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A William Charles (Scottish/American, 1776 to 1820) political caricature, Johnny Bull and the AlexandriansOn the Fourth of July, we celebrate our political independence with fireworks and parades, cookouts and pool parties, but our true political independence gets celebrated every day in newspaper op-ed pages where we spout off about whatever’s bothering us and where one can find editorial or political cartoons lampooning every aspect of our political system in a daily, inexpensive, informative celebration of free speech, one of the freedoms we hold most dear.  The tradition of lampooning politics in cartoons is a rich one in Britain, and it traveled to America with the colonists.  (The detail pictured above is from an etching commenting on the farmers of Alexandria, Virginia buying their way out of occupation during the War of 1812 with rum and tobacco.)

Cartoons might seem silly or pointless decades later, but in reality, they’re very valuable resources to scholars.  As the old English proverb goes, many a true word has been spoken in jest, and as is the case with editorial cartoons today, these simple sketches and brief blurbs belie the wealth of information contained about some of the more difficult aspects of history to decipher: what our sense of humor as a culture is like, what we find funny or frustrating or just worthy of comment.  They also offer a subtle view of historical events that is sometimes otherwise lost to history.  For instance, many people who’ve just taken a history course or two have the sense that the Civil War was popular and that Abraham Lincoln was beloved by everyone north of the Mason-Dixon.  In reality, one could tell the entire history of the Civil War, including the political breakdown that preceded it and the frustrating muddle that followed it via editorial cartoons, many of which illustrate a deep disdain or hatred of Lincoln that might surprise people today.

Editorial cartoons were also, in the heightened political climate of the first century of the United States’ existence, a convenient way to convey one’s political viewpoint.  A printed, framed copy also offered plenty of opportunity for close scrutiny, something that was necessary with these cartoons that often contain complex symbolism, witty wordplay and intricate illustrations, so Currier & Ives, along with many other engravers and printers of the period, cranked out cartoons with commentary on trade acts, slavery debates, religion, American attitudes toward European conflicts and much more, all intended to be framed and hung in a library, office or study.  So the next time you find yourself chuckling or scratching your head after reading an editorial cartoon, remember that you’re participating in a long, rich history of questioning your government!

A chromolithographed Buffalo Bill's Wild West poster, a vertical half sheet showing mounted group of "Mexican Ruralies and Vacqueros in Surprising and Seemingly Impossible Feats of Rope Spinning and Lasso Throwing" printed along bottom and "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World" in upper rightAirports, coffee shops, and strip malls are everywhere today, even in Dodge City.  These days the Wild West is definitely not so wild.  It’s hard to imagine how it must have appeared even a century ago, but part of that is because as a culture, we’ve spent most of that time re-imagining it, repackaging it to shape our version of the American past.  The American West was, undeniably, a rough place at one time, but stagecoach robberies, bloody gunfights and Indian scouts riding in stampeding herds of buffalo were not the norm.  Mostly, it was, in many ways, like a remote life back in New England – minimal daily comforts, grinding work, limited access to society and commercial goods.

Our version of the American West is due in large part to the phenomenon of the Wild West Show.  The first and undoubtedly most famous of these shows was Buffalo Bill Cody’s show, formed in 1883 and in operation until 1913.  Cody’s vaudeville show included some of the most legendary figures of the era: Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull, Will Rogers, and even future president Theodore Roosevelt!  Coinciding with more affordable printing and photography, Cody’s shows are very well documented.  Modern collectors vie for cabinet card and silver gelatin photographs, show programs and posters (like the one pictured above) and advertising-related objects like trade signs and saddle soap containers.

Cody’s Wild West show traveled all over the United States, even performing in connection with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.  The troop even made the trip to England in 1887, transporting 200+ riders, nearly 100 American Indians, and a menagerie of animals that included nearly 200 horses as well as buffalo, elk and longhorn steers.  (I was disappointed to find out that they didn’t all travel on a single ship – that would have been some voyage!)

Wild west shows began to wane in popularity near the end of the 19th century.  As Frederick Turner, perhaps the first true scholar of the American West, announced in 1893, “The frontier is gone.”  Vaudeville in general began to suffer as moving pictures began to develop, and rail travel became easier and more affordable, allowing people to see the West for themselves.  Still, the iconic and mythical image of the American frontier created by these shows is known around the world and has become an indelible part of the story Americans tell themselves about their past, guaranteeing it a place in collections of every generation.

Uncle Sam World War I recruiting poster by James Montgomery FlaggFor the Fourth of July, Uncle Sam puts in an appearance right along with parades and fireworks.  There was a time when he was far more ubiquitous, and many people are unaware of his remarkable journey from government contractor to American icon!  When the U.S. was entrenched in the War of 1812, Samuel Wilson, a small-town meat-packing magnate from Troy, New York, obtained a government contract to supply troops in the northern parts of the country.  Barrels of salt beef marked “U.S.” were shipped to the troops, who began to joke that the initials really stood for “Uncle Sam.”  Of course, many military-issued supplies were marked in this manner, and before long, soldiers were joking about getting presents from Uncle Sam when each shipment arrived.Uncle Sam may have gotten his name in 1812, but it took forty years for someone to bring him to life in an illustration; this illustration must have captured the imagination of thousands of Americans, as Sam soon began to appear everywhere!  Folk artists were among the first to pick up Uncle Sam’s image, but the familiar bearded visage has also been used to market everything from tobacco to candy (whilst inexplicably riding a rabbit) to paint.  My personal favorite is this cutout of Uncle Sam, who seems to have abandoned his coat and tails in order to shill for OshKosh overalls.

