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“The Miserable Character of the Picture”
December 5 @ 12:23 am EST
When collectors take the deep dive into popular 19th-century American prints, they often begin noticing similarities. In the days before robust copyright protections, images were shamelessly copied and reused. It can become a chicken-and-egg detective game trying to figure out which image came first. In some cases, the answer is easy; for others, mysteries remain.
AHPCS board member Jim Brust has done extensive research into the duplication of pirated Currier & Ives prints onto smaller cartes-de-visite photographs. He recently stumbled upon the wood engraving on the right, which is very similar to the well-known Currier & Ives print on the left.
The girl on the left appears as one of a pair of very small folio Currier & Ives prints Throw If You Dare and Shall I? (Figs 2-3) originally printed on one sheet but often found separated now. The girl on the right showed up as a full-page illustration (Fig. 4) in the January 1872 issue of Peterson’s Magazine, a popular monthly magazine published in Philadelphia.
Fig. 2. Currier & Ives, Throw if You Dare! and Shall I? [Lithographs, ca. 1872-4]. Courtesy of Dr. James S. Brust.
Fig. 3. Currier & Ives, Shall I? [Lithograph, ca. 1872-4]. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.
Fig. 4. “Little Snow-Ball” [Wood engraving in Peterson’s Magazine, January 1872]. Courtesy of Dr. James S. Brust.
The prints were made using very different processes–the Currier & Ives print is a hand-colored lithograph about 7 1/2 inches in height, and “Little Snow-Ball” is a wood engraving on paper about 10 inches tall (illustration height 6 1/2 inches). No artist is named for either print. The image backgrounds and details differ, but the similarities are undeniable. The lower margin of the Currier & Ives print includes their address, 125 Nassau Street, New York City, which indicates that the print was produced during the two years (between 1872 and 1874) when the publishing firm was located at that address.
The obvious question is who copied whom?
The two images are contemporaries, but “Little Snow-Ball” must have been created no later than late 1871 in order to be published in the January 1872 issue. Currier & Ives didn’t move to 125 Nassau until 1872. Based on the dates, “Little Snow-Ball” would be the presumptive “original.” There is, of course, is a third possibility. Both could have been copied from an even earlier source.
Plagiarism was rampant in the world of popular prints. Nancy Finlay writes in Picturing Victorian America that “The appearance of identical motifs in the prints of different firms, sometimes within a few days or months, sometimes over a period of many years, is one of the most characteristic features of the business between the 1830s and the 1870s.”
On May 15, 1858, Colonel Thomas Pearson August ordered the First Regiment of Virginia Volunteers to assemble on May 22nd for a four-day encampment in Ashland, Virginia. This 1858 meeting was notable as the last peaceful encampment of the militia before the start of the Civil War.
The event was memorialized in a hand-colored lithograph by Richmond printers Ritchie & Dunnavant: First Regt. Va. Volunteers: Col T P August – Camp Robinson. Hanover Co. May 22, 1858.
Today only two copies of this print are known to exist.
One of these, owned by the Ashland Museum, was in such bad condition that, in 2016, it landed on a top-ten list of Virginia’s most endangered artifacts. The heavily stained, deteriorating print was so vulnerable that it could not be handled or exhibited.
AHPCS’s Shadwell Conservation Grant was created for just such conservation emergencies. Thanks to the generosity of former AHPCS president Wendy Shadwell (1942-2007), institutional members without in-house print conservation facilities can apply for funding to preserve their important American historical prints.
In 2017, AHPCS awarded a Shadwell Grant to the Ashland Museum to save their lithograph. And this past year, the print underwent an amazing transformation thanks to Marianne Kelsey, a book and paper conservator in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Kelsey determined that the lithograph’s 1850s cotton paper had been treated with alum sizing, which breaks down over time and contributed to its extreme fragility.
On November 20th, the conserved 162-year-old print was unveiled at the museum. During the unveiling, Kelsey described her fascinating process.
To treat the print, Kelsey put it through eleven washing sessions—double what she would normally do, and she mended the paper with archival materials. Before-and-after photographs of the lithograph reveal the dramatic difference.
The Wendy Shadwell Conservation Grant program offers a great opportunity for AHPCS institutional members to help ensure the longevity of their significant historical prints. Learn more about how to apply!
Since the beginning of the pandemic, print sellers and collectors have been trying to figure out how to continue doing what they love in a socially distanced world. One of our dealer members was pleased to sell some prints online in early spring only to realize that because of local shelter-in-place rules, the purchased prints were trapped in a closed storage facility.
The art world was already growing increasingly proficient in the virtual realm before 2020; Covid-19 only accelerated the shift. But according to industry reports, the pandemic hasn’t been kind to art galleries forced to close their doors: online art buying may be up, but overall sales are down.
What did this year mean for historic print collectors? Many were already comfortable scrolling eBay listings and making online bids. But these activities were enjoyed in addition to the in-person parts of collecting that disappeared: visiting fairs, dropping into print galleries, and getting together with fellow enthusiasts.
Print collectors were also now part of what one writer termed “a captive audience” for one of the last remaining outlets open to them: online auctions. In an entirely unscientific review, we decided to take a look at the auction results recorded on the site liveauctioneers.com and share the highest prices realized for a Currier & Ives print each month in 2020.
The Year in Currier & Ives
Note: The sold prices listed below do not include the buyer’s premium or any other additional fees or taxes; multiple-print lots were not included.
$7,500 (21 bids)
American Forest Scene. Maple Sugaring.
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (artist), N. Currier [Lithograph, 1856]
$9,000 (1 bid)
The City of Philadelphia
Parsons and Atwater (artists), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1875]
$5,000 (18 bids)
“Trotting Cracks” at the Forge
Thomas Worth (artist), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1869]
$1,200 (17 bids)
Fashionable “Turn-Outs” in Central Park
Thomas Worth (artist), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1869]
$25,000 (6 bids)
Life of a Hunter. ‘A tight fix.’
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (artist), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1861]
$1,100 (1 bid)
Holidays in the Country. Troublesome Flies.
Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1868]
$6,000 (21 bids)
Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Johnson, Grand, National Union Banner for 1864.
Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1864]
$5,000 (3 bids)
The Life of a Hunter. ‘Catching a Tartar.’
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (artist), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1861]
$7,500 (28 bids)
The Port of New York. Birds Eye View from the Battery, Looking South.
Parsons & Atwater (artists), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1872]
$3,000 (9 bids)
New York and Brooklyn. With Jersey City and Hoboken Water Front.
Parsons & Atwater (artists), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1877]
$17,500 (14 bids)
Across the Continent. “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way”
F. F. Palmer (artist), J. M. Ives (lithographer), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1868]
$1,200 (11 bids)
A Parley. Prepared for an Emergency.
