Stamped with a National Character: Nineteenth Century American Color Plate Books - An Exhibition
By William S. Reese
This exhibition traces the history and development of American color plate books in the 19th century. Historical events seldom create neat time periods, but in this case the century fairly defines an era. The first American color plate book, William Birch's The City of Philadelphia...As It Appeared in the Year 1800, was published in parts in 1799-1800. At the end of the century, the mid-1890s saw the dawn of the widespread use of the trichromatic half-tone process, which quickly replaced the various mediums for producing color plate book illustrations that had been in use throughout the preceding century. This technological revolution introduced the methods that would dominate color illustration for most of the 20th century and provides a terminal point for this exhibition. From Birch to the color half-tone, color plate books evolved from being produced almost exclusively by hand to being almost entirely manufactured by machine. The chief means of production passed from hand-colored copper plate engravings, aquatints, and lithographs, to the introduction and development of chromolithography. Experiments with some more exotic processes were also undertaken before the rise of photomechanical printing made them all obsolete. The 19th century encompasses the birth, rise, and ultimate demise of these methods of production in the culture of printed books in America.
At the end of the 20th century, we are so accustomed to seeing color in every publication that it seems a commonplace. The color revolution of the digital age has moved so rapidly that it is easy to forget how expensive, and consequently how sparingly it was used, in book illustration just a generation ago. To understand the books in this exhibition, the viewer must remember that in the 19th century color in books represented luxury. Although advances in technology made color plates steadily more accessible to a wider (and increasingly affluent) audience, there was never a time when color was cheap. The big color plate books were extremely costly and only available to the rich. The modest uses of color in gift books and the like were a small taste of the lavish life for the less affluent. Book buyers wanted color and publishers strove to supply it. New methods steadily made color more affordable, primarily by substituting mechanical work for hand finishing, often at the cost of quality. The balance between the cost of production and the potential market largely determined what was published.
This exhibition explores a world of lost processes and skills. There are no printers with the ability to produce such works in aquatint or chromolithography today, although many of the media are still used by contemporary artists. The show traces the progression of these processes and the careers of some of the leading practitioners. It also attempts to view the uses 19th-century Americans chose to make of color illustration in books in a broad variety of fields, both to instruct and amuse.
Two major genres of color illustration in book are deliberately excluded from this exhibition are: children's books and cartography. This was not done because of a lack of understanding of their importance. Both are major fields of color book illustration, and both encompass enough material for fascinating exhibitions on their own. The two fields have long-standing separate traditions of collecting, bibliography, and scholarship, and it seemed best, given the space limitations, to leave their story to be told in full by someone totally conversant with the topics so they may be done the justice they deserve. Since these fields were already distinct in the 19th century and generally involved specialist publishers, I do not think their exclusion here harms the narration of the larger story of 19th-century American color plate books.
What is an American Color Plate Book?
At first glance, the definition of a 19th-century American color plate book seems quite simple, but in fact the term is fraught with ambiguity. Only the chronological element is indisputable. In my interpretation, the first requirement of "American" is that the plates themselves were printed and colored in the Americas. This theoretically includes the entire Western Hemisphere, but in practice almost always means the United States. Color plate books were produced on a limited scale in Canada beginning in 1838. Some extraordinary books were produced in Latin America and the Caribbean, most notably in Havana, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, and Lima (for examples, see items 85 through 88 in the catalogue). However, the overwhelming percentage of American imprints are from the United States, so that it can be taken as virtually synonymous with "American" in this context.
Books with color plates printed and colored in Europe are not American color plate books. This obviously excludes books about America published in Europe, such as Karl Bodmer's famous atlas illustrating the travels of Prince Maximilian of Wied. It is more difficult to detect works with American imprints, often with letterpress text printed in America, that use imported plates. These include such notable books as A. J. Downing's The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America (New York, 1850), whose hand-colored engravings were produced in Paris; Edward Beyer's Album of Virginia (Richmond, 1858), whose tinted lithographs were printed in Dusseldorf; George W. Kendall's The War Between the United States and Mexico Illustrated (New York, 1851), whose hand-colored lithographs were imported from Paris while the letterpress was printed in New Orleans; and Capt. F. Brinkley's Japan, Described and Illustrated by the Japanese (Boston, 1897), whose hand-colored photographic plates were actually manufactured in Tokyo. These are only some of the more prominent examples, easily detectable because the place of printing is clearly stated on the plate or in the text. Others give themselves away by their style: for example, the books published by the Philadelphia firm of Weik have plates which appear clearly to be from Germany, although this is never stated and all of their books have a Philadelphia imprint.
