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January 18, 2006 Contact: James David Moran
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Online history presents the 19th Century graphics revolution

Worcester, MA- (WORCESTER) -- A special issue of Common-place, the online history journal, offers a sweeping view of popular graphics in nineteenth-century America, demonstrating how the nation's fascination with pictures embodied and shaped the period's tumultuous culture, society, politics, and economy.

Editors Georgia B. Barnhill, Joshua Brown and Ian Gordon note, "The twelve essays in this special issue of Common-place reflect the 'visual turn' in U.S. historiography over the last decade and suggest the stunning range of topics and approaches characterizing the field of visual history."

From the visualization of the industrializing city to the impact of pictorial publications on national identity; women engravers' struggle for representation in their trade to the development of photoengraving, 19th century graphics represent a universe of actions and ideas that the realm of text often fails to capture, write the editors in Seeing a Different Visual World, the introduction to the spring 2007 issue of Common-place.

In Picturesque California, author Sue Rainey shows how the first comprehensive visual coverage of the Far West presented the region's countless natural wonders-surpassing those of the East-and impressive works of civilization. These features made the region a worthy alternative to foreign travel. The collection of 31 articles is bolstered by more than a hundred photogravures, a process that was first used in the 1880s to produce high-quality monochrome reproductions of paintings and photographs.

Writers, including naturalist John Muir, stressed the need to protect some of the ancient forests, though Muir noted he was also impressed that the mills of Puget Sound and California "are said to be the largest and most effective lumber-makers in the world." In contrast, writer Jonathan Prude presents urban views of the antebellum North in, Engaging Urban Panoramas.

"City views in pictures before 1820 sought to lay out information: to deploy facts about urban North America aimed at Europeans skeptical that America even had cities of any note," Prude writes. "During the antebellum period, cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were arenas of remarkable (albeit remarkably uneven) economic growth, of frequent social and cultural reconfigurations, of appreciable tension and conflict-and above all of incessant changefulness" he notes.

The era's surge in graphics from painting to drawing, from photography and lithography to all manner of engraving sought to demonstrate how cities existed and how they worked. "For the first time city views start to examine poor neighborhoods, and as a result we begin to get judgments of cities that are cautionary-even alarmist-as well as upbeat," Prude notes.

Transcontinental journeys by train in 1869 and 1877 revealed the vastness of the national landscape and the speed at which locomotives traversed it. In Like standing on the edge of the world and looking away into heaven, author Deidre Murphy describes two illustrated series that unfairly depicted Chinese laborers as static bystanders, when it was their incredibly speedy work that enabled the cross country railroad's completion. "It is an ironic twist of fate that the Chinese workers who were a cause of this industrial achievement came to be seen very much as its antithesis," Murphy writes.

The life story of Georgina A. Davis, an engraver and staff artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, a popular periodical of the era, illustrates the conventional depictions of middle-class women in the nineteenth century, writes Barbara J. Balliet in Let Them Study as Men and Work as Women Balliet notes that while Davis supported women's professional aspirations and worked actively as a commercial artist for almost thirty years, the images she made rarely depicted middle-class women at work.

A singular example of overcoming physical handicaps and racial prejudice, is the account of H. J. Lewis, the first African American political cartoonist. Writing in Free man and Freeman artist, authors Marvin D. Jeter and Mark Cervenka describe the accomplishments of the former slave turned illustrator and present examples of Lewis' 1889 cartoons that skewered politicians who failed to support job opportunities for blacks. Among his subjects were well-known African American figures of the day, including Frederick Douglass and Blanche K. Bruce, as well as prominent white politicians.

A popular nineteenth century cliché in political cartoons is the subject of Liz Hutter's article, Ho for Salt River! Hutter discovered that the phrase originated in real events at a real place.

"It also seems clear that to Americans accustomed to river travel, the phrase carried a generic and quite humorous message," she writes. Hutter notes that in lithographs political cartoonists during the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s textual and visual references of Salt River were empolyed to persuade the public of the strengths and weaknesses of various candidates.

In Reading Portrait Prints, Wendy Wick Reaves states that printmaking for much of the nineteenth century was a commercial enterprise as much as an artistic one. Reaves writes that in depicting famous people, "the purpose of the print was often related to an event that would attract buyers: Was the subject newly deceased? retiring from the ministry? running for office? performing at a local venue?" Learning to read these pictures in this way provides considerable insight into the perception of these historical figures in their own day Wick concludes.

Stephen P. Rice describes how illustrations in books, pamphlets and periodicals evolved from wood engravings to halftones in the decade between 1885 and 1895. The story of photography and wood engraving in the nineteenth century "is not simply a story of one technology's ascent and the other's decline," Rice writes. "Photographs did eventually replace wood engravings in illustration, but before that photography joined and transformed wood engraving so as to favor its claims as a fine art."

This special graphic arts issue of Common-place comes at a timely moment for the American Antiquarian Society (AAS), one of the journal's underwriters. In 2005, the society's governing board approved the creation of a Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAVIC). The AAS is eminently suited for this activity because of its experience in hosting workshops, seminars, and conferences for scholars in many disciplines. The fellowship program, includes fellowships specifically for scholars using prints or studying visual culture.

New printing technologies revolutionized the nineteenth-century visual world, and now digital technology is revolutionizing our study of that world. Now, on-line journals such as Common-place can recover and communicate the experience of past visual culture by generously illustrating textual analyses of visual experience. Unconstrained by the costs of reprinting high-quality images, Common-place is able to present a range of visual materials and (by linking images to larger versions) afford a level of interaction inconceivable for an ordinary print journal.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal’s features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the Florida State University Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world.

The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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