James Cameron (artist), Currier & Ives [Lithograph, 1866]
The anecdotal conclusion among some print collectors is that there has been an increased interest in historical prints, including Currier & Ives, during the pandemic. And with rising interest comes rising prices. One member estimated that online auction prices seemed to have gone up even as much as 25% for C& I prints.
The big seller during the pandemic was an old favorite: Life of a Hunter. ‘A tight fix’ (1861). It sold for $25,000 in August. Sotheby’s website also recorded a $30,000 sale price for another copy of the print in January.
It’s fun to look at the pricey prints, but one of our dealer members doesn’t think that’s where the real story is to be found. He has noticed that the notable change isn’t with the big-ticket items, which have regularly commanded high prices. The increased interest is for his less-expensive Currier & Ives prints, including ones with condition issues. In recent years, most of those wouldn’t have sold at all.
In a 2019 post on his Antique Prints Blog, AHPCS board member Chris Lane assessed that antique prices had been dropping since the turn of the millennium and that he’d noticed a decline in serious collectors: “The economic disaster of 2008 knocked most of these collectors out of the market, and frankly, few have come back in even a decade later.”
While stalwart collectors feel the burn from increased bidding, for the field of historic print collecting in general, it brings new optimism. As one member shared, “What the increase means to me, is there is an increasing in interest in Currier & Ives, after almost two decades of decreasing interest. Personally, I am loving it and hoping it continues.”
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (artist), N. Currier, American Forest Scene. Maple Sugaring [Lithograph, 1856]. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.
Parsons and Atwater (artists), Currier & Ives, The City of Philadelphia [Lithograph, 1875]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Currier & Ives, “Trotting Cracks” at the Forge [Lithograph, 1869]. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Thomas Worth (artist), Currier & Ives, Fashionable “Turn-Outs” in Central Park [Lithograph, 1869]. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Currier & Ives (after A. F. Tait), Life of a Hunter. ‘A tight fix’ [Lithograph, 1861]. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2007.186
Currier & Ives, Holidays in the Country. Troublesome Flies [Lithograph, 1868]. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York [58.300.19].
Currier & Ives, Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Johnson, Grand, National Union Banner for 1864 [Lithograph, 1864]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Currier & Ives (after A. F. Tait), The Life of a Hunter. ‘Catching a Tartar’ [Lithograph, 1861]. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York [57.300.64].
Parsons & Atwater (lithographers), Currier & Ives, The Port of New York. Birds Eye View from the Battery, Looking South. [Lithograph, 1872]. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Parsons & Atwater (lithographers), Currier & Ives, New York and Brooklyn. With Jersey City and Hoboken Water Front.[Lithograph, 1877]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
F. F. Palmer (artist), J. M. Ives (lithographer), Currier & Ives, Across the Continent. “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” [Lithograph, 1868]. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery.
James Cameron (artist), Currier & Ives A Parley. Prepared for an Emergency. [Lithograph, 1866]. Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.
On January 17, 1920, Prohibition went into effect in the United States. The 18th Amendment was ratified in 1919, but it gave the country a whole year to prepare for the actual outlawing of the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.”
The story doesn’t begin in 1919 or 1920, though. It took a lot of time—more than a century of work—to persuade the entire nation to give up its liquor. Generations of reformers worked tirelessly to convince Americans that alcohol was a scourge that destroyed lives and families.
In 1784, Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, published the first American medical treatise against drinking: An Enquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind. In subsequent decades, regional temperance associations were formed, and the first national group, the American Temperance Society was established in 1826.
Reformers made steady progress throughout the 19th century. In 1845, Maine became the first state to prohibit alcohol, and by 1913, more than 50% of the United States population lived in a state or region with some type of liquor prohibition. As the temperance movement grew, American prints reflected the changing culture.
In 1848, Nathaniel Currier published Washington Taking Leave of the Officers of his Army. This print depicted Washington’s final words to his officers following the end of the American Revolution in 1783. According to Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge who attended the meeting, the officers met in a tavern, and “the General filled his glass with wine” before turning to address his officers.
N. Currier, Washington Taking Leave of the Officers of his Army, at Francis’s Tavern, Broad Street, New York, Decr. 4th. 1783 [Lithograph, 1848]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
When Currier & Ives revised to the print in 1876, the image was nearly identical—except for two notable differences: Washington was no longer holding a wine glass, and his hat had replaced the decanter and glasses at the center of the picture.
Currier & Ives, Washington’s Farewell to the Officers of his Army. At the old Tavern, corner Broad and Pearl Sts. New York, Dec. 4th 1783 [Lithograph, 1876]. Courtesy of the Museum of City of New York (58.84.6).
The changes in Washington’s Farewell reflected the growing influence of the temperance movement on American life. But, prints could be more than just a mirror of the times; they could also be used as agents of the movement.
Strong words, both spoken and written, were the central vehicle for denouncing America’s culture of drinking. In a representative example, Virginia doctor Richard Carter took the time in his 1825 memoir to remind his readers that:
It is proven to a demonstration, that the immoderate use of ardent spirits, is more baneful to our commonwealth than devastation and war. For drunkeness is the annoyance of modesty, the trouble of civility, the spoiler of wealth, the destruction of reason. … A drunkard is a wife’s woe, his children’s sorrow, and resembles more the brute than the man.
Images also could communicate these temperance messages. A year after Dr. Carter published his memoir, New Haven engraver J. W. Barber published a pictorial denunciation of intemperance, The Drunkard’s Progress, or the Direct Road to Poverty, Wretchedness & Ruin.
J. W. Barber, The Drunkard’s Progress, or the Direct Road to Poverty, Wretchedness & Ruin [Engraving, 1826]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Barber’s engraving is one of the earliest American examples of a trope that would be regularly used by temperance reformers throughout the 19th century: drinking as the road to ruin. Many prints told cautionary tales that delineated a clear path from a man’s innocent first drinks to ruin (and even death).
Edward Gallaudet, The Progress of Intemperance [Engraving, 1831]. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
E.B. & E.C. Kellogg, The Drunkard’s Progress [Lithograph, 1846]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
With prints, artists could include a literal “road,” steps, or even railroad tracks down which the drunkard descended. The storyline stayed remarkably consistent all the way from Barber’s 1826 engraving to lithographs published in the 1890s.
New York Lithographing and Engraving Co., Inebriate’s Express [Lithograph, 1870]. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
Currier & Ives, The Progress of Intemperance [Lithograph, 1881]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Haasis & Lubrecht (publishers), The Drunkard’s Progress [Lithograph, 1884]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A.B. Graham Co. (lithographer), Milton W. Garnes & Co. (publisher), The Railroad that Leads From Earth to Hell [Lithograph, 1894 or 1895]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This general theme of progression allowed the prints to communicate a didactic message through a compelling narrative that was accessible to viewers of any age. Artists could also embed interesting visual details into the tale of woe to keep the viewer entertained. As the temperance movement grew, reformers began focusing their work towards children—hoping to teach them about the ills of drinking before they were old enough to take a sip. These prints were visually captivating, making them perfect for younger audiences.
