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Pictures In The Papers

July 2024
18min read

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

O n May 30, 1842, a young Englishman named John Francis chew a pistol from his waistcoat pocket and fired a shot at Queen Victoria as she rode by in an open carriage. A police constable grabbed the would-be assassin just as he pressed the trigger, so his bullet whizzed harmlessly through the air. His effort made history nonetheless, for it became the subject of the first spot news picture in the world’s first pictorial newspaper, the still surviving—and still great— Illustrated London News .

This pioneer picture is reproduced in the portfolio thai accompanies this article. Pictorial journalism, as a distinct profession, technique, and business, is now 120 years old. Its newest productions are not necessarily its most handsome or entertaining—as the display of older American papers on the opposite page may suggest.

Of course some people have always expected that a public fed on pictures would stop reading words entirely. Pictorial journalism was still very young when William Wordsworth wrote a gloomy sonnet entitled “Illustrated Books and Newspapers”:

Now prose find and verse sunk into disrepute, Must lacquey a dumb Art that best can suit The taste of this once-intellectual Land. A backward movement surely have we here, From manhood,—back to childhood… Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page! Must ayes be all-in-all, the tongue and ear Nothing? Heaven keep us from a lower stage!

Yet in spite of the Poet Laureate’s disdain, and much justified criticism over the years, the pictorial press as an institution has never slopped expanding. In numbers of individual papers and variety of interest, it probably reached its peak in the 1880’s and 90’s. But in total circulation and its mastery over popular taste, it was never more imposing than it is today.

To historians all this is uselul, and is even becoming essential. The intimate manuscript letters and diaries through which so much of the past is studied are rarely produced in this mechanized age. But intimate photography is everywhere, even behind the President’s rocking chair, and with it now is the electronic ear of television, which records whatever it hears. These instruments cannot read man s secret thoughts—at least not yet—but they perpetuate more facts about his activities than any previous period dreamed of.

The connection between picture news and history was stressed from the beginning. In the preface to the very first volume of the Illustrated London News , for the year 1842, is this charming example of Victorian promotion copy:
What would Sir Walter Scott or any of great writers of modern times have given … for any museum-preserved volume such as we have here enshrined. The life of the times—the signs of its taste and intelligence—its public monuments and public men—its festivals—institutions—amusements—discoveries—and the very reflection of its living manners and costumes—all … these would have lain hid in Time’s tomb or perished amid the sand of his hour-glass but for the enduring and resuscitating powers of art… Could the days of Elizabeth or others as bright and earlier still be unfolded to us through such a mirror what a mint of wisdom might we gather… !

Of just as much captivating value then is such a book to the future. It will pour the lore of the Antiquarian into the scholar’s yearning soul, and teach him truth about those who have gone before him… This volume is a work that history must keep.

So far as the Illustrated London News is concerned, these words are lastingly true. Its bound volumes are a matchless treasury of the whole world’s history, as seen through English eyes. From the start it put special emphasis on the speedy gathering and dramatic picturing of news. Since nobody had done this before, it had to invent its own techniques.

All of its early pictures were woodcuts, drawn on the wood by artists and then engraved by craftsmen who were often artists too. But it began making use of photography before the end of its first year. It commissioned one M. Claudel, a manipulator of the newly invented Daguerrean apparatus, to build a stand on the Duke of York’s column, 120 feet high, and take the first photographic portrait of the city of London. The resulting print, distributed with the issue for January 7, 1843, was almost four feet wide and three feet deep, consisting of two engraved panoramas, looking north and south from the column. It is still the biggest pictorial bonus ever issued to subscribers of any magazine or newspaper.

As the earliest specimen of photojournalism, the London print was a historic achievement. But in terms of technical enterprise, it was simply astounding. The picture began with “a very great many” small silver daguerreotype plates which were copied in pencil by an artist working on top of the column alongside M. Claudel. (Thus he could, as the paper explained, fill in “small deficiencies … from nature.”) After being fitted together, the whole picture was copied again on a prodigious block of Turkish boxwood, which all engravers preferred to use because of its special hardness. This block, however, was not a single piece of wood; the engraving was done across the grain, and even the best boxwood limber did not provide cross-section slices more than six or seven inches wide. It was for the Illustrated London News —and in part for this very picture—that Charles Wells of Lambeth perfected a method of fastening boxwood sections together with bolts inserted through channels in the back, to form a single smoolh surface of very large size. This was far superior to gluing or cementing, and it made possible the printing of full-page and double-page pictures on the presses used by newspapers.

