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An Affectionate Portfolio

July 2024
6min read


In the pages that follow are some of the actual news pictures and cartoons and historic front pages that marked the rise of pictorial journalism up to the year 1900. All of these are from the collection assembled by Roger Butterfield, author of the accompanying article, and recently acquired by the New York State Historical Association at Cooperstown. With its 200,000 items—books and pamphlets, broadsides and catalogues, newspapers and magazines—it has long been recognized as one of the finest private collections of Americana in this country. The editors of A MERICAN H ERITAGE —a more recent arrival among pictorial magazines—are pleased to present this visual salute to the pioneers of a great profession.


Our two opening pages are devoted to the world’s first picture newspaper, which has appeared each week for 120 years under its familiar heading of the Thames water front and St. Paul’s dome. The parade of top-hatted placard men shown in the woodcut below promoted the sale of the first issue of the Illustrated London News , for May 14, 1842. The first authentic spot-news picture in history appeared on page one of its fourth issue, reproduced on the opposite page; this was in the hands of readers only five days after the “disgraceful attempt” to assassinate the Queen. Color printing was inaugurated in the Christmas supplement for 1855, above. The “house ad” at the right describes its reporting triumphs during the Crimean War.


The first American picture weekly imitated the Illustrated London News even in its engraved heading, which was an obvious attempt to make Boston’s harbor and State House look like the English magazine’s view of the Thames. Gleason’s began on May 3, 1851, changed its name to Ballou’s in 1855, and died in 1859. Although it was printed in Boston, some of its best engravings were created elsewhere, like the splendid double-page spread, below, of Commodore Matthew Perry being rowed out to his flagship off Norfolk, at the start of his voyage to Japan. This was drawn and engraved by New York artists who probably did not see the fleet depart but followed existing pictures of the ships, and their imagination. Such double-page layouts were pioneered by the Illustrated London News , which developed a method of joining small wood blocks into a large engraving surface. In the cuts below, the fine white lines of separation are barely visible.


In the United States the best picture weeklies were Frank Leslie’s and Harper’s , which began in 1855 and 1857 respectively. Both were directly inspired by the success of the Illustrated London News but quickly developed styles of their own. Leslie’s featured hairsbreadth thrills and sensational crusades; the dying cow on the opposite page was one of the many harrowing scenes it printed while battling to clean up the milk supply of New York. Harper’s was more sedate—as befitted “A Journal of Civilization”—but it pulled ahead in circulation by means of its magnificent reporting of the Civil War and by publishing powerful cartoons and editorials. The Union sharpshooter by Winslow Homer, at right, and The Tammany Tiger Loose! by Thomas Nast, below, were perhaps the most famous pictures that Harper’s ever printed. But there were hundreds of others—battle scenes and Lincoln cartoons, Nast’s Republican elephant and Democratic donkey, and his lanky, beaver-hatted Uncle Sam—which entered into the national consciousness and were fixed in history by Harper’s . It was a Nast cartoon that followed the runaway Boss Tweed to Spain and led to his identification and arrest in 1876. Tweed himself blamed his downfall on the cartoons. Even though the voters couldn’t read, he remarked, they could “look at the damned pictures.”


American women acquired a pictorial weekly of their own when Harper’s Bazar was launched in 1867 by the same firm which issued Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine . The Bazar was especially attractive during the Empress Eugénie period, when it provided detailed reports from Paris of the newest hairdos and bustle-propped styles. It also printed serialized fiction by such writers as Thomas Hardy. Its occasional colored supplements (above) were fine steel engravings colored by hand in the old tradition established by Godey’s Lady’s Book .


The world’s first pictorial daily (upper left) is almost entirely forgotten today. But during its career of sixteen years it had a tremendous influence in directing American journalism toward providing more news in pictures. In spite of its name this original New York Graphic had no connection whatever with the raucous Macfadden tabloid of the 1890’s. It was started in 1873 by two Canadians, William Leggo and Joseph Desbarets, who had already patented a method for reproducing photographs through a primitive halftone screen. In 1880 the Graphic published a famous pioneer halftone (center left) which was prepared “directly from nature”—that is, without being copied by hand—by means of a single-line screen. Although it prodmed a much coarser picture than the finer screens of the 1890’s, this marked the practical beginning uf photojournalism in the United States. Since most Graphic pictures were drawings and paintings superbly printed on coated stock by lithography, the result often looked more like a work of art than a hustling newspaper.