The frequency of these false imprints demonstrates an aspect of the most important theme in the history of the American color plate book: the influence of European color printing on American work. European plates were imported either because they were better or cheaper than American work, or sometimes both. They were also used because the medium, the author, or the publisher desired was simply not available in the United States. Thus Daniel G. Elliot was driven to commission the plates for his later works in London and Brussels because Bowen & Co., who produced those of his first three books, went out of business in 1870, leaving no other American printer capable of making hand-colored lithographs of the quality Elliot demanded and on the scale he envisioned.
European work also crossed the Atlantic in the form of printing plates, and these are considered American color plates, since they were printed and colored in the United States. The most notable examples of these are the Redouté plates for Michaux's North American Sylva (item 21), cut and first printed in Paris, but later imported and used for editions in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
The question of what constitutes color in a plate is also open to interpretation. In the era of copper plates and aquatint, this is seldom a question: plates were colored by hand or not at all. The advent of the tinted lithograph and the beginnings of chromolithography in the early 1840s complicates the issue. How many tints make the plate a "color" plate? Generally, three tints besides the original printing of the image, or several tints with added hand coloring, are required to consider that a plate is colored. But exceptions prove the rule, and there are cases in which the printer so skillfully juxtaposed two tints so as to suggest a greater effect of color.
Earlier bibliographers such as Whitman Bennett and Daniel McGrath arbitrarily set four color plates as the number needed to qualify a work as a color plate book. This is a reasonable standard, since there are a tremendous number of books with a beautifully colored frontispiece, or a few additional color plates, but which are predominantly illustrated in black and white. The color in these books is secondary to their overall makeup. I have adhered to this definition, thus excluding a host of books with only one or two color plates.
Periodicals, strictly speaking, do not qualify as color plate books. The line between books and serials is often blurred by the manner in which a number of works were published. Such publications as The Cabinet of Natural History or the Landreths' The Floral Magazine were issued in dated monthly issues, with no indication that the publishers did not intend to continue indefinitely. Nonetheless, today they are considered books. The fashion magazines, such as Frank Leslie's Ladies Gazette are unquestionably periodicals, but were also available as bound volumes. I have included them in this exhibition because virtually all American fashion plates appeared in periodicals, and few elsewhere. This was an important aspect of color plate illustration, and such periodicals were frequently preserved and marketed in bound annual volumes.
Finally, there is the question of what constitutes a book, a debate certainly far beyond the scope of this exhibition. With material of this sort, the line between a book and a collection of plates is often a thin one. For example, does an accordion-fold panel with twenty-four scenes, all hand-colored, presenting a comic narrative story, issued in a cloth binding, qualify? I do not think it does, but others may disagree. Nor does a series of colored prints, issued and numbered as a sequence, with a narrative text in the caption of each print, but no other unifying text. On the other hand, if that series of prints was ever issued in a bound format with a title page, it does qualify. Ideally, a color plate book is a combination of color illustration and words, with the plates designed to serve as a parallel visual text to interact with and explicate the written text. This function is clear in the vast majority of books in this exhibition. Some genres, such as trade catalogues, have traditionally not been admitted to be books, although in some cases their physical makeup is that of a bound book with title page and plates. I do feel that such works reasonably qualify, and several have been included in the exhibition.
For all of these reasons, it is impossible to fence in the field of 19th-century American color plate books, and quantitative analysis must remain vague as a result. Anyone attempting a definitive bibliography of the field will be plagued by these questions of qualification. Despite this, the major books and important genres seem clear enough, and they are the subject of this show.
The vagaries of defining exactly what constitutes a color plate book increases the difficulty of determining how many were produced in 19th century America. We can, however, venture a reasonable guess. Whitman Bennett, in his pioneering A Practical Guide to American Nineteenth Century Color Plate Books (1949), lists 390 works. Although grievously incomplete, this is still the primary bibliographical study of the subject. Bennett includes a number of books with imported plates, but omits such topics as medicine and architecture, as well as the subjects of cartography and children's books which, as noted above, are also excluded from this exhibition. At the time of writing, having intensively collected the genre for the last five years, I have accumulated almost exactly half of the titles listed in Bennett. However, I have about six hundred titles, or fifty percent more than he lists. If we take this ratio as a guide, however rough, it suggests that the universe of 19th-century American color plate books, as defined here and excluding cartography and children's books, contains about 1,200 to 1,500 titles.
The great majority of works qualifying as color plate books are relatively small or have relatively few color plates. Many of the gift book genre, which probably accounts for several hundred of the titles, have only a handful of small plates each. More ambitious projects, such as the large architectural works published in mid century, are lavishly illustrated, but mainly with tinted plates, having just enough color to qualify. In many other works, color is an enhancement, but not the main thrust of the book. It is fair to say, all told, that not more than ten percent of the universe we have established are large-scale, "serious" color plate books. In other words, the heart and core of 19th-century American color plate books can be found in about 150 titles, about half of which appear in this show.
