Antiques prints : sports info


NLY in rare instances were the sports of our grandfathers organized athletic enterprises. Teamwork and the finesse resulting from much practice and careful coaching belonged to a later day. Instead, abundance of wildlife and universal dependence on the horse for land transportation kept American outdoor recreations largely matters of skill in hunting, fishing, and horsemanship.

This is clearly reflected in the coloured lithographs, those faithful recorders of practically every important occurrence in our American life from about 1840 to I 890. Startling acts of God or man, catastrophes and accomplishments, became the subjects of coloured prints almost as soon as they had happened. Many of these pictorial delineations bore the imprint of Currier & Ives. Considering the zest with which American lithographers pounced on each new happening as a reason for yet another print, the extreme rarity of those depicting competitive sports emphasizes how recent are our classics of the diamond, gridiron, court, and links.

There is an eighteenth century engraving on copper showing some Dartmouth undergraduates attempting a game of cricket against a background of the principal college buildings of 1793, but it was not until 1869 that intercollegiate sports had sufficient mass appeal for "the print makers to the American people" to risk the time of their artists, pressmen, and colourists and the worth of a lithographic stone and some reams of paper on such a subject.

It was an extra special event at that. It was the Great International Boat Race in which Harvard, racing on the Thames near London, pitted its prowess against that of Oxford on August 27, 1869. Had this been eleven years earlier, the recording print would have been of even greater interest, for at that time there laboured in the Harvard crew a mathematics tutor, named Charles W. Eliot.

American coloured lithographs were produced by some five hundred publishers working in forty or more cities from Charleston, South Carolina, northward to Portland, Maine, and westward to San Francisco. There, almost is soon as the gold rush was in full swing, several firms of lithographers had established themselves. Currier & Ives were head and shoulders above their competitors in the number of prints issued, but some estimate of the total production of American lithographic prints may be gained by considering the facts stated by Harry T. Peters in his various books on these prints and the men who made them.

His careful count of known prints shows that to Currier & Ives, between 1835, when N. Currier started in business, and the indefinite date of 1890, when the partnership ceased to issue new prints, can be ascribed a total of approximately 6,700 different subjects. How many other prints came from the presses of their competitors we do not know. No complete list of all the American lithographic prints extant has yet been compiled. It would be reasonable to assume that all these other firms together produced as many more. Thus, for the nation as a whole, this period saw upward of 13,500 different prints produced by the various firms working in this branch of the graphic arts.

With such a total, and remembering that there was hardly a field of human activity not depicted by the lithographers, it becomes increasingly hard to understand why more prints were not published depicting outstanding events in the sphere of competitive sports. The answer is that they did not exist as we know them today. The most ardent advocate of sports in the coloured-print era could not have imagined our world series baseball games, our great sectional football matches, our international tennis tournaments, our professional matches of the prize ring with a million-dollar gate. Colleges were few in number and relatively insignificant in size of student body; professional baseball had not been promoted; prize fights were still beyond the pale of police protection and were mostly clandestine engagements with not too much advance publicity. Tennis, golf, and the like were not yet established in popular favour but remained recreations of the extreme upper crust. Hence, such events did not have enough mass appeal to make picturing them attractive, except in comic prints. They were lampooned without mercy. In short, the lithographers, one and all, issued prints that they thought would sell in relatively large quantities.

With these essentially practical standards in the field of sports, one general subject could be expected to have the widest popular appeal. This was the fast horse. Other than walking, the horse was the sole means of transportation outside of railroad and boat travel. Consequently, in that horse-and-buggy age there was deep interest from one end of the country to the other in horses able to cover a mile in record time, either under saddle or hitched to a racing vehicle.

Horse racing had been an established sport since the latter years of the seventeenth century. With the general national prosperity that came with the advent of industrialism in the nineteenth century, there were many race tracks, and purses offered for winners of outstanding events became large enough to make winning worth while. For instance, there was the famous trotting mare, Goldsmith Maid, who won over $300,000 for her various owners in her long years on the track: a horse worth picturing. There were many more like her.