At this time the regular dailies were much too fat and contented to go to the trouble of printing news pictures. But they were shocked into attion after Joseph Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883. Pulitzer assigned art ists to work alongside reporters and sprinkled their overnight “spots” through his news columns. The World ’s circulation shot up to the highest in America: when it omitted the pictures, for a few weeks only, circulation dropped almost as fast. Rival papers, like brother Albert Pulitzer’s Journal , followed the World ’s example; below is its extra on the great blizzard of ’88. William Randolph Hearst, after he was expelled from Harvard, worked for the World as a cub reporter, and noted in a letter home that “illustrations embellish a page … and stimulate the imagination of the masses.” When Hearst got a newspaper of his own (opposite) he embellished its clamorous pages with colored halftones and stimulated the masses with his chauvinistic personal reporting of the Spanish-American War.


The last thirty years of the rentun’ were the golden age of political caricature in America, when the cartoonist’s work was more eagerly discussed, more vividly drawn, and more fearlessly published—and more savage—than ever before or since. Many brilliantly colored cartoons appeared in a group of pictorial weeklies whose “humor” was often far from funny to their victims. The most famous of these was Puck , started by Joseph Keppler in 1876 in German, and in 1877 in English; it was long edited bv Henry Cuyler Runner. Puck was uproariously Democratic in national politics, but it attacked Tammany Hall, the lalxir bosses, prohibitionists, and even the Pope with equal gusto. At the left is one of its milder caricatures, drawn by Kcpplcr himself, of old philanthropist Peter Cooper, winner of so many honorary degrees that he carries a cushion with him to the platform.

Earlier American magaxincs had been satisfied with one big cartoon in each issue. Kcppler published three each week—a full-page front cover, a double-page center spread, and a fullpage back cover. His cartoons were cxulierant and even gaudy when compared with the Rue pen-and-ink work of Thomas Nast in Harper’s . The fact that they were drawn with crayon directly on the lithographic stone gave them a freehand feeling that appealed to artists and brought Kcpplcr some able assistants, as well as some formidable competitors.

Eventually Puck lost ground to its Republican rival, Judge , represented in this portfolio by a double-spread on the next two pages. In 1898 some Democrats financed the short-lived Verdict to attack the Vanderbilt interests and beat McKinley and Hanna in the 1900 presidential campaign. They failed in this but they did pro duce some amazing pictorial libels, including the vulture Hanna pinning down American labor, at right.


The years have been kind to only a few of the publications that rose and flourished during the first sixty years ol pictorial journalism. Some, like Gleason-Ballou’s , died young and with very few mourners. Others, like Harper’s Weekly and Leslie’s , lingered on into the twentieth century, long after the editorial spark that had made them great was gone. Judge abandoned politics earl, about 1910; but its japes and jazzy cartoons were never very popular after the 1920’s. In its enfeebled pages, the two-line joke made its last stand. One of the last to die, Collier’s , was mercifully bashed in the head after falling victim to a modern disease—advertising deficiency. This ailment occurs when a magazine’s mass circulation swells Io expensive dimensions but is not sufficiently large to take away enough soup, soap, and underwear advertising from its rivals.

Among the survivors of the nineteenth-century weeklies it is impossible to chart any definite trend. The Saturday Evening Post , the oldest of all, was never really picture-minded until its great editor, George Horace Lorhner, began running two-color covers in 1899. Last year it experienced the latest of innumerable face-liftings during its 140-year career. Life , the giant of photojournalism, took nothing but its name from the famous old humor weekly which Time Inc. bought and laid to rest in 1936. Almost alone among the old-timers, the Illustrated London News , with its dispassionate pictorial record of world events, its gentlemanly essays, and its absence of blatant advertising, still maintains the ton of the earlier journalism. It no longer has an American counterpart. Scientific American ended its course as a picture weekly back in 1921, and it has now had a complete rebirth as a high-level monthly of modern science.

The biggest change of all has come from high-speed photography, which transformed picture reporting from an art to a push-button science, and from the perfection of halftone engraving, which substituted u mechanical process for the craftsman’s Hngcrs and gravers. News pictures in our own time are far more precise, real, and immediate than the woodcuts of the nineteenth century. But in this inevitable progression some things that only the artist could add—perspective, imagination, and charm—have often been deadened or lost.

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