In short, relatively few large color plate books were published in 19th century America. Color plate illustrations were expensive and difficult to produce. For much of the century, America lagged behind Europe and constantly looked across the Atlantic for artisans and technology. Ambitious projects frequently foundered for lack of customers. The present rarity of many of the books that were completed suggests they were done in small editions. Other formats of color work were more suited to American tastes and markets.
Despite all this, some extraordinary color plate books were produced in America, all the more remarkable because of the adverse conditions under which they were produced. Ultimately, printers and publishers brought out at least some works that could stand on the same level as the European models they sought to emulate.
Color Printers and Color Plate Books
The story of color printing in 19th century America is closely linked to that of color plate books, but the two are by no means the same. Some of the leading printers figure in both stories, most notably Peter S. Duval in Philadelphia before the Civil War, and Louis Prang in Boston in the last three decades of the century. Both of these men were innovators who were quick to adopt new technology, as well as entrepreneurs who ran two of the largest printing firms of their eras. Providing color plates for books was a major part of Duval's overall business. For Prang it was less so, since the majority of his large and varied output of art reproductions and ephemeral material was not intended for book illustration. Both were color printers, but Duval was far more concerned with the needs of authors and publishers to illustrate their text than was Prang.
Virtually all of the printers of color plates for book illustration also produced other color work. For most of them, the production of prints, advertising material, trade cards, and the like, was a more important factor in their businesses than were plates for books. At the same time, there were numerous color printers who had little or no involvement with book illustration. Currier & Ives were the most famous of these. The vast majority of colored illustrative material produced in the United States during the 19th century was intended for something other than book illustration, such as individual prints and advertising ephemera. Color plate books were only one aspect of the work of printers producing color work, and it was a specialized subset of the color printing work going on in America. Plates for book illustration do not encompass the full range of American color printing. Rather, they reflect the demands imposed by the texts they illustrate.
The appetite of American audiences was clearly different than that of Europeans in the kinds of color work that were marketable. For example, colored city and country views were very popular in the United States. Thousands were produced, and they were a mainstay of some of the leading lithographers. Yet the American market signally failed to produce the kinds of view books which were so popular in England and Europe. The catalogues by Major John R. Abbey, Life in England, Scenery of Great Britain and Ireland, and Travel in Aquatint and Lithography, give some idea of the number of these European works, which found a sufficient base of financial support from wealthy individuals to finance hundreds of volumes. The few similar projects attempted in America almost invariably failed to attain completion. The two most notable, Picturesque Views of American Scenery (1819) (item 5) and the Hudson River Portfolio (1821-1825) (item 6), both ceased publication before all of their projected parts had been issued. Later notable attempts such as John W. Audubon's Illustrated Notes of an Expedition Through Mexico and California (1852) (item 41) and George Harvey's Scenes of the Primitive Forests of America (1841) were originally the pilot numbers for much larger schemes (both were intended to be ten numbers of four plates each) which failed to attract enough subscribers to carry the project beyond the initial number.
Clearly, Americans liked views, but they wanted to buy them to frame and put on the wall, an inexpensive and democratic form of art. The expense of the big view books required a secure, wealthy leisure class with the money to buy them, a library to put them in, and the time to look at them. In England, the aristocracy and moneyed gentry supported such publications. In America, they died aborning, or succeeded to the extent they did because they could also be marketed as individual prints. As evidence of this, it is notable that complete sets of the Hudson River Portfolio are extremely rare, although some of the individual prints are fairly common.
The engravers, lithographers, and chromolithographers who produced the color plates generally did so as job work. They seldom acted as the publisher, although there were notable exceptions to this, such as James Ackerman's pirated edition of Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio (item 25) and many of Louis Prang's books. P. S. Duval, for example, did not act as publisher of any of the many works in which his plates appeared, although he did publish many individual prints. Authors, artists, or publishers would typically work very closely with the printers they hired. On occasion, such as in the relationship between the Audubon family and James T. Bowen, the customers virtually took over the business with their demands.
Since the publication of most American color plate books was in the hands of authors, publishers, or government agencies, it was their goals, tastes, and pocketbooks which shaped the formats of the books and plates they produced. The boldest productions, such as those of the Audubons, were frequently the result of the author or artist also acting as entrepreneur, taking a financial risk to produce the book they envisioned. The distressing frequency with which these projects failed certainly served to warn printers away from attempting any similar enterprises on their own.