One of the most well-known prints of this genre was Black Valley Railroad, which first appeared in 1863. Surrounding the detailed scene of a demonic railroad train fueled by alcohol are names of forty rail stops including Sippington, Brothelton, Idiot Flatts, and finally Smashup Rock and Destruction.
S. W. Hanks, Black Valley Railroad [Lithograph, 1863]. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
The print was copyrighted by New England minister Steadman W. Hanks and then widely reused by temperance groups including the National Temperance Society. It was advertised in Christian and temperance periodicals.
If we wonder where Americans would have seen these prints in daily life, the advertisements give us some idea. One 1869 ad in The Christian World emphasized, “It should be hung in every Depot, School-Room and Workshop.”
For all of the speeches, sermons, articles, canvassing, songs, parades, and prints that helped lead to national prohibition, the 18th Amendment would prove to be a failure. It became the only United States constitutional amendment to be repealed (by the 21st Amendment in 1933). Not surprisingly, the movement to repeal prohibition would have its own images.
Woman’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, Their Security Demands You Vote Repeal [Poster, 1932]. Courtesy of the Princeton University Posters Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
Top image credit: National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, National Constitutional Prohibition by Your Vote Help Conserve Your Country’s Resources [Poster, undated]. Courtesy of the Princeton University Posters Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
A Peter Moran Etching and Painting Saga
Back in the early 2000s, I purchased a really fine etching done by Peter Moran (1841-1914) from AHPCS member-dealer Rona Schneider. I had met Rona years earlier, and she had always encouraged me in my research efforts. We met this time at the New York Print Fair in early November. I had just begun to collect Moran material, with a goal of creating a thorough and complete catalogue of all his etchings.
The particular etching Rona had in her booth, The Return of the Herd (fig. 1), showed cows being coaxed home from a threatening storm, which appealed to me. When I mentioned my long-term goal to Rona, she just smiled, rolled her eyes a bit, and said, “Oh my, so many cows!” I wasn’t quite sure then what she meant, since I hadn’t yet delved into Peter Moran’s work, but in time I would come to appreciate her warning. Indeed this Moran brother did many etchings with cows—cows in streams, cows in fields, and cows in storms— which later proved daunting to inventory.
Fig. 1: Return of the Herd, replica etching by Peter Moran, 1875, signed upper left in the sky, “PM.” 6”h x 11-3/8”w.
I learned that this particular etching was one of Moran’s earliest, done in 1875—the first year he actually focused on etching. I also discovered that Moran had completed a large 3-1/2 x 7-foot oil painting in that same year. It, too, was titled The Return of the Herd.
Had the painting come before the etching or vice-versa? Or might they have been generated simultaneously? I wasn’t actually sure the scenes were identical. If the scene of the painting and etching matched, then the etching could be classified as a reproductive etching, and in this case more accurately termed a replica etching, since Peter was copying his own work, and not that of someone else.
Definitely both works were created within a one-year window. At that time Moran shared studio space at 1334 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, with Stephen Ferris, his brother-in-law and life-long friend and fellow painter-etcher. Moran must have painted this large oil and etched the plate in that studio space.
In the Philadelphia City Archives, I found a copy of the handwritten registration form that Moran completed in October 1875 to enter his artwork—three oil paintings and an unspecified number of watercolors and etchings on copper—in the art exhibition to be part of the Philadelphia-sponsored 1876 Centennial Exhibition (fig. 2). The first and largest of the oil paintings that Moran listed on the entry form needed wall space six feet by nine feet to handle its surrounding frame. Although Moran gave no titles on the form, this must have referenced Return of the Herd.
Fig. 2: Copy of Peter Moran’s exhibitor application form, Oct. 6,  in the United States Centennial Commission records, 1876-1879 (Reel 3602). Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution from original in the Philadelphia City Archives.
Moran’s painting had the dubious honor of taking the wall space originally intended to display Thomas Eakins’s large and powerful The Gross Clinic. At the last minute, the hanging committee determined that Eakins’s painting—entirely too gory and graphic to include with the other art—needed to be redirected to the Medical Pavilion, giving way to Moran’s piece. Moran’s group of fifteen etchings, not individually titled but clustered in frames, appeared in the exhibition’s Annex Gallery 22.
Moran’s painting and his group of etchings were both huge successes at the Centennial. Near the end of the show, on 27 September 1876, he received a medal from the Centennial Commission, “Commended for merit in genre painting,” for his Return of the Herd painting, one of forty-one medals given to less than five percent of the American paintings exhibited. He also received a separate medal for his group of etchings, one of which must have included the etched version of Return of the Herd.
My research continued on this etching with the goal of creating as accurate a catalogue entry as possible. For one thing, I wanted to make sure that it actually did replicate the painting. I searched during the next six years for the current location of the painting without success; on-line and institutional queries came up empty-handed. I found a 1981 Sotheby’s auction entry with a variant title that sounded like it might be this painting, but the catalogue had no image of it. I tried to access the Sotheby’s archives without success.
Fortunately, because the painting had won a medal, it captured significant notice in the art publications that came out during and shortly after the Centennial. Two separate write-ups included two independently generated wood engravings that illustrated the oil painting. I felt I was close to my answer!
In 1876, art critic Edward Strahan (the pen name used by Earl Shinn) described the “spirited” scene of the painting and had it illustrated with an engraving by Van Ingen & Snyder (fig. 3):
In a pleasant rolling country near the Brandywine or the Wissahickon the herdsman and his dog are driving home the cows after the soft afternoon storm which makes the herbage so tempting for a lingering bite. Mr. P. Moran’s cattle are always obviously studied from nature. In the present picture, the black head of the central animal, relieved against the brightest sky where the storm breaks away, makes fine pictorial effect for the artist; and the pretty play of the near cow and calf is true to life [Masterpieces of the Centennial International Exhibition, 1876, vol. 1, pp. 43–44].
Fig. 3: Return of the Herd, reproductive wood engraving after the Moran painting, engraved by Van Ingen & Snyder, signed lower left. Size: 3-7/8”h x 6-7/8”w. Published in 1876 to accompany notes written by Edward Strahan for Masterpieces of the International Centennial Exposition, p. 9.
The overall scene in the wood engraving—which was supposedly based on the painting, not the etching—matched the etching quite nicely, except for some minor discrepancies: the herdsman’s staff was tilted differently (to the left), and a bit of the right side of the etching was eliminated.
Then I found a second write up, by George Sheldon in the February 1878 issue of the Art Journal, with a different wood engraving of the painting, this time by John Filmer (fig. 4). This engraving threw a wrench into my analysis. Not only did the herdsman’s staff entirely disappear—something I could have dealt with—but more importantly, Filmer’s scene, as published, was a mirror-image to the etching and the earlier wood engraving.
