Antiques: American life in advertising lithographs info

 

The record of American development would be incomplete without the lithographic advertising prints of the nineteenth century. Although originally published to be given away by the company or businessman whose name they bore, they are not of inferior work and, in some instances, are the only pictorial records of their kind. Many of the most interesting phases of the gold rush would be totally lacking were it not for the prints issued for advertising purposes.

Although generally disregarded by collectors, these advertisements supply graphic information as to what was happening in the United States during the lithographic period. For instance, the English printmakers depicted many coaching scenes in their sporting subjects; practically all the American prints showing this mode of transportation were brought out to spread the reputations of, and gain passengers for, individual stagecoach lines. Further, one has only to observe the commercial information contained in the titles of some of the clipper ship and early steamship prints to realize that they must originally have been produced as advertisements and distributed as such.

There is, for example, the well-known Currier print of the clipper ship Flying Cloud. Here the message is deftly handled, but nothing is omitted. It reads : "To Messers Grinnell, Minturn & Co. This print of their Splendid CLIPPER SHIP FLYING CLOUD is respectfully dedicated by the Publisher." On either side in smaller lettering are the essential dimensions of the ship and the information that it was built by Donald McKay at East Boston, 1851. This print bears the copyright date of 1852. Considering Currier's business acumen and the fact that much earlier, as a lithographic job printer, he produced a number of prints intended solely for advertising purposes, it may be inferred that the owners bought liberally of this print for distribution to their freight and passenger agents, if they did not instigate and bear the expense of its making.

One also wonders if some of the leading race horse prints were not used for advertising purposes, particularly those where the title includes the time made on various important tracks. If so, the printmaker may have had a double market, bulk sales to the owner and individual sales to horse-racing enthusiasts. In most instances, however, the collector is left in no doubt as to the prints issued for advertising purposes. The message is bold and clear and the commercial facts give added interest.

There was a good reason for these advertising lithographs which bear the imprints of all the outstanding printmakers from Currier & Ives down and in some instances are the only prints extant of obscure lithographers. Newspapers and other publications of the day would not break their column rules to allow an advertiser to illustrate his copy with anything larger than crude woodcuts or engravings on copper, which measured about two inches in width.

Lithography became commercially possible with the work of William S. and John Pendleton of Boston in 1824, the firm where Currier had served his apprenticeship. Only a few years later the advertising uses of such prints became evident. The businessman who wanted something beyond the two-inch limitations of newspapers and periodicals turned to the lithographers, to whom column rules meant nothing. They worked on stone and their graphic representations were the best and least expensive then available.

Plumbers, circus proprietors, manufacturers, merchants, railroad financiers, and promoters of many innovations in our way of life recognized that with such prints the chance to advertise their wares pictorially was at hand. Even the lithographers availed themselves of this means. Nathaniel Currier early provided his retail sales agents with such an advertisement. It read: "Coloured engravings for the people, published by N. Currier, lithographer, 2 Spruce Street (nearly opposite the City Hall), New York, for sale here." This was later changed to include Ives' name after he became a partner.

It makes a good story to credit P. T. Barnum with being the first person to use these advertising lithographs, but actually the series known as the Barnum gallery of freaks did not begin to appear until several years after others had adopted this means of advertising. The earliest of the American advertising lithographs that I have been able to discover is of the Pacific Hotel, New York, and bears the date July x, 1836. It does not carry the printmaker's name. There are a number that I suspect of being almost as old, but they are undated. These include one of Thomas Dusenbury, plumber; the shop interior of Charles Oakford, a Philadelphia hatter, by P. S. Duval; and that of the North American Straw Works, which may be even earlier than the Pacific Hotel print.