The impact of European craftsmanship and technological innovation on American work cannot be too strongly emphasized. In the first half of the 19th century, the vast majority of artisans working in the field were immigrants. William Birch had moved to Pennsylvania from England in 1794. John Hill, the only real master of aquatint in the United States, had just arrived from England when he undertook his great landscape view books in the 1820s. The engraver, Alexander Lawson, who produced the plates for Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology, was trained in Scotland, and even an American-born artist such as Cornelius Tiebout served an apprenticeship in London. Duval had immigrated from France in 1831, and his lithographic business steadily recruited new workmen from France, bringing with them the latest European techniques. William Sharp, the father of chromolithography in the United States, brought the art with him when he moved to Boston in 1841, as is demonstrated by the collection of chromo proofs struck in his native England before his immigration, now in the Boston Public Library.
The revolution of 1848 drove many skilled Continental craftsmen with liberal political views to immigrate, and brought to America two of the leading figures in chromolithography: Julius Bien to New York and Louis Prang to Boston. In the post-Civil War era, the printing industries in the United States had developed sufficiently that the dependence on European master craftsmen lessened, although the Americans continued to look to French, German, and British printers for technical advances. For almost the entire century, European craftsmen and technology were a major factor in American color plate work. It was only in the 1870s that the American printers began to forge ahead on their own. The works of Prang and such books as Earhart's The Color Printer (item 111) show that, by the end of the century, American printers were finally creating new techniques independent of Europe.
Despite the strong European influence and involvement in the production of American color plates, a number of the major books made strongly nationalistic assertions as part of their justification for publication. William Birch set the tone in the preface to The City of Philadelphia...In the Year 1800, stating that his goal was to demonstrate to Europe the quality of life in that city, and thereby encourage trade and commerce. John Hill wrote that he wished to display the landscape of America because "Our country abounds with Scenery, comprehending all the varieties of the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque in nature...." Fielding Lucas, in the preface to his Drawing Book, noted that the book was based on English models, but that he chose American themes for the illustrations "to stamp it with a national character." Many of the early monuments of natural history, such as Wilson's American Ornithology, Bigelow's American Medical Botany, or Barton's A Flora of North America, emphasize American themes. The many books dealing with Native Americans also played upon their national character, even as the subjects were being exterminated.
This sense of national pride as a selling point and justification was brought to its highest point by the Audubons. The octavo Birds of America was styled as "The Great National Work," and the later Quadrupeds... projects were advertised in a similar way. Patriotism seems to have worked as a marketing tool, since the works of Audubon, Michaux and Nuttall, and McKenney and Hall went through multiple editions up to the 1880s.
In the mid-1840s the advent of government sponsored projects added a new element to the themes of nationalism. The Wilkes Expedition, with its numerous atlases of color plates, self-consciously sought to compete with similar projects underwritten by the French and British governments. The Pacific Railroad Surveys furthered the role of government in color plate books, spending huge sums of money on the printing and production of reports. Even private spin-offs, such as Hayden and Moran's The Yellowstone National Park (item 99), used a government funded expedition and chauvinistic pride in the wonders of the first national park as the basis for successfully marketing a color plate book.
The twin themes of European craftsmanship in execution and nationalistic pride in the United States as a marketing tool are a peculiar combination. But, as the 19th century advanced, the ability of Americans to learn and copy new technology from Europe while exploiting it on wholly American themes produced some beautiful and remarkable books. This interweaving of the crafts of the Old World evolving in the New is at the heart of the story of American color plate books.
Types of Color Plates
As this exhibition includes examples of a number of different technologies of color printing, here is a brief overview of the prevalent mediums and the time periods in which they were used, which may be helpful:
The earliest American color plate books, beginning with the works of William Birch, were illustrated with hand-colored copper plate engravings. This was the preferred medium of most printers before 1830, when lithography rapidly replaced it. It survived for a time in the hands of such veteran artisans as Alexander Lawson, although most other engravers turned to steel plates for their work. However, existing copper plates were often preserved and printed throughout the remaining decades of the century.
Between 1818 and 1827, there was a brief flowering of books illustrated with hand-colored aquatint engraving. This was largely due to the energy of a single man, John Hill, who was responsible for the execution of most of the major aquatint projects. As it was a difficult and expensive process, aquatint never gained widespread use in America, except for the publication of individual prints. Although several stunning books were produced, it was overwhelmed by the advent of lithography, a more cost effective means of book illustration.
In the early period several books experimented with mediums which saw little or no further use in book illustration. Bigelow's American Medical Botany (item 10), for example, employed the unusual process of etching on stone, inking the stone with multiple colors applied by hand a la poupée, and then printing with a single impression. This laborious process of etching on stone was never used again in an American book, although some were printed using plates inked in a similar fashion. Several books, notably Barton's A Flora of North America (item 11), were comprised of engravings printed in color and finished by hand. This technique, borrowed (as was Bigelow's stone etching) from continental engravers, never achieved widespread use in America.