Fig. 4: Return of the Herd, reproductive wood engraving after the Moran painting, engraved by John Filmer (1837-1929), signed lower center in the stream. Size: 3-3/8”h x 6-1/4”w. Published in The Art Journal, Feb. 1878, p. 136.
Was the threatening storm actually on the left side of the painting, as imaged by Filmer, or on the right side as seen in the Van Ingen wood engraving and in Peter Moran’s own etching? Said a different way, did Moran take the time to reverse his painted image on the etched plate so the prints of the etching would be right-reading with the painting, or not?
Being issued by the highly respectable Art Journal, I could not dismiss Filmer’s engraving as inaccurate. Sheldon also republished the same image—still reversed—in his book, American Painters, 1879, which was reissued in 1881.
I had one other potential source to check, which I learned about a short time later. In 1890—fifteen years after the completion of the painting and first etching—the prolific etching publisher Radtke, Lauckner and Company commissioned Moran to do a larger etched version of this same scene, again with the same title (fig. 5).
By this time, the public’s taste for small, hand-held etchings had morphed into a craving for large “wall art.” What better subject matter to market than a successful Centennial prize-winning painting! Moran complied with the publisher’s request. This time he worked on a plate with more than nine times the area of the first, with a resulting shift in atmospheric feel and intimacy, but with a scene having the same orientation as the first etching. Despite this match, I still had no guarantees about how either related to the original painting.
My work on Peter Moran reached final publication in 2010 without resolving the question. Without the painting, I was at a loss. I was honest about my uncertainty in several footnotes.
Fast forward five years. A slick catalogue for an up-coming sale of paintings arrived in my mail, unsolicited, from the Scottsdale Art Auction group in Arizona. This firm specializes primarily in western art, most of it modern works, and I was fairly sure I would not find anything of interest, but thumbed through the material quickly. Lo and behold! Toward the very end of the catalog, they featured a huge oil painting by Peter Moran, dated to 1875. The scene stopped me cold (fig. 7).
Fig. 7: Return of the Herd, oil painting by Peter Moran, signed and dated lower left, “P Moran – 1875.” 3’-6”h x 72–1/2”w. Scottsdale Art Auction, 11 April 2015, lot # 307.
Here it was, The Return of the Herd, with an orientation that matched both of his etchings very nicely! The auction catalogue had an incorrect title, and mentioned none of the painting’s provenance, but from the size, date, and description, I knew this had to be the Centennial painting. It was fun to see how the series of etchings and wood engravings had constantly shifted the herdsman’s staff, with the Van Ingen wood engraving being the most faithful. Both of Peter’s own etchings had it skewed differently. Through tremendous luck, I was a high phone bidder on the oil painting. Not only had I finally solved my mystery, but I could now reunite the 1875 award-winning replica etching with the celebratory painting. And, indeed, Moran had taken the time to reverse the image on his plates.
A final, and even more serendipitous event happened two years after this. Another great AHPCS member-dealer, Hollie Powers Holt, contacted me about material she had for sale from the estate of an old family friend of hers, which contained a lot of Peter Moran material. I figured that this material must have come to her clients from the estate of Moran’s second wife, who had died in 1951, in a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia.
I was thrilled with what Hollie was able to offer me, some of which I ultimately bought, including original Moran copper etching plates and several of his monotypes. Mixed in with the material were several large award certificates that Moran had received throughout his life. One of the items, which boggled my mind and which she generously just threw in with my other purchases, was Moran’s original Centennial certificate (fig. 8), listing both his painting and his etchings as award winners. This huge 20” x 27-1/2” lithograph, ink-signed by three Centennial officials, was to me priceless. Now I had reunited the trifecta—the painting, etching, and the award. I needed to quit while I was ahead!
Fig. 8: Peter Moran’s original International Exhibition 1876 Certificate of Award, for both his Oil Painting and his Etchings, presented with the medals. Sheet Size: 20”h x 27-1/2”w. Lithograph dated 27 September 1876. Embossed and ink-signed by the Centennial Commissioners: A. G. Goshorn, Director General; John L. Campbell, Secretary; and Jos. R. Hawley, President.
An architect by profession, David G. Wright, FAIA, has spent close to thirty years researching the lives and work of the American painter-etchers of the last third of the nineteenth century, a group of men and women who captivated the American art scene–and thrilled the American public–with evocative and stunning prints. He has written articles discussing the etchings of Robert Swain Gifford, Emily Kelley Moran, Mary Nimmo Moran, Thomas Moran, Stephen Parrish, and Stephen Ferris, to name but a few. In 2010 he published a two-volume work on Peter Moran, Domestic and Wild: Peter Moran’s Images of America, which received the Ewell L. Newman Book Award from the American Historical Print Collectors Society in 2011.
Around 1882, a miner visited little Annie Ellis (1875-1938) and her very poor family in Bonanza, Colorado. The miner had just struck it rich, and he gave Annie’s mother a gift of twenty-five dollars. In her memoir, Life of an Ordinary Woman (1929), Annie remembered:
There must have been many things Mama longed for (we never had any carpets or curtains), but after talking it over with [her husband] Henry, she decided to get something we could all enjoy! Their choice fell on a picture. The next question was, what picture? I am quite sure Henry made the final decision, ‘The Battle of Waterloo!’ The twenty-five is turned over and the picture sent for. After what seems a long time it comes taking three men to unload it. We children all gather around; the crate is removed, and it stands forth in all its glory. I was disappointed, and think Mama was, too, but neither of us ever admitted it. It is about five feet long and two and a half wide, in a heavy gold frame.
Given the price and size, the Ellis family probably purchased a painting—not a print. But there in the closing decades of the 1800s, the Ellises took part in an American consumer tradition that had been molded by a generation of moral and cultural leaders. Art was seen as a vital furnishing in a wholesome, pleasant American home.
From its earliest days, the influential American Art-Union (1838-1853) identified one of its core goals as cultivating “good taste in the Fine Arts” in the United States. In its 1844 annual report, the AAU promoted the benefits of a landscape painting for city dwellers: “Those who cannot afford a seat in the country to refresh their wearied spirits, may at least have a country seat in their parlors.” The AAU sent prints directly to subscribers to help fulfill its mission. Each year, subscribers received an engraving that reproduced a painting by an American artist “as may appear worthy of the distinction.”
Being able to hang and enjoy art emerged in the 19th century as an important component of American home decoration. The ability to reproduce artwork on a mass-level, first through engravings and then with less inexpensive lithographs and chromolithographs, allowed authors of homemaking manuals to recommend prints as an integral home furnishing.
The American Woman’s Home: or, Principles of Domestic Science (1869) by Catharine Beecher and her sister the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe emphasized that a well-decorated house went beyond aesthetics: “it contributes much to the education of the entire household in refinement, intellectual development, and moral sensibility.”
