“A Landscape of Little Beauty…”

For a July 1938 article in New York History titled “History in Prints,” writer Millicent Stow plodded through a chronology of some historically important prints.

One print received rather sneering commentary: “[The artist] might have portrayed something more interesting, but he seems to have been content with a landscape of little beauty and no historic interest.”

So what made this little print even worthy of Stow’s notice?

It is the first known lithograph printed in America.

Lithography had been invented by Alois Senefelder in Germany in the late 1790s, but it would be more than two decades before his discovery saw actual application across the Atlantic. It was only in 1819 that Philadelphia artist Bass Otis produced this print to accompany an article on lithography by Professor Thomas Cooper in the July issue of The Analectic Magazine.

Why Otis picked this particular mill scene we’ll likely never know. Manuscript sources related to printing history are notoriously scarce.

Consequently, it’s particularly noteworthy that former special collections librarian (and AHPCS member) Philip Weimerskirch has generously shared a new archival find! A May 6, 1819, letter by Cooper in the Newport Historical Society describing his work with Otis and others to produce this first American lithograph.

To read Philip’s full article about Cooper’s letter, check out page 6 of the newest issue of the AHPCS News Letter (Summer 2019).


Image credit: Lithograph, ‘Untitled (House and stream)’. DL*60.2417. Peters Prints collection, National Museum of American History