Lithography, in various forms, was the dominant medium used in American 19th-century color plate books. First used for book illustration in the United States in 1819, it was employed in ever more complex ways through the end of the century. The vast majority of books in this show have plates produced by some form of the lithographic process.
A few modest books with hand-colored lithographic plates, such as Peter Guillet's Timber Merchant's Guide, appeared in the early 1820s. It was not until 1830, when John and Thomas Doughty's The Cabinet of Natural History (item 12) began serial publication, that hand-colored lithographs emerged as a primary medium of book illustration. The next two decades were the heyday of the hand-colored lithograph. From 1850 on, the labor and expense involved in producing entirely hand-colored plates slowly lost ground to the developing processes of chromolithography. The last major works using the technique were Daniel G. Elliot's three large folio ornithological works, culminating in 1866-1869 with The New and Heretofore Unfigured Species of the Birds of North America (item 44). After the demise of their printer, Bowen & Co., in 1870, only a few scattered works appeared with fully hand-colored plates.
An early labor-saving step in coloring lithographed plates was the use of printed tints. These were employed as early as 1842 by Duval, and soon became common. Many plates in the 1850s and 1860s either featured multiple tints or applied hand coloring on top of one or more tints. Such processes were less expensive than full hand coloring, and developed in tandem with more elaborate chromolithography.
The first American book illustrated with chromolithography was Mattson's American Vegetable Practice (item 17), published in 1841. This primitive effort used as many as five different stones and colors to produce color plates that were entirely printed. The problems of registration and inking required considerable expertise to manage, but by 1850 chromolithography was capable of providing mechanically produced book illustrations that rivaled hand-applied color. Hovey's The Fruits of America (item 20) was the first major work executed entirely in chromolithography. By the early 1850s, some plates employed as many as ten separate stones to achieve complex color effects. Other printers in this period used hand-finishing in conjunction with chromolithographic plates, most boldly in the Bien edition of Audubon's Birds... (item 40). By the late 1860s, chromolithography had practically driven out hand coloring as an economically viable medium in book illustration.
In the meantime, hand-colored steel engravings succeeded copper engravings in the 1830s. Most steel engraved plates were intended to be black and white and so do not enter this story. However, hand-colored steel engravings were popular, mainly for fashion plates, in the 1840s and 1850s. Illustrators of fashion also toyed with other esoteric media, including a brief revival of an aquatint process in The Artist (item 48) in 1842.
Illustrations printed from wood were also mainly intended to appear in black and white, but there were exceptions. From the 1830s to the 1870s a number of cheap, sloppily colored plates were used in a variety of popular histories and subscription books, such as Trumbull's History of the Discovery of America... (item 27). These inexpensively produced works were of the poorest order of workmanship. More sophisticated printers experimented with printing color from multiple wood blocks, as in The Winter Bloom (item 56) and The Gallery of Scriptural Engravings... (item 90), with interesting effect. Neither of these more subtle mediums were widely used.
Another unusual sideshow in color plate illustration was the printing industry that developed in Rochester, New York, in the 1850s. The booming nursery business of that city needed color plates to illustrate the fruits and plants for sale there. The first plates, produced by stencil and hand coloring by firms such as Sargent (item 70), are perhaps closer to folk art than color printing. These plates were seldom issued as books in editions, but were usually gathered up to suit the individual interests of a customer. As a result, almost all of the Rochester catalogues are unique in their collations. Stencil and hand coloring was eclipsed by chromolithography by the 1870s.
After 1870, full-fledged chromolithography, using ever more complex methods, multiple stones, and overprintings, was the primary medium of color book illustration until the end of the century. Its foremost practitioner, Louis Prang, brought the art to its highest level (see items 66, 96, 99, 102, 103). In Prang's final works, as many as thirty-nine stones were used to extraordinary effect.
The technology of photography began to enter the printing industry in the 1850s. The first color plate book to use photolithography, Villas on the Hudson (item 62), appeared in 1860. Its two tones of color were applied over a tinted photolithograph. Most early photolithography was uncolored, and there are few examples that qualify as color plate books. The melding of color and photography is rare before 1890. By 1889, such processes as a heliochrome were used in Whitefield's The Homes of Our Forefathers (item 109). However, the printing industry after the Civil War rapidly became more sophisticated in the creation of half-tones, electrotypes, and color printing of all sorts, as seen in two important printers' handbooks: Harpel's Typograph... (item 92) and Earhart's The Color Printer... (item 111). These volumes illustrate the extraordinary development of color printing skills in the United States from the 1860s to the end of the century. Prior to the 1890s, however, this vast array of color job printing seldom appeared in the form of color plate book illustration, which continued to rely almost exclusively on chromolithography.