The Beecher sisters calculated that if a household had $80 to decorate a parlor, nearly a quarter of the budget should be reserved for pictures. Chromolithographs were recommended: “The educating influence of these works of art can hardly be over-estimated. Surrounded by such suggestions of the beautiful, and such reminders of history and art, children are constantly trained to correctness of taste and refinement of thought.”
What is particularly fun for print collectors is that the Beechers went beyond broad dictates and actually suggested four chromolithographs:
These specific recommendations allow us to see just what sort of prints the Beecher sisters had in mind.
Why these four prints? Stowe provided a broad rationale for such choices in her contemporaneous article “What Pictures Shall I Hang on My Walls?” in The Atlantic Almanac for 1869.
Stowe began by acknowledging that most people could remember a time when “with some rare exceptions, no houses had pictures.” Now, pictures were affordable even to those of “the humblest means.” The question was no longer whether to purchase but what to purchase. It was an important decision, after all, because these images would “look you in the face at all hours of day or night.”
She provided some basic rules:
- Don’t be pressured into buying art you don’t like or “high art” (i.e. works that “professed artists and instructed people” considered important): “[Pictures for the home] should express sincere ideas and tastes of the household, and not the tyrannical dicta of some art-critic or neighbor.”
- Let personal sentiment and taste be your guides: “A respectable engraving that truly is felt by a family as an artistic pleasure is a better thing for them than a much higher one that they do not understand or care for.”
- Be careful of traumatizing your family: “All pictures of shocking, painful, and brutal subjects are unfit for family pictures.”
- Don’t overlook honest, good depictions of nature: “A bunch of apple-blossoms, a blue gentian, so represented as to excel average painting, forms a charming domestic ornament, unpretending, unambitious, and always beautiful.”
Just as we could enjoy the specific prints recommended in The American Woman’s Home, Stowe’s article also provided examples of the “high art” images she would not recommend for the family parlor.
The Beggar Belisarius and his Son
“Who wishes at all hours to be confronted by the image of a blind father with a son bitten by a serpent in his arms, however well represented?” Stowe cautioned that if displayed in a bedroom, the print might give nightmares—better to keep it safely buried in a portfolio.
Michelangelo’s Sculpture of Moses
“Neither should we recommend a photograph of Michael Angelo’s Moses,” Stowe wrote. “With two well-developed horns on his forehead and a supernatural beard, as being, because a standard work of art, a proper thing to frame for household daily contemplation.”
Frans Snyder’s The Boar Hunt
“A splendid copy of Snyder’s boar-hunt, for example, with its tangle of bleeding dogs and its hellish fury of animal struggle is a very barbarous ornament of a dining-room.”
Ary Scheffer’s Francesca di Rimini
“As we should not think it amusing to have Satan’s Speech to the Sun recited at our breakfast-table, notwithstanding it is the highest style of poetry, so neither should we think Sheffer’s [sic] picture of Francisca di Rimini [sic] a proper thing to be forever talking to us from the walls of our parlors or bedrooms.”
Stowe’s argument wasn’t against these pieces of art in general; she just didn’t think they were well suited to “family life.”
Stowe closed her article urging families to invest in a good picture by a living artist: “We would recommend to every family to aim to have at least one good picture somewhere by some living artist.” Not only did it help support the artist, but it set a “standard” for other pictures. It may not be a coincidence that the chromolithographs selected in The American Woman’s Home reproduced paintings created by four living American artists: Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Eastman Johnson (1824-1906), Henry Roderick Newman (1843-1917), and Juliana Oakley (1835-1909).
Top image credit: Untitled (Victorian Collage), 1880-1890. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Art Museum.
John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-1838) has always been worthy of superlatives. After the early prints were released, one newspaper proclaimed that Audubon was “executing the most magnificent work ever ventured upon, we suspect, by individual enterprize [sic].”
In 1827, Audubon laid out his plan to potential subscribers: to publish prints of his drawings of all birds native to the “United States and its territories.” He estimated there would be about 400 plates when finished. When the very last birds were finally distributed in 1838, 435 hand-colored prints filled four volumes.
His achievement led one contemporary critic to declare that, “To paint like Audubon will henceforth mean to represent Nature as she is.”
As an artist and naturalist, Audubon strove for conventional goals, of course. He wanted to accurately depict the proportions and shape of the birds and present them in colors true to nature. But his project also had an audacious component. He didn’t just want to draw every bird accurately; he wanted to depict them at their actual size, or as he termed it, “of the full size of life.”
In a 2013 Imprint article, historian Robert Vitz described Audubon’s method for capturing the correct specimen dimensions:
Using a board marked with a wire grid, he would secure a freshly killed bird to it in a lifelike manner by means of additional wires and threads. He then sketched the bird on drawing paper marked with an identical grid, so that the result was an image both lifelike and life-size. Background and foliage could be added later.
When it came time to create the prints, the paper had to accommodate the biggest birds. For consistency, all birds big or small would end up on the largest paper available, a size known as “double elephant folio,” measuring 26.5 x 39.5 inches. In practice, this means that just one volume of Birds of America weighs nearly 40 pounds. Audubon acknowledged it was so large as to “require two stout arms to raise it from the ground.”
Audubon defended his decision: “As to the size of the paper, which has been complained by some, it could not be avoided without giving up the desire of presenting to the world those my favourite objects in nature, of the size which nature has given to them.”
Audubon recognized that size was a crucial selling feature to set his project apart. He planned to send prints to subscribers in “moderate intervals,” five at a time, and from the start, he promised that each group would contain a bird from “the largest drawings, one from one of the second size, and three from the smaller drawings.” Historian Gregory Nobles explains that Audubon “was careful not to use up the big birds too soon, so he doled them out slowly, keeping his customers waiting for the next number. This sequence didn’t make for good science—it certainly had nothing to do with the ornithological classification of birds—but it was very smart marketing.”
The Birds of America were numbered sequentially from 1 to 435 with a plate number printed in Roman numerals in the upper-right corner of each print. By browsing through the prints, one discovers that just as Audubon had promised, the first print in each group of five (i.e. prints with plate numbers ending with a 1 or 6) is almost unfailing a large bird. In the very few cases where this isn’t the case, Audubon worked hard to make up for any potential disappointment. If he couldn’t bring the size, he certainly brought the drama, as with the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet (“Carolina Parrot” – Plate 26) and the Brown Thrasher (“Ferruginous Thrush” – Plate 116).
Big or small, Audubon’s birds are works of art. But the smaller species, like the Ruby-crowned Kinglet (“Ruby crowned Wren” – Plate 195) or the Boreal Chickadee (“Canadian Titmouse” – Plate 194), would have fit just as happily on much smaller sheets. Most birds didn’t require their more than 2 x 3 feet paper cages, which brings up an interesting question:
What are the biggest birds in Audubon’s Birds of America?
