, and its tone was always more rowdy than Harper’s . But Leslie’s , like its model back in London, had a fighting social conscience, and it pioneered in this country with pictorial crusades.
One of these was its successful battle, in 1858–59, against the “swill-milk” vendors of New York. Most of the city’s milk then came from filthy barns in Brooklyn, where cows were fed on distillery mash. This highpowered diet, as Leslie’s demonstrated by numerous “on the spot” pictures, gave the cows disgusting open sores, and caused their tails to rot and fall off. But the residue of alcohol in the mash stimulated their milk production almost up to the moment when they dropped dead from the “distillery disease.”