In the early 1890s, the marriage of the three-color printing process (fully developed by the time of Earhart's book in 1892) and the photographic half-tone, opened the way to the production of color plates at a fraction of the cost of chromolithography. While the first attempts at this, such as the plates in Mennell's Bismarck... in 1895 (item 112), were crude compared to the glorious chromolithography Prang was producing at the same time, the cost effectiveness of the new medium was the deciding factor. The end of the century saw the first trickle of books illustrated with trichromatic half-tones, a process which soon drove chromolithography from the field. With advances in printing skills and the addition of black to the mix of the three primary colors, it emerged in the early 20th century as the four-color process, the dominant technology in color printing until the digital revolution of modern times. Thus the end of the 19th century also saw the effective end of the forms of color plate production which had served artists, printers, and publishers through the first hundred years of American color plate books.
Themes in Color Plate Books
This exhibition is organized along broad chronological and generic themes that attempt to emphasize the different kinds of subjects addressed by color plate books and how they evolved through the century. While a myriad of topics were taken as the subjects for illustration with color plates, some broad generalizations can be made about the prevailing themes in American color plate books.
The single most important area of color plate illustration was in the field of natural history. From Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology onward, books which described the flora and fauna of the United States were lavishly produced and sold well. While there were a few failures, many of these projects, in spite of being quite large and expensive by the standards of their times, were successfully carried to completion, and in a number of cases, warranted reprinting or new, revised, editions. If we were to take the hundred largest color plate books issued during the century, on the basis purely of the number and size of the plates, the majority of them would be works of natural history.
Natural history books were produced throughout the century, but the golden age of these works fell between 1820 and 1860. This period saw the original publications of all the Audubon works, as well as those of Barton, Bigelow, Say, Holbrook, Michaux, Nuttall, Carson, and Hovey. The most important government publications with major natural history components, such as the "Natural History of New York" series, the Pacific Railroad Surveys, and other explorations of the American West, all appeared in these years as well (see cases 2, 4, and 7).
After 1870 there was a sharp decline in the publication of color plate natural history works. A primary reason may have been the increasingly technical nature of such publications, which were no longer produced by artist-naturalists, but by scientists more interested in precision, even if rendered in black and white.
The major publications of the first several decades of the century were large view books. As already noted, this wonderful genre never caught hold in the United States, and there are relatively few large-format examples. Nonetheless, those that do exist, such as the Hudson River Portfolio and The Yellowstone National Park, are among the most important American color plate books. The dearth of American view books is countered to some extent by the many topographical plates which appear in the government survey publications (see cases 1, 7, and 9).
Gift books, literary annuals, and similar works, which I have collectively called the "literature of sentiment," account for a great many American color plate books, although generally on a small scale. These genres were at the height of their popularity from 1830 to 1860, although examples can be found throughout the century. Most of the fictional works with color plates are stories found in the annuals. The plates in these books vary widely, from decorative botanical plates to imitations of illuminated manuscripts. The common theme is the desire for a decorative and more or less elaborate presentation, and their bindings often outshine the plates within (see cases 5 and 8).
Works on costume and fashion appeared throughout the century. Fashion plates, as has been noted, were produced in profusion, but almost entirely for periodicals. The handful of fashion books depended heavily on European works. A more consistent illustration of native American fashion is found in the military costume books, which began with The Soldier's Manual in 1824 (item 46) and continued for the rest of the century. The majority of these were issued by the government after the Civil War. Works showing typical fashions of a place or race of people, that had been so popular in Europe, found little favor in the United States. The two most notable examples are shown here, Fremaux's New Orleans Characters (item 93) and Van Lennup's The Oriental Album (item 97).
The depiction of Native Americans was a theme which was consistently interesting to American audiences. It prompted several of the best works of the century, including those of McKenney & Hall and the American edition of Catlin. It was also a consistent element in the many government reports on the American West, as well as many personal narratives (see case 3).
Medical books, which often required color to accurately illustrate diseases or surgical techniques, have largely been ignored by the traditional bibliographers of American color plate books. This seems to be largely on the grounds that the plates are not decorative, or indeed downright distasteful. This is unfortunate, because there is a large and varied medical literature employing color plates. A representative group are shown here (items 77 through 81, case 7).
Another area neglected by such students as Whitman Bennett is architecture. Here the subject matter can hardly be deemed offensive. From the early 1850s onward there appeared a wealth of architecture and interior design books with color plates, designed to introduce an increasingly affluent American audience to "good taste" in home building and furnishing, as well as the design and landscaping of grounds (see case 6).
Science, in the form of medicine and natural history, had employed color plates almost from the beginning of the century. Beginning about 1840, color plates began to be used in publications in a variety of emerging scientific fields such as geology and chemistry, or the display of quantitative information. Once again, many of these plates appeared in government sponsored works (see case 7).