True to Audubon’s objectives, his biggest birds are North America’s biggest birds. Size, though, can refer to multiple measurements: wingspan, body length, or weight. The North American bird with the longest wingspan (California Condor, plate 426) is neither the tallest bird (the Whooping Crane, plate 226) nor the heaviest (the Trumpeter Swan, plates 376 and 406). Even with the expansiveness of the double-elephant paper, Audubon faced challenges making some birds fit. He aimed to depict each species in a natural pose, though, as you’ll see, these big birds didn’t always make that easy.
Wild Turkey – Plate 1
Susanne Low notes in A Guide to Audubon’s Birds of America, “It is difficult to find this print in pristine condition. As the first one sent to subscribers, it was proudly shown off to family and friends, so that it was much handled.”
Current name: Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)
|43.3-45.3 inches||88.2-381.0 ounces||49.2-56.7 inches|
Bird of Washington – Plate 11
Current name: Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
|27.9-37.8 inches||105.8-222.2 ounces||80.3 inches|
White-headed Eagle – Plate 31
Current name: Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)
|27.9-37.8 inches||105.8-222.2 ounces||80.3 inches|
Fish Hawk, or Osprey – Plate 81
|21.3-22.8 inches||49.4-70.5 ounces||59.1-70.9 inches|
White-headed Eagle – Plate 126
|27.9-37.8 inches||105.8-222.2 ounces||80.3 inches|
Golden Eagle – Plate 181
|27.6-33.1 inches||105.8-216.1 ounces||72.8-86.6 inches|
Great blue Heron – Plate 211
|38.2-53.9 inches||74.1-88.2 ounces||65.8-79.1 inches|
Hooping Crane – Plate 226
Current name: Whooping Crane (Grus americana)
|59.1 inches||211.6-275.1 ounces||90.2 inches|
Great White Heron – Plate 281
Current name: Great Blue Heron subspecies (Ardea herodias occidentalis)
|38.2-53.9 inches||74.1-88.2 ounces||65.8-79.1 inches|
American White Pelican – Plate 311
|50.0-65.0 inches||158.7-317.5 ounces||96.1-114.2 inches|
Trumpeter Swan – Plate 376
Current name: Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)
|54.3-62.2 inches||271.6-448.0 ounces||79.9 inches|
Trumpeter Swan – Plate 406
|54.3-62.2 inches||271.6-448.0 ounces||79.9 inches|
Californian Vulture – Plate 426
|46.1-52.8 inches||246.9-349.2 ounces||109.1 inches|
American Flamingo – Plate 431
|47-57 inches||78.4-99.2 ounces||55-65 inches|
Superlatives for Audubon’s birds weren’t limited to the 19th century. A copy of Birds of America would go on to be among the most expensive books ever sold ($11.6 million in 2010), and through the 20th century, it held the record as the largest book ever published. Michael Hawley’s five-by-seven foot Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Kingdom stole the title in 2003.
Learn more about Audubon and the Birds of America
- “The Myth of John James Audubon” by Gregory Nobles
- John J. Audubon’s Birds of America, National Audubon Society
- John James Audubon, New-York Historical Society
- Audubon’s Birds of America at the University of Pittsburgh
Credits: Birds of America images courtesy of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing. Bird measurements primarily from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “All About Birds.”
We are pleased to welcome Allen Bernard to the role of AHPCS president!
As well as being an AHPCS board member since 2014, Allen is a historical researcher, writer, architectural preservationist, and interpreter of local history in Cincinnati, Ohio. Allen has written extensively on topics relating to architectural preservation and genealogy and is also the author of The Prints of Benjamin Miller, A Catalogue Raisonné. He served as President of the Graphic Arts Forum of Cincinnati, a volunteer in the Print Department of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and serves as a Shareholder in that institution. He attended Fairfield University, Ball State University, and holds a doctorate from the University of Cincinnati. He is an avid collector of prints, both historical and some contemporary.
AHPCS members will have the opportunity to hear more from Allen in upcoming issues of the News Letter, but he recently took the time to tell us about his print-collecting passions.
What do you collect? Have your collecting interests changed over time?
I primarily collect etchings and woodcuts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Being a private collector, I buy that which I find appealing. Gradually as I learned the history of woodcuts, I gravitated to social justice themes portrayed in historical prints. I am fascinated by the history of printmaking in the United States and the remarkable skill of lesser-known artists who missed marketing opportunities. I am moved by some of the printmakers of the 1930s and 40s in their depiction of the social scenes of that time—given the Society’s focus on prints that are 100 or more years old, AHPCS will eventually also call these historical prints.
Why did you start collecting prints?
I started collecting in 1978 after visiting a neighborhood gallery featuring the prints of John Henry Twachtman. One of them, Four Boats, a drypoint etching done in 1880, caught my eye . . . and I swallowed twice when I saw the price! Being an indigent academic, I paid $300 for it in monthly installments thinking I was being charged by the millimeter. It was only 4 x 5 inches. I began collecting more Twachtman prints and prints of the Etching Revival, especially those by female printmakers and those with a Cincinnati connection. In New York, I met the salespersons such as Gertrude Dennis at Weyhe, Antoinette Kraushaar at Kraushaar’s Gallery, and others at Kennedy Galleries. They trusted me to take home prints on approval—to Cincinnati. I was floored by such trust in “print people.”
What advice would you give new collectors?
Find an appealing image. Find out everything known about it: its historical position, who the artist was, and what influenced the artist to create it. Is it an original print? Can I afford it? Will it continue to speak to me? Do I want to be associated with that artist and his creativity? If the answer is yes to many of those questions, you WILL buy it.
When and how did you first learn about AHPCS?
I attended an annual meeting in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2011 as a guest of longtime member Virginius Hall. This meeting was outstanding with tours of the American Antiquarian Society. Then I met John Zak—he made the difference. The next thing I realized that I was suggesting a meeting in Cincinnati and volunteered to chair it! John, as president of AHPCS, assured me that he would support me in every way. The people I met at the meeting and the quality of the presentations gave me ample evidence that this was an organization of merit.
What are your goals as AHPCS president?
- Explore new directions and issues related to social media and technology and their relationship to historic print images.
- Recognize the heritage of AHPCS and further delineate its purpose in the 21st century.
- Continue to attract members and boost membership among younger and under-represented minorities.
- Make certain that AHPCS remains fiscally responsible while offering programs and activities that appeal to the membership.
- Utilize the AHPCS website, publications, and meetings to publicize and enhance communications with our members and among the Board.
- Implement and support the direction given by the Board of Directors.
We have a special annual meeting coming up in Mystic, Connecticut, in the fall. What is your favorite part of AHPCS annual meetings?