In the case of the great London print, the drawing was done on the full-sized block, which was then unbolted in the back, and the sixty separate sections of boxwood were distributed among nineteen engravers for cutting. Already these quick-fingered experts were doing their job in assembly-line fashion—certain specialists engraved only architecture, others did trees and foliage, and others shaded in the “tints,” which was the term used for light and shadow effects. We are told that this one engraving took two months to complete, “the work never stopping night or day.” Finally, because the outsixed block was much too valuable to risk in a steam press, where heat and moisture might warp the wood, it was pressed into soft clay, and a solid metal stereotype was cast and used for the actual printing.

On May 28, 1842, in its third issue, the Illustrated London News published its first “candid” picture—“ A SCENE IN THE NURSERY AT CLAREMONT ”—showing the young Queen Victoria holding the Prince of Wales on her lap. Some Britishers thought that this invasion of privacy was unpatriotic and probably illegal, but the Queen didn’t seem to mind. The editors, as usual, fended off criticism with a bouquet of graceful prose:
Our Artist has chosen for illustration one of those happy moments of maternal life when the magnificence and etiquette of the Queen is put aside by womanly tenderness for the expression of a mother’s love… But far be it from us to intrude further upon the sccresy of such domestic scenes, although the feelings of all fathers and mothers amongst her Majesty’s most loving and loyal of all subjects, cannot be prevented following her in thought and with heart…

A few months later the Illustrated London News published the first double spread of pictures ever to appear in a magaxine or newspaper, thus opening up the layout techniques that arc still standard in pictorial journalism. The subject of this coup d’oeil , as the caption writer called it, was a tour of Scotland by the Oueen and her handsome Consort, Prince Albert. The paper boasted that its “distinguished artist” had secured “a position near the immediate escort of our Sovereign during the whole progress of her journey.” This was the first time an artist-reporter was assigned to cover a running story at any great distance from home.

By the time of the Crimean War in 1854, the Illustrated London News had developed all the basic techniques for reporting great events in pictures. Beautifully executed views of fortifications, harbors, and camps—often much more revealing than photographs—were rushed from thebattlefront into print, along with pictures of violent combat for which the “special artists” endangered their lives. One artist sketched the Odessa bombardment from the mast of a British warship. The paper also made use of wet-plate photographs, the first time a war had been so reported. As a Christmas bonus for 1854, the editor presented his readers with a magnificent foldout drawing of the doomed charge of the Light Brigade, a scene that lived long in British hearts.

In our own Civil War the Illustrated London News did a great service by allowing its artist-correspondent, Frank Vizetelly, to spend most of his time with the Confederate armies. It printed 133 of Vizetelly’s drawings; these are now the only extensive source for viewing the fighting from the Southern side, beginning in 1862 at Fredericksburg and ending with Jefferson Davis’ flight from Richmond, in which Vizetelly took part. A few of the artist’s original sketches are now at the Harvard College Library. But most of them, along with everything else in the paper’s invaluable pictorial archives, were destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing raids in the dark days of the Second World War.

The founder and genius of this wonderful paper, Herbert Ingram, had been a printer, bookseller, and news agent in Nottingham, where he noticed that people pie were eager to buy certain 1 cheap weekly papers that sometimes printed small woodcuts of murders and sporting events. His own paper was in a different class from these crude predecessors which pandered to the masses; its pages prove that he was a man of fine taste and strong intelligence, as well as of extraordinary inventiveness. He was at the peak of his career when he came to America in 1860 to enjoy a well-earned vacation. At midnight on September 7 he and his oldest son Herbert went on board the steamer Lady Elgin at Chicago, along with four hundred other excursionists. Two hours later, about forty miles out on Lake Michigan, a schooner rammed into the Lady Elgin , which sank with a loss of three hundred lives. Ingram’s body was washed ashore but his son was never found. There were, however, two younger sons, William and Charles, who eventually took over the management of the Illustrated London News , and were followed by a grandson, Bruce (now Sir Bruce), who became editor in 1900 and still holds that position today, at the age of eighty-five. Among the innovations with which he is credited is the first use in a modern pictorial weekly of photogravure and of color gravure.