The popularity of the fast horse, and the fact that pictures of important racing events were from their very nature full of action, resulted in a wide variety of published racing prints. Currier & Ives issued over five hundred prints relating to the turf. In big and small folio they celebrated practically every important event, including the famous occasion when on June 1, 1881, Iroquois accomplished what no other American horse has ever again been able to do. He won the English classic, the Derby. Unfortunately for collectors, these racing prints were not always framed and put under glass by their purchasers. More often they were merely tacked to the walls of livery and private stables, where they became so stained and flyspecked that they were in time cast aside for other prints showing horses with more recent achievements.

But fleet horses were not wholly restricted to the racecourse. This was a period when possession of a span of fast trotters was one of the ways whereby a businessman, financier, or industrialist proclaimed to his fellow citizens that he was a man of substance. These first citizens keenly appreciated good horseflesh and were proud of their skill as drivers. One of their chief recreations was to drive forth hoping to meet some other exerciser of a spirited span with whom they might engage in an impromptu road race. The larger cities all had, on their outskirts, level stretches of road well fitted for such encounters and the fame of some was so widespread as to make ideal subjects for prints.

Turning to these, we can see nationally famous men, such as Commodore Vanderbilt and General Grant, and equally famous horses, such as Flora Temple and Dexter. In summer with light racing vehicles and in winter with streamlined cutters, fast horses provided the principal sport for men who could afford the luxury of trotters known either nationally or locally for the speed with which they could cover a mile. "Two-twenty on a plank road" was a phrase long used to connote about the utmost in transportation. With the coming of the automobile, this measure of slightly less than thirty miles an hour ceased to be impressive.

These old horse prints show how styles in racing changed during the years. The racing sulky with but two wheels is comparatively modern. This is shown by a print of the race between Lady Suffolk and Lady Moscow, held June 13, 1850, on the Hunting Park Course, Philadelphia. Here the two trotters are shown drawing racing carts of the lightest possible construction but with four wheels. Since the Noah Webster dictionary, as revised in 1847, defined a sulky as "a two-wheeled carriage for a single person," this print records the earlier form already passing from use.

Lady Suffolk, with her records of a mile under saddle in 2:26 and in harness of 2:28, was famous as a race horse as early as 1840. She maintained her position for many years and was popularly known as the Gray Mare. From this nickname there sprang, in her old age, that perennially popular song, "The Old Gray Mare She Ain't What She Used to Be," probably sung on route marches during the Civil War and taken up with equal fervour by the American Expeditionary Forces.

In the field of races under saddle there are a number of especially interesting prints, such as "Paytonia and Fashion," one of the earliest of the Currier & Ives racing scenes, and "The Great Race at Baltimore, Oct. 24th, 1877," also by them. This race, in which ran Parole, Ten Broeck, and Tom Ochiltree, all grand champions of the American turf, was such an important sports event that Congress adjourned for the day so that senators and congressmen alike could witness it. Then there is the portrait print of "Hambletonian, the Property of Wm. Rysdyk." It shows the great stallion and his owner and was published by Henry C. Eno, New York, in 1866. Another of the typical horse prints, as well as one of the earlier ones, is that of "Andrew Jackson, the Celebrated Trotting Stallion," published by Duval, Philadelphia, in 1840. It is small and surrounded by smaller sketches of other horses, similar in this respect to some of the early English prints.

There was another form of racing, also the sport of the wealthy, which Currier & Ives found had enough popular appeal to warrant prints. It was the sailing race around the Isle of Wight on August 22, 1851, in which the America won the cup that English yachtsmen have doggedly but unsuccessfully contended for ever since. Interest in this particular race must have been widespread, for within a short space of time Currier & Ives issued three medium folio and one small folio prints of the event, showing the America under full sail and presumably concluding this history-making race against eighteen opponents flying the pennant of the Royal Yacht Squadron. These four prints are all contemporary and the reason for the series is probably to be found in minor corrections. Later, "the print makers to the American people" issued yachting subjects of two regattas of the New York Yacht Club one in 1854 and the other in 1869. Both give excellent factual information as to the private yachts of the time.