The earliest known advertising lithograph bearing the imprint of N. Currier, is entitled "A Correct Likeness of Mr. H. Rockwell's Horse, Alexander, Bowery Amphitheatre, N. Y. March I 7th 1840." This shows a fine dappled horse being led by a groom in Turkish costume against an Arabian background of tents and palm trees. Another early example of work in the advertising field bears the copyright date 1846 and is also related to the show business: It is, I believe, the first representation of that institution, the circus parade, and shows at least eight elaborately harnessed horses drawing an ornate circus wagon. The title is "Van Amburgh & Co's Triumphal Car Passing the Astor House, April. 20th 1846."
Judging from the examples that have survived, advertising prints were popular with all sorts of businessmen almost from the first. Two early ones by G. & W. Endicott, dating between 1845 and 1849, are "The Washington Stores on William Street, New York, Erected in 1845" and the "Great Chinese Museum, Washington Street, Boston." In the former print each merchant's sign is carefully lettered and prominently displayed. It is reasonable to suspect that they paid a price for this attention. This same care in showing the names over the various stores was followed in the series of about twenty street views of New York by W. Stephenson & Co., issued between 1854 and 1856. These are invaluable today as a record of location in the constantly changing scene characteristic of New York.

Sarony and Major, and various partnerships that succeeded the original firm, were prolific in the number of these advertising prints. One of the earliest is particularly interesting to antique collectors since it is that of Hooper Brothers, New York manufacturers of looking glasses, portrait and picture frames, and shows their factory and something of the mirrors and frames they were making in 1849. Although this firm did a number of California prints, Harry T. Peter's researches in this field do not show that any were for advertising. However, in his book, California on Stone, eleven advertising prints are recorded. Three are of stagecoach subjects, the California & Oregon Stage Company and the Overland Mail Company. There is also that most unusual print of the Apollo Warehouse which was a disused sailing vessel pressed into duty to compensate for the lack of proper facilities ashore. The title gives complete information regarding the services offered by H. D. Beach & Co. as warehousemen, merchants, and stevedores. Done by the Sun Lithographic Establishment, it is almost the only example of a California advertising print made in New York.

In addition to special advertising prints, Currier & Ives and their competitors sometimes converted their stock ones to this purpose by special imprint. Among these was the print "American 'Express' Railroad," first issued in 1855 and later used as an advertisement with the name Adams Express in an arc across the sky. The third in the Life of a Fireman series, "Now then with a Will, Shake Her Up, Boys," later became the advertisement of the American Insurance Company,' Newark, New Jersey, and a number of trotting prints bore the imprint of the Vacuum Oil Company. Finally, the print, not by Currier & Ives, showing the funeral procession of President Lincoln as it was leaving the New York City Hall with "W. M. Raymond Manufacturing Company, Proprietors and Manufacturers of Metallic Burial Cases and Caskets, 348 Pearl Street" imprinted on the sky, may well stand as a classic example of bad taste in advertising.

Possibly someday an entire book will be written regarding these advertising lithographs. There is no lack of material and it will be of value in more ways than one, since America is depicted not only in its social and economic phases but in our amazing progress in mechanical matters. The early locomotives are always interesting. Nowhere else can one gain such detailed information as to the old wood-burning railroad engines as in these prints, made for the various companies to advertise an outstanding locomotive, presumably just completed.

In the field of finance, the insurance companies seemed especially partial to the advertising prints. Perhaps one of the most interesting was the large folio print issued by the Equitable Life Assurance Company, in which the name of the company was surrounded by a representation of the business cards of its impressive board of directors. Other companies relied on a dignified picturing of their home offices with a statement of assets and the type of insurance written. Such was the policy of the Pacific Mutual Insurance Co., of New York, for which a lithograph showing the main office on Broadway near Trinity Church was considered sufficient.

These old lithographs are impressive records of the progress of advertising itself. Those of us who can remember the stores of country retailers about the turn of the century will see again the framed lithographs hung on the walls above the shelving that held the merchandise. Kirkman's Soap, Hecker's Flour, and Walter Baker's Chocolate proclaimed the excellence of their wares if it was a grocery store; if the shop was that of a shoe dealer, it was enlivened by "Silver Tipped Boots and Shoes" or "Cable Screw Wire Boots and- Shoes, will not rip or leak."

In the drugstore could be found such prints as "Sterling Ambrosia" for the hair and in the hardware store a peaceful pastoral scene showed the "Climax Mower" in action. Also, when fair time approached one saw prints of trotting horses everywhere. Some may even have come from the presses of Currier & Ives, since that partnership for many years issued a stock print for such purposes-"A Head and Head Finish"-and they advertised it for "Races, Trotting Meets and Fairs. Your Advertising Matter Printed in This style in Alternate Red and Black Type."

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