Not surprisingly, the printing trades produced a number of reference works on color printing illustrated with color plates. Such printers as Harpel, Earhart, and Prang all produced instructional and sample books which are masterpieces of the art they practiced. In the 1880s artist's books began to appear, such as Howard Pyle's illustrated version of The Lady of Shalott (item 95). Color plates also began to illustrate large works of art history, most notably the catalogue of the Walters collection of oriental ceramics (item 103). The last quarter of the century brought an increased emphasis on artists and the arts in American color plate books (see cases 8 and 9).
The list of American color plate genres can go on and on, although the major types have been delineated above. There are popular histories with crude woodcuts, manuals of flags and signals, guides to currency and coins, sporting books, comic pieces, works on playing cards, and many more. All add to the interest and variety of American color plate books in the 19th century.
Ten Notable Works
While this exhibition is intended to show the broadest possible range of American color plate books, it is impossible not to single out a few of the most salient titles.
No American color plate books command more superlatives than the works of the Audubon family. John James Audubon originally contemplated American publication of his famous The Birds of America, and visited Philadelphia in 1824 for that reason. There he realized that no American printer was capable of executing the work on the scale he envisioned, and that the hostility of some members of the local scientific establishment would make the project impossible. He took his project to England, where the double elephant folio Birds... was produced in London, in 1826-1839. After its completion, Audubon was anxious to return permanently to the United States. He chose to produce the octavo edition of The Birds of America (item 34) in Philadelphia, where the plates were executed by the firm of James T. Bowen between 1840 and 1844, under the close supervision of Audubon and his sons.
Although an expensive work, at one hundred dollars a set, it was within the reach of many well-to-do citizens. The octavo Birds... was good value for the price. With five hundred hand-colored plates, it was the most extensive color plate book produced in America up to that time. The Audubons were effective salesmen, canvassing the country and obtaining hundreds of subscriptions. Ultimately, the octavo Birds... went through numerous 19th-century editions, both in the hands of the Audubons and later of the New York publisher, Roe, Lockwood. It must be accounted the single most successful color plate project of the century in its scope and market success.
Even while the octavo Birds... was in press, the Audubons launched The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, published in elephant folio between 1843 and 1848, and in octavo between 1849 and 1854 (items 36, 37, 38). The folio edition was the largest single color plate book to be carried to a successful conclusion during the century. While the Quadrupeds... project was probably not as lucrative as the octavo Birds..., it was commercially viable, and the octavo edition also went through numerous editions. Once again, all of the plates were produced by the Bowen firm.
In 1858, with his father dead, and brother Victor terminally ill, John Woodhouse Audubon made the ill-fated decision to attempt a reprint of the double elephant folio Birds in chromolithography. Working with Julius Bien of New York, John Woodhouse had by 1860 published 105 plates, reproducing 150 of the original edition (small images such as warblers were doubled up) (item 40). The advent of the Civil War caused many subscribers to back out, and the immensely expensive project collapsed, consuming the family savings and literally killing John Woodhouse with overwork and worry. The publisher, Roe, Lockwood, was left in possession of all the completed plates and, evidently, the copyrights to all of the family publications. Although only a part of the intended work, and a catastrophe as a publication, the Bien edition of the Birds, as it is usually called, is the largest and most ambitious color plate book of the century. No other artists or publishers approached the enterprises of the Audubons in the size and extent of the projects they undertook.
After the works of the Audubons, the largest and most successful work was the History of the Indian Tribes of North America, usually known as "McKenney & Hall," after Thomas L. McKenney (the Commissioner of Indian Affairs whose idea the book was) and James Hall (the prolific Cincinnati journalist who supplied the text). Neither can claim any responsibility beyond selection for the work's 120 plates, based on portraits of leading chiefs by Charles Bird King and lithographed by the firms of Lehman and Duval, and J. T. Bowen. The folio edition, which was issued in parts between 1836 and 1844 (after years of preliminary toil), was the most ambitious work produced in America prior to those of the Audubons (item 24). McKenney & Hall imitated them in also publishing a more affordable octavo version, which went through multiple editions between 1848 and the 1870s. By the time the final edition appeared, many of the original lithographic stones were lost or worn out, and replacement plates had to be supplied in chromolithography.
Many people consider the Hudson River Portfolio to be the greatest American color plate book of the century. One of the few aquatint books published in the United States, it was a collaboration between two recent English immigrants: the engraver, John Hill, and the artist, William Guy Wall. Issued in New York between 1821 and 1825, it is the most ambitious landscape view book in the European tradition undertaken in America (item 6). Its twenty plates, showing views on the Hudson River from the north down to New York Harbor, are extraordinary for their skillful execution and luminous engraving and coloring. It is certainly the foremost American book of its kind.