Baseball celebrated its centennial in 1939. One would expect this sport to be represented by a number of prints. But except for a few pieces of sheet music, such as "Live Oak Polka," published in 1860, and "Home Run Polka," 1867, there are but two or three prints. "Union Prisoners at Salisbury, N. C.," a large folio published by Sarong, Major & Knapp, New York, shows a baseball game in progress within the stockade. Its obvious purpose was to portray this Confederate military prison; the game was incidental. Its subtitle states that it was "drawn from nature by Act. Major Otto Boetticher." Whether the artist was actually confined in the prison is not clear, but he had done a number of other lithographs before the Civil War and is known to have held a lieutenant colonel's commission.

A second baseball print, "The Grand Match at Elysian Field, Hoboken, N. J.," was published in 1866 by Currier & Ives. It depicts an amateur game. The sport was evolved in 1839 by Abner Doubleday, while a student at a military school at Cooperstown, New York, out of the earlier game of town ball. It did not come into sufficient prominence to make it a subject for prints until after the passing of this form of pictorial representation.

Football, as we know it today, came definitely after the lithographic print period. The first pictorial record of an important college game is a woodcut of the Yale-Princeton game of 1879; drawn by A. B. Frost and published in Harper's Weekly. Earlier, but showing an entirely different game, is the engraving on copper in I 8o6 by Amos Doolittle, "A View of the Buildings of Yale College." In the foreground can be seen some students in high beaver hats playing with a large football. There also appeared a sketch by Winslow Homer in Harper's Weekly, 1857, of a college football match of that period.

Prize fighting, of course, has always had its adherents as a spectator sport, but such encounters were not conducted with the fanfare of today. Instead, a fairly secluded spot was selected and opportunities for artists to make the necessary sketches were correspondingly limited. Naturally, only a few prize-fight prints were produced. That of "The Great Fight Between Tom Hyer & Yankee Sullivan for $ 10,000," held February 7, 1849, in Kent County, Maryland, was published by James S. Baillie, New York, who worked from 1844 through 1849 and issued a number of interesting prints. It is typical of the few published then and shows markedly the difference in the size of audience as well as the bare-fist fighting that then prevailed.

Ice skating and iceboat sailing were two popular winter sports and both were recorded in the prints of the day. The skating scene, "Union Pond, Williamsburgh, L. I.," was issued by Thomas & Eno, New York, and is typical of a number published by Currier & Ives and other lithographers. This print is of particular interest; although not signed by the artist, careful study of drawing and technique makes it proper to ascribe it to Winslow Homer, and as such it is an excellent example of his early print work. There is an ice boating scene by Currier & Ives, of the same time, and showing how this winter sport was followed by its enthusiasts. The frozen river it depicts is the Hudson and in the background is a train, the New York Central.

Sports were not neglected in the comic prints, particularly those drawn by Thomas Worth and published by Currier & Ives. In their catalogue of comics they listed fifty-eight horse pictures, fifteen with a prize-fight setting, five showing a baseball game, and four showing bicycling as a sport. In the Darkytown series, six have to do with tennis, six with bicycling, four with yachting, four concern horse racing, two have football as the theme, and several others poke fun at what were then minor sports.

Finally, in the lithographed political cartoons of the period the setting is occasionally that of sports. One of the earliest, "Settling the French Question," by James Akin, Philadelphia, about 1840, shows President Andrew Jackson as a prize fighter ready to do battle with the French king over payments to the United States for damages during the Napoleonic Wars. Another prize-fight setting shows Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.

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