In the United States, as well as in England, there were occasional pictures in some of the papers long before the appearance of true pictorial journalism. Franklin and Hall’s Pennsylvania Gazette printed the first American cartoon—the famous Join, or Die divided snake—in 1754. John Peter Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal once published a map of the French colonial fortress of Louisbourg, and Paul Revere engraved coffins for the Boston Gazette after the Boston Massacre. An unusual sample of pictorial humor appeared in the New-York Gazetteer in 1775, when the Tory editor James Rivington printed an alleged picture of his own hanging-in-effigy; the incident actually occurred but the picture was obviously a stock cut borrowed from a book or broadside. This thrifty practice was the usual way of illustrating newspapers until the 1830’s.

James Gordon Bennett’s penny New York Herald was the first American newspaper to print any large number of genuine news pictures. Beginning in 1835 with a woodcut showing the ruins made by a great fire in downtown New York, the Herald published pictorial accounts of political parades and mass meetings, murder victims and murder trials, church burnings in Philadelphia, and the bali that welcomed Charles Dickens to New York. A “picture story” that was almost modern ran in the Herald in 1844, showing the assassination of Joseph Smith, the mobbing of a newspaper office, and other scenes of the Mormon tragedy in Nauvoo, Illinois. These pictures were engraved by Thomas W. Strong in New York, and cannot be classed as eyewitness reporting. But the Nauvoo architecture and the features of some of the participants are reasonably authentic, and were probably copied from existing prints.

In 1845 the Herald published the first full page of pictures ever seen in a daily newspaper—a winding procession of tiny woodcuts depicting New York’s funeral honors to ex-President Andrew Jackson. Rival editors raised the cry of “Fraudl” charging that the very same woodcuts had been kicking around London and New York for years, and had already done duty in print as the coronation of Queen Victoria, the funeral of William Henry Harrison, and the Croton water celebration!

There was certainly a good deal of fakery, theft, and blatant misrepresentation in the lower strata of pictorial journalism during the early years. But in this instance, at least, the Herald made a convincing plea of not guilty. Its engraver, Strong, deposed in public that the Jackson pictures “never appeared before in any newspaper, magazine, or book published in this country or any other … that they were executed in my place of business, in Nassau Street … nor were they completely finished until after the funeral procession had taken place.”

It was the Herald that began the practice in America of printing pictures of living persons directly involved in sensational news. This was a distinct step in enlarging the freedom of the press. But some editors thought it nothing less than criminal. In 1843 a picture was published of Miss Sarah Mercer, a young Philadelphia lady who had been seduced, and whose brother had shot and killed the seducer. The Public Ledger in her home town could scarcely contain its editorial rage at this invasion of privacy:
If we admit that curiosity is natural, we must insist that the eagerness, the voracity with which it is indulged, encourage a very fraudulent, as well as a very impertinent, inquisitive, eaves-dropping, scandalous spirit, in the newspapers. … [The young lady’s] misfortunes are not enough! The afflictions of her family are not sufficiently heavy! She must bear the additional load of exposure to idle curiosity all around the country, laid upon her by a pack of mean, unmanly, lowbred, low-minded ministers to low passions! And she must bear this, to enable such vile prostitutes of the press to put a few pence in their pockets! Language is hardly adequate to express our scorn for such creatures and their detestable practices.

Bennett cared nothing for such criticism, which came his way all the time. But the Herald gradually stopped printing pictures as it became more prosperous. Since paper sizes and press runs were limited, Bennett preferred to give his valuable space to news and paid advertisements. After about 1850, and even during the Civil War, the leading daily newspapers of the country carried almost no news pictures. When Joseph Pulitzer revived the idea in the New York World in the 1880’s, it was hailed as something startling and new.