Another grand American project was the edition of George Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio published by the New York lithographer, James Ackerman (item 25). Catlin had originally published his Portfolio in London in 1844, but he had nothing to do with the American edition, which was an out-and-out piracy executed without his knowledge or consent. Ackerman not only ignored Catlin's copyright, but undercut the market for the London edition by pricing his edition less expensively, and then used the preface to suggest that Catlin would have done better to publish in New York. His rather cheeky introduction is a manifesto for the American color plate book, and deserves to be quoted in full:
To the American Public. A young American artist ventures to challenge for his works that encouragement which has hitherto been ministered too sparingly to American productions. As a nation, we have so long been reproached with inability to produce pictorial embellishments equal to the European that, although a mistake, it has become a received opinion.
The enthusiastic author of the London Edition of this splendid and talented work has practically succumbed to the prevailing yet unjust prejudice, and has carried the results of his daring genius and enterprise to a foreign mart; sending from abroad, and from the hands of European artists, an American production in foreign habiliments to be patronized in the author's own land.
The Artist and publisher of the republication on this side of the water, evincing through this, his enterprise, of AMERICAN ART, an abiding confidence in the taste, judgement and liberality of his countrymen, has ventured (with a mere change of dress), to offer a cheaper, and he trusts, a better edition than the costly London copy.
Fully equal, or greatly superior, the critical justice of the country may decide it to be. Of this favorable result, hope may tell the Artist a 'flattering tale,' yet he would plead enthusiasm, without which the life and spirit of all art dies. At all events, the greater cheapness of this edition is as unquestionable, as that it is purely 'American fabric' recommends its patronage.
In fact, the Artist would contest the received opinion, that nothing pictorial can be executed in this country equal to the European productions, and would leave his countrymen to carry out the experiment, whether it be not that patronage is alone wanting to produce originals - or republications equal if not superior to those of all Europe.
This venture, receiving no impulse from the powerful arm of an overflowing government treasury, starts on an 'Exploring Expedition' of its own, into the waters of criticism; and, if but prosperous gales attend its return, the grateful Artist pledges his unwearied efforts to produce nothing but the best specimens of American delineative art, wherewith to acknowledge the patronage and indulgence of his countrymen and to vindicate the capacity of our native artists. J. A.
Despite this bold pronouncement, the Ackerman edition of Catlin seems to have had only limited success. After Ackerman went out of business, the lithographic stones were purchased by Currier & Ives, who altered the captions and reissued them as individual prints in 1865 (item 26).
Pride of place in American color plate books must always go to William Birch, whose The City of Philadelphia...In the Year 1800 (item 1) was the pioneering work of the genre. An accomplished artist and miniaturist, Birch engraved all of the plates for his collection of street and building scenes. It was a remarkably ambitious work at the time, and only a few small individual color plates predate it in American publishing. The book was sufficiently popular for Birch to reissue it in somewhat varying formats in 1804, 1809, and 1828.
Government sponsorship of large publication projects using color plates probably accounted for the printing of more individual plates than all other works combined, both because of the scope of the projects and the number of copies printed. It is estimated that the Pacific Railroad Surveys, with thirteen volumes and print runs of at least ten thousand copies each, required twenty-one million plates, both colored and black and white. The Railroad Surveys is a monument to American illustration unsurpassed in its century, and it exemplifies the acceptance of a governmental role in gathering and lavishly publishing scientific data (item 75).
Lastly, the Boston printer and publisher, Louis Prang, was responsible for the two grandest American books of the age of chromolithography. His plates for Ferdinand V. Hayden's The Yellowstone National Park (item 99), based on originals by Thomas Moran, were the first American book illustrations to realize fully the potentials of chromolithography. Prang, the greatest chromolithographer in the United States, dominated his field for the last quarter of the 19th century and spearheaded its technical advance. He was arguably the first color printer in America to carry his craft beyond anything done in Europe. His final book, the catalogue of the great Walters collection of oriental porcelain (item 105), was his finest achievement and the apogee of American chromolithography.
While the ten works cited above are among the most significant 19th-century American color plate books, the field does not lend itself to "best books" lists. Some small books have charms greater than the major works, while others are notable triumphs of craftsmanship on a modest scale. This exhibition, while displaying many of the highlights of the century, aims to show the diversity of color plate work as well as these leading titles. While many of the books would be on any list of the most interesting, others simply represent the kinds of books in which color plates commonly appeared. In sum, they provide the viewer with an insight into the tastes and interests of the 19th century and, in parallel, the evolution of the techniques of production that created the color plate book in America.
The article was first published for an exhibition at the The Grolier Club, 1999, and is presented here by permission of William Reese. Thank you very much.