I’ve been able to attend most annual meetings since I became a member–and even got the opportunity to host the 2013 meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. The program content of our meetings is usually excellent. There are opportunities to visit private and small museum collections. Meeting and interacting with members proves to be a great learning and delightful social experience. Then the auction under Robert Newman’s connoisseurship is always a finale to remember—testing patience, providing exhilaration, and wondering how I will ever get a purchased piece home.
What are some of your all-time favorite prints?
Rainy Night in Venice (1880) by Otto Bacher (Fig. 1). Mine is inscribed “To mother / Otto.” Of course, Four Boats (c. 1883) by John Henry Twachtman (Fig. 2), an exquisite minimalist impressionist piece exemplifying the adage “less is more.” Another of my favorite prints is Thomas Moran’s The Passaic Meadows (Fig. 3) because of naturalist expression through detailed representation of plants. Then finally there is Benjamin Miller’s The City (1928) (Fig. 4), not in AHPCS’s definition of “historic” [100 years or older] but definitely an expressionistic print illustrating some of the challenges of society.
The recent news that Freeman’s Auctions sold an engraved copy of the Declaration of Independence for $4.42 million reminds us that prints go beyond just pretty pictures.
Here at AHPCS, we focus on historic prints produced from a matrix, using intaglio, relief, or planographic techniques. A matrix is defined as a “physical surface that can be manipulated to hold ink.” The way the physical surface is manipulated to hold ink defines the printing processes. Common examples of intaglio, relief, and planographic prints are engravings, woodcuts, and lithographs, respectively. These techniques can be used to create much more than just pictorial content, including—as with the Declaration of Independence—texts.The recently sold Declaration of Independence is a copperplate engraving by William J. Stone (1798-1865) printed on parchment in 1823. The engraving was commissioned in 1820 by John Quincy Adams, then the United States Secretary of State. Stone was an engraver in Washington, D.C., and his imprint also appears on maps, charts, and book illustrations. Stone etched an image of the White House (Fig. 1) around the same time he was working on his Declaration of Independence.
A Very Brief History of the Declaration of Independence
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence, and Philadelphia printer John Dunlap was charged with producing the first printed version of the Declaration. This broadside, carrying only the names of Continental Congress President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson, was distributed to every colony and American military leaders. On July 19th, Congress ordered an official handwritten version (known as an “engrossed” copy) of the Declaration to be made and signed by the Congressional delegates. In total, there would be 56 signers.This handwritten, signed copy became the iconic “national treasure” that has been displayed at the National Archives in Washington since 1952 (Fig. 2). However in the decades after 1776, it was rolled up and moved multiple times—notably packed in a bag and evacuated to rural Virginia during the British invasion of Washington in 1814.
The end of the War of 1812 spurred a wave of patriotism in the United States and created new interest in the country’s origins, its founders, and founding documents. Printmakers recognized a market for patriotic prints, and in the late 1810s, two men competed to be the first to bring their own engravings of the Declaration of Independence to market. In 1818, calligraphy teacher Benjamin Owen Tyler published his copy, engraved by Peter Maverick (Fig. 3), and a year later, John Binns published his own version, complete with an ornate border containing state seals and vignette portraits of John Hancock, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson (Fig. 4).
Tyler and Binns strove to provide true “facsimile” (or exact) copies of the original delegate signatures. Authenticity was a key selling point, and both went as far as to include certifications from the United States Secretary of State on the actual prints.
Secretary Adams certified Binns’ copy, writing: “I have compared all the signatures with those of the original and found them EXACT IMITATIONS.” A year earlier, Acting Secretary of State Richard Rush had attested to Tyler’s print, “I have, myself, examined the signatures to each. Those executed by Mr. Tyler are curiously exact imitations; so much so that it would be difficult if not impossible for the closest scrutiny to distinguish them, were it not for the hand of time, from the originals.”
Secretary Rush’s reference to the “hand of time” introduced a growing problem for the original Declaration—the document was deteriorating. The process of creating copies proved part of the problem. In February 1819, Adams had given Binn’s permission to handle the original to “take fac similes [sic] of the signatures.” Adams later noted, “The original itself has suffered by the handling of the Engraver to take these fac-similes.”
Aware of the vulnerability of the original, Adams proposed creating an exact copy of the entire Declaration (not just the signatures), writing that it would “be kept separate from the original, and as an accurate likeness of it, in case of any accident happening to it.” Adams noted in his diary that Tyler had a “talent of imitating very exactly the handwriting of others,” and, in April 1819, he asked him to take on the task. Tyler requested $150 for the project, which was apparently too costly. Adams reported, “I therefore gave up the project.”According to Adams’ diary, he initially met with William Stone in July 1820 about engraving a passport for the State Department. Sometime in subsequent months, Adams commissioned him to make a copperplate engraving of the engrossed Declaration of Independence. On June 5, 1823, the Washington National Intelligencer reported that “after a labor of three years,” Stone had completed his work, and the Department of State had purchased the plate. The article noted, “We are very glad to hear this, for the original of that paper, which ought to be immortal and imperishable, by being so much handled by copyists and curious visitors, might receive serious injury.”
Along with purchasing the actual copperplate (Fig. 5), the State Department also commissioned 200 copies on vellum from Stone. In 1824, Congress passed a resolution delineating the distribution of those 200 copies including to various federal and state officials, as well as two copies each to the three still-living original signers: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Carroll. It is one of Carroll’s copies that sold for $4.42 million in the July auction.
A mystery that remains with Stone’s engraving is how exactly did he do it? How did he create such a near copy? And, did his process do further damage to the original?
One theory emerged that Stone might have made a copy using a wet or chemical transfer process that lifted up ink from the original. In 1880, Congress commissioned a National Academy of Sciences committee to investigate the condition of the engrossed original. While not specifically mentioning Stone, their report noted that “press copies have been taken from the original so that a part of the ink has been removed from the parchment.” Since the late 19th century, articles have often referenced the debate over whether a press copy was made for the 1823 facsimile, though there is no proof that Stone used such a technique.
Manuscripts expert Seth Kaller discounts the idea that Stone used a wet or chemical transfer process. Given that John Quincy Adams was already concerned about the state of the original in 1819, Kaller finds it unlikely that either Adams or Stone would have allowed continuing damage: “The whole idea that Stone would do anything that would risk deteriorating the original is not supported.”
Kaller believes it is quite possible Stone traced the original, though there isn’t any evidence, or Stone could have done the engraving freehand, with the original at his side. Kaller’s research, as well as a detailed comparison by the “Declaration Resources Project” at Harvard University, have identified small variations between the two documents. Harvard’s project pinpointed small punctuation omissions in the 1823 version, and Kaller has noted subtle differences in the flourishes of the capital “T” in “The Unanimous Declaration” at the beginning of the document (Fig. 6). It turns out that Stone’s Declaration isn’t a true “exact” copy.
