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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
There had been complaints about the milk before, but Leslie’s pictures made the city gasp. One unforgettable front page showed a suffering cow, obviously in her last mortal throes, with her tongue dragging and a broken stump of tail, being held upright in a sling while a few final drops were squeezed from her udder by a nonchalant stablehand. Dead cows, covered with flies, were shown being hauled from the stables alongside open cans of milk. There was one view of a Leslie’s artist, looking quite dapper with cape and top hat, being threatened by a mob of the so-called “milkmaids,” who were actually villainouslooking males.
Leslie’s followed the milk wagons on their routes and printed the names of customers whose children were drinking the “poison.” It also ran midnight scenes of drivers diluting their milk at the public water pumps. The city’s political bosses did their best to suppress or ignore these revelations. But public anger forced action in the state legislature, which for the first time passed a law to purify the milk supply. The grateful citizenry gave Frank Leslie a watch, with a picture of his new printing press on the lid, and a chain whose gold links were shaped to resemble the lost tails of the martyred cows.
Thus, during its first twenty years, pictorial journalism was already showing a sense of duty toward its readers, and an independent approach to the news. Most of its basic tools and techniques were already known. Photography was being widely used, to produce original pictures and to reproduce them for the engravers. Color printing from woodblocks began in the Illustrated London News in 1855, and in this country in the i86o’s. The only really necessary invention that came later was halftone engraving, which was not perfected until the 1890’s.
During the Civil War, of course, the American picture weeklies came into their own. It is impossible now to visualize that war without thinking of the pictorial reporting of Alfred and William Waud, Theodore Davis, Edwin Forbes, Winslow Homer, Joseph Becker, and their fellow artists of the battlefield and camp. A compilation recently published by the National Gallery of Art shows that Harper’s, Leslie’s , and their lesser rival, the New York Illustrated News (which started in 1859), employed twenty-seven “special” or combat artists during the war, and also used the work of more than three hundred identified amateurs as well as of a great many photographers. All together, these three northern weeklies printed nearly six thousand war pictures.
(There was also a Southern Illustrated News in Richmond from September, 1862, to March, 1865. But it lacked able artists and engravers, and printed almost no pictures that can be classed as first-hand reporting.)
After the war Frank Leslie overextended himself and died bankrupt in 1880. His widow, a most remarkable woman, took over his paper and even his name-signing herself “Frank Leslie” henceforth-and made a financial comeback. But a much invigorated Harper’s Weekly was the nation’s top news magazine until near the turn of the century. Through the cartoons of Thomas Nast and the hard-hitting editorial policies of George William Curtis, Harper’s exposed and did much to curb the political and business corruption of the Gilded Age. It never adapted itself very well to photography, and it lost its leadership to Collier’s , a later arrival which developed war photography to a fine art in Cuba and the Philippines.
In the 1870’S an entirely new kind of pictorial journalism arose in St. Louis and San Francisco, and then moved on to New York. It was represented at its best by Ambrose Bierce’s San Francisco Wasp and Joseph Keppler’s New York Puck . Both were so-called humor weeklies with serious opinions about public affairs. In Puck these opinions were dramatized in savage, gaudily colored cartoons, with big, ornate double spreads in almost every issue. Probably the most devastating political cartoon ever published in America was Puck ’s “Tattooed Man” attack on James G. Blaine in July, 1884, showing the Republican presidential candidate cringing and almost nude before a tribunal of his party, with his shortcomings spelled out in tattoo across his bulging epidermis (see our next number, August, 1962). Puck had a number of imitators and rivals, the most effective being Judge , which did a good job of tormenting the Democrats with the same kind of color cartoons. A much eentler. nonpolitiral type of humor was characteristic of the original Life , which E. S. Martin launched in 1883.