Fortunately, he was dressed up again and at his gravest by the time he “posed” for his iconic 1917 World War I poster depiction (pictured above) by artist James Montgomery Flagg.(For more on Flagg, click here to read our reference note.)

Lithograph of George Washington

Lithograph of George Washington based on a Gilbert Stuart portrait.

The word lithography comes from Greek lithos, meaning “stone” and grapho, meaning “writing.” Although “stone writing” is sometimes done today with a metal plate, traditionally the process gets its name from the use of limestone.

Lithography is made possible by one of the simplest scientific phenomena – the repelling relationship between water and oil. A hydrophobic (water-repelling) substance with a fat or oil base is used by the artist to draw the image directly on the plate, and then the plate is washed with a hydrophilic (water-drawing) solution. The plate is kept wet during printing, and the water moves to the hydrophilic blanks, repelling the oil-based printing inks toward the hydrophobic design. While a variety of options exist for hydrophobic materials, the key to success is a substance with oils that stand up to the presence of water and acid. A weak hydrophobic substance contributes to a lack of crispness in the plate image and thus in the resulting printed images.

This process was invented by Aloys Senefelder, a Bavarian writer, in the 1790s, and Senefelder predicted, but did not truly pioneer, the successful use of color that would blossom in the early 19th century. Introducing color to the process was the work of Godefroy Engelmann in the 1830s. Color lithography, known as chromolithography, requires the artist to break the image down into colors, creating a separate plate for each color to be applied. The challenge with chromolithography, and one of the key measures of quality, is how carefully the plates are aligned for each application. This is referred to as “registration” or being “in register,” revealing the care and attention to detail supplied by the printer.

While originally intended mostly for the creation of images, lithography soon became a popular method for printing texts, especially those in Arabic and other scripts where the characters are linked in a way that makes movable type less than ideal. The richness of chromolithography was not lost on artists, however, and found popularity throughout the 19th century, especially among French artists like Edgar Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec and in nature prints like those inspired by John James Audubon.

Bien chromolithograph of mallard ducks after John James Audubon.While stone is no longer the basis for the process, making “lithography” somewhat of a misnomer, lithographic printing is still widely used today. In fact, it is the method by which most modern mass printing is done. Today, the process involves a photographic process and flexible plates of aluminum, polyester or even paper. A photographic negative of the desired image is created and applied to a plate coated in a light-sensitive emulsion. Exposure to ultraviolet light creates a reverse of the negative reverse – a positive of the original image – on the plate. This transfer of images is also sometimes accomplished with the use of laser technology, but in the end the process remains the same: water is applied and rejected by the emulsion, hydrophobic ink moves toward the areas of design, and the basic conflict between oil and water continues to produce most of our books, newspapers, and magazines!

We take the availability of art all around us for granted. That’s part of post-modernism, the fact that there’s no real original now, but just a stream of copies. There are sites all over the Internet offering inexpensive poster copies of great works of art, but until roughly the mid-19th century, artwork in homes was limited, both in quantity and quality. Wealth made it possible to commission portraits and landscapes from a variety of artists, from itinerants with varying levels of talent and training to professional, established painters, but the average home had limited options for decoration.

Until Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives came along. Technically, they didn’t actually come along at the same time. Currier started doing lithographs in 1834, set up his own shop in 1836, and worked under his name alone until 1857, when Currier invited Ives, his bookkeeper/accountant (and husband of his brother’s sister-in-law – nepotism never goes out of fashion), to join him as a partner, after he recognized not only Ives’ business abilities, but his artistic sensibilities and awareness of what had mass appeal. And the presses began to roll even more quickly….

The firm, which advertised “cheap and popular prints,” back when “cheap” was a good thing, produced at least 7,500 lithograph images (and hundreds of thousands of copies of those) over the full 72 years of Currier operations, lithographic images that captured every single aspect of American life – from politics, travel, disasters, and sports to the bucolic and pastoral scenes of the American countryside and home life (I’m partial to the “Homestead” series – fall is pictured above) for five cents to three dollars, depending on size and subject matter. Currier and Ives were not artists, but rather commissioned or bought the work of artists that they then had converted to prints and (depending on the image) hand-colored. (The firm employed some of the greatest artists of the era, including names like George Inness, Eastman Johnson and Thomas Nast.) While Currier & Ives images are often dismissed out of hand for their sentimental view of American life, they actually tell the tale of America’s democratic nature, of the individual, and leave an incredible record of the images we found most appealing and enduring of ourselves. They are, in a sense, the illustrations for the story Americans, both today and in the past, told themselves about themselves, the depictions of our own mythology in progress.

Thanks to Frederic Conningham, a man who must have had the soul of a librarian, Currier & Ives prints are very well organized for today’s collector. Conningham assigned each print a number, tracked the various sizes in which the image was produced, and generally laid an organized foundation for the future study and appreciation of the images, but even today, new discoveries of obscure images turn up. Value is based primarily on size, subject matter, rarity, and, as with all things paper and mass-produced, also heavily dependent upon condition. Definitely worth taking note the next time you see one, if for no other reason than the fact that they sort of are America’s self-portrait!

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