In their quest to stabilize and preserve the now nearly invisible text, conservators at the National Archives have done extensive research into the history of the Declaration. In a 2016 article, NARA chief conservators Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Catherine Nicholson reviewed the physical changes to the then 240-year-old document, acknowledging, “There is little written evidence of what may have happened—or when—to alter the document.” Based on comparisons with photographs of the Declaration from 1903, notable deterioration occurred even in the 20th century.
The specific methods by which Tyler and Binns captured facsimiles of the Declaration’s signatures, and Stone the full document, remain unclear. All three produced facsimiles of the signatures, and, notably, that portion of the document is most faded. In October 1870, The Historical Magazine was reporting that the original was “said to be rapidly fading out, so that, in a few years, only the naked parchment will remain. Already, nearly all the signatures attached to the Declaration of Independence are entirely effaced.” Even without a wet transfer process, tracing likely would have brought the engravers into direct physical contact with the document. (Watch printmaker Andrew Stein Rafferty demonstrate the reproductive engraving process from tracing to printing.)
It would be ironic if Adams and Stone’s efforts to help safeguard the iconic document had indeed hastened its deterioration. But it remains a monumental achievement. As NARA archivist Leonard Rapport wrote in a 1979 article on fakes and facsimiles, “From the original Stone copperplate engraving, directly or indirectly, stem all the millions–literally, millions–of facsimiles of the engrossed Declaration of Independence.”
Exploring the Declaration Yourself
Below we offer you the opportunity to examine and compare digitized images of the original engrossed Declaration of Independence with the facsimiles and zoom in on the mysteries that remain between the original and the prints. Note that due to different angles of the original photography, the texts may not fully line up in the layered view.
Engrossed Declaration of Independence [Manuscript on parchment, sheet 75 x 62 cm, 1776] Courtesy of the National Archives.
Benjamin Owen Tyler (publisher), Peter Maverick (engraver), In Congress, July 4th, 1776, the unanimous Declaration of the United States of America [Engraving, sheet 80 x 65 cm, 1818]. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
John Binns, Declaration of Independence [Engraving and etching, sheet 91 x 68 cm, 1819]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
William J. Stone, In Congress, July 4, 1776, the unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America [Engraving, sheet 84 x 66 cm, 1823]. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
Levin C. Handy (photographer), Declaration of Independence as it appeared in 1903 while at the U.S. State Department [Photograph, April 23, 1903]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Learn more about the Declaration of Independence and early engravings
Declaration Resources Project, Harvard University.
John Bidwell, “American History in Image and Text” in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1989.
Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Catherine Nicholson, “The Declaration of Independence and the Hand of Time” in Prologue Magazine (Fall 2016, Vol. 48, No. 3).
In his 2002 book Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of the Gilded Age, author Joshua Brown shared a curious note buried in the August 16, 1851, issue of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion:
Boston Brass Band.—We really owe our readers an apology for the miserable character of the picture on the first page of the last number of our paper, representing the band of musicians above named. It was miserably engraved, and, we shall take care to print no more so deficient in this respect.
The illustrated weekly, which had published its first issue only four months earlier, prided itself on its wood engravings, advertising: “Each paper is BEAUTIFULLY ILLUSTRATED with numerous accurate engravings by eminent artists.” Perhaps to buffer the blow, the August 16th mea culpa was placed directly above a quote from a Pennsylvania newspaper: “Gleason’s popular paper is gaining new laurels every week, by the beauty and finish of its engravings and the variety and excellence of its reading matter.”
What sort of picture could have been bad enough to warrant a printed apology? It was a wood engraving of the Boston Brass Band (Fig. 1) credited to Worcester & Pierce, a Boston firm that had already done a number of engravings for the young periodical.The core problem for Boston Brass Band appears to be mechanical instead of artistic. Wood engravings (as opposed to woodcuts) use the non-splintering end grain of the wood block instead of cutting with the grain on the longer side of the block. Consequently, especially with wood from trees that grow slowly like the preferred boxwood, engravers are confined to working with a small surface area. To create a large design, the image has to be divided among multiple blocks that are then fastened together (Fig. 2).
With tightly fastened, well-fitted blocks, the final print should appear nearly seamless. The Boston Brass Band, by contrast, has two noticeable white vertical lines cutting through two of the musicians (Figs. 3-4).
Helena Wright, Curator Emerita of Graphic Arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, zeroed in on those lines. According to Wright, “The major problem is those white vertical lines indicating that the blocks were not properly attached for printing.”
Even though the horizontal lines match up, there was a vertical gap between the blocks. With time, as the blocks are subjected to the repeated pressure of printing, the fastenings can also begin to open up, with white lines appearing where the blocks are separating. Wright also notes, “There seems to be some uneven inking as well, indicating that the blocks were not level on the press, another sign of their detachment.”
Interestingly, even with its self-reproach, Gleason’s Pictorial wasn’t done with the Boston Brass Band engraving.
Prior to the August apology, the paper had already informed readers that it had decided on an overall do-over. The May 3, 1851, issue reported that Gleason’s had learned how to “improve upon our original design, after a little experience in the matter, and finding also that it would be utterly impossible for us to supply the demand for back numbers … we resolved to remedy the trouble in the only way left us, and that was to begin over again all anew.”
True to their word, a new Vol. 1, No. 1, was published on July 5, 1851, reproducing much (but not all) of the content that had appeared in the original first issue. It appears the new version began running old content as the original magazine continued to publish new content. As a result, the Boston Brass Band reappeared on the front page of the September 20th issue (Fig. 5).In this printing, the right-hand white line was closed up, but the left one remained. Wright also found the inking to look uneven across the darks and light suggesting the blame might lie more with the original engraver, Worcester & Pierce, than with Gleason’s printer. Notably, the next issue in the new, improved edition omitted the earlier apology.
Another possible reason for Gleason’s apology was noticed by a brass instrument expert who shared the print on his website. According to the original article, the Boston Brass Band had constructed new instruments with the bells “all opening back, and pointing over the shoulders of the performers, giving the company the great advantage of hearing every note of each instrument.” In examining the image, the expert found the depictions of some of the instruments peculiar:
Closely studying this image, the artist’s rendition is imperfect in three of the instruments immediately to the right of center, that have loops in the bell section like trombones, but no hand slide section nor valves. Of course, it’s possible that there were “natural trumpets” or signal instruments with bells over the shoulder like this used in the Boston Brass Band at this time, but it seems more likely that the artist was relying on a slightly faulty memory.
Even with obvious technical flaws and possibly inaccurate instruments, one still does wonder if the engraving did indeed sink to “miserable” status. Scrolling through digitized copies of Gleason’s, one finds many examples of wood engravings with visible lines (though they generally do not distort the image). Maybe, the harsh judgment reflects the lofty goals of a young magazine—one so focused on quality and success that it was willing even to press the restart button on itself fifteen issues in.