Inevitably American publishers gazed longingly across the Atlantic at the tremendous success and profits of the Illustrated London News . But the dearth of good artists and engravers delayed the appearance of the first American picture weekly until 1851. Rather surprisingly, when it did appear, it was published in Boston. Its founder was Frederick Gleason, a self-promoting Yankee of the P. T. Barnum stripe, who had already made a success of a sensational story paper called The Flag of Our Union . The complete title of his new publication was Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion Devoted to Literature, Arts, Amusements, News, Etc.

This arrangement of topics was significant. Gleason’s Pictorial was not much more than an ordinary fireside story paper with a sugar coating of pictures. Woodcuts appeared on the front and back pages, and in alternate spreads. The rest was filled with soggy fiction and poems, generally by third-rate authors. Gleason’s seems never to have had any system for covering news events at any great distance from Boston. Yet many interesting sketches and views were sent in by artists in other cities, and some of them made handsome engravings. Especially notable were the early views of California gold mines and unflattering portraits of miners mailed in by Daniel W. Nason, a forty-niner from New Hampshire.

Possibly Gleason’s masterpiece was a superb drawing of Commodore Matthew Perry’s squadron leaving Norfolk for the Orient in 1852. (It is reproduced in the portfolio.) By allowing the edges of this majestic picture to “bleed” almost entirely off both pages of a center spread, the editors—perhaps without intending to—provided an early example of the “Gee whiz” school of layout which is faithfully followed in the mass magazines today.

Although its national coverage was spotty, Gleason’s early volumes are rich in attractive pictures of Boston buildings, streets, omnibuses, firemen’s parades, ship launchings, political meetings, and snowstorms. Along with these are appealing bits of local color such as Coot Shooting at the Glades, Cohasset , and The Learned Seals at the Boston Aquarium . (One of these learned seals, named Ned, knew how to drill with a musket. The artist who drew him was the Londonborn Alfred Waud, who was soon to win fame as a combat artist for Harper’s during the Civil War.)

An 1851 Gleason’s picture of The Smokers’ Circle, on Boston Common , was explained in the following caption:
It is a well known fact that—while a man may enjoy the weed by inhaling the fragrant fumes of a cigar in any other city of the Union—in Boston a fine is extracted from any person who presumes to smoke on the streets. Our worthy mayor, sympathizing with the oppressed … has had a circle of seats arrayed in a shady grove of our beautiful park; and here scores of persons resort each afternoon and evening … Let our readers drop round that way, and see how truthful a picture we have given them …

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.”

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.

As early as 1873, New York was the home of the world’s first pictorial daily— The Daily Graphic —which was started by a pair of enterprising Canadians. They promised to furnish every day a full budget of news told primarily in pictures. The Graphic experimental with several novel methods of printing, including some of the earliest halftones. But it never developed a vigorous news policy; subscribers had to buy others papers to find out what was going on. It disappeared in 1889, under competition from the livelier news pictures which by then were appearing in Pulitzer’s World and Charles Dana’s Sun .

As part of this burgeoning of the picture press came the rise of the pink paper Police Gazette, The Yellow Kid and other newspaper comics, and a furtive group of pictorial sheets whose subjects ranged from mere spice to outright pornography and blackmail. Even these have value to historians in documenting sub-levels of popular taste. But very few people kept them, and they are excessively rare.

In our century pictorial journalism, merging rapidly with television during recent years, has virtually flooded our walking hours with visual information. Through its strenuous endeavors we can now see everything, that seems to be making history, from Congo natives fighting with spears to astronauts revolving in space. The task which the Illustrated London News defined back in 1842—“the necessity of etching events as they fly—of reflecting the social action of each particular week—of being alive to every point of importance, every turn of public interest or news—and, above all, of crowning the moving panorama of life, with rich, faithfull, various, and abundant illustration”—is being performed in full measure and with great skill.

Whether all this outpouring helps to improve the world is really beside the point. It does keep millions of people informed, and it does help shape their opinions. The right to report in pictures, and the freedom to comment in cartoons and text, are too often taken for granted by the publishing empires that transmit the news today. But these priceless assets had to be created by the pioneers of pictorial journalism in the last century.


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