Friday, June 3, 2016

Donald Trump and Currier & Ives

I have been reading a fascinating article by Hazel Brandenburg about the rise in popularity of Currier & Ives prints during the 1920s (from the American Historical Print Collectors Society magazine Imprint, Spring 2012). A great deal of the popularity of Currier & Ives prints then had to do with the fact that the “1920s were...a time of transition characterized by profound and lasting cultural changes...” This left Americans of the period feeling “uncomfortable with the present and anxious about the future” so “Americans turned their eyes to the past—or at least to a particular vision of an American past that seemed more authentic, uncomplicated, and pure.”


Boy does that sound a lot like today. There has been a huge amount of social, political and economic change in the last decade and many Americans are feeling lost in today’s world. It seems that a lot of them are looking to the past for their answers, looking to “Make American Great Again.”


I do understand these feelings, as it is always hard to see the beliefs you grew up with come under attack, to lose jobs which you assumed would carry you through to retirement, and to see a comfortable world morph into something strange in front of your eyes. It is easy to look back and "remember" a past when things were idyllic, when life was good.


However, the simplistic solutions offered by Donald Trump are just too much. Come on! Can anyone really think that this narcissistic, misogynistic, bloviating con man, with no common sense, experience, nor self-control should run our country? To have nostalgia for the past is one thing, but to think that this man could bring back a past that is somehow “great” is just crazy. (Now I know that in general a businessman should not take sides in political issues, but the current situation is too dire to remain quiet.)


Besides the issue of Trump’s total unsuitability to run our country, there is also the question as to whether it would actually be better to bring back the past. Currier & Ives prints are great, and there is something about the comfortable homes, smiling children, prosperous and healthy workers which is very appealing.


However, it is important to realize that most of the Currier & Ives prints did not present “factual” pictures of what America was really like; they were more images of what Americans at the time wanted America to be like. And, of course, these were images held by only a segment of America at that time—-the mostly WASP citizens who were pictured in the prints and who would have purchased these prints for their homes. When minorities, such as emigrants and Blacks, were pictured, it was usually in a less than a flattering or accurate manner.


The famous Currier & Ives Darktown prints—-interestingly one of the most popular of all Currier & Ives series-—are a good example of this. These prints came out in the late 19th century, when many Whites were fearful that Blacks would be taking their jobs; the Darktown prints were intended to make the Blacks look foolish and incompetent and so make the Whites feel better about themselves. Doesn’t this sound a lot like Mr. Trump’s formula of today? His favorite tactic is denigrating segments of our population so that those in his constituency will feel better about themselves.


Maybe the surge in the “Make American Great Again” feelings of today’s social climate will make Currier & Ives prints popular again, but it would be for the wrong reasons. I like Currier & Ives prints, but not because I want to go back to the mythical America they show, but because they are often charming and beautiful, and they help us understand how many Americans of the 19th century thought. We will never live in an America like that shown in the prints, nor will we ever live in an America like Trump wants to create. Let’s just hope we don’t live in an America where Trump has the power to try.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Were we (are we?) really enlightened?

Nineteenth century Americans and Europeans loved to do comparisons of places, societies and people around the world. 19th century atlases often contained charts showing comparisons of the heights of mountains, lengths of rivers, and so forth. A comparison of cultures was also something which would appear from time to time.


This chart, issued in 1830 by D.F. Robinson & Co. exhibits "the comparative size, population, form of government, and number of square miles, in each of the principal Empires, Kingdoms &c. of the globe." That is an interesting part of this chart, but it is the panel of four scenes at the bottom, showing "the Manner of Building among different Nations according to their Civilization" which is of particular interest.


At the left is shown an Indian Village, the manner of building by the "Savage." This term was not used in the sense of fierce, violent, and uncontrolled, for the Indians looks quite peaceful, despite the appearance of some men with guns (note that a dog is playfully jumping up to this group). Instead, the term was used in the chauvinistic attitude of superiority where the Indian culture was not really "civilized."


Next over is a picture of Canton, showing what is described as a "Half Civilized" culture! This would certainly have come as a surprise to the Chinese (who themselves probably considered western culture as at most half civilized). The notion that the Native Americans were "savages" was one that was long standing, but the chutzpah of calling Chinese culture half civilized a breathtaking. (Actually, I suspect that at least some of our current political figures--not to mention any names--probably continue that belief to this day).


Constantinople appears next as the example of a "Civilized" culture. No argument there...


The chutzpah though continues in the last panel, where Philadelphia is a level up from even "civilized," representing an "Enlightened" nation. Now I love Philadelphia, and in 1830 it certainly was one of the most sophisticated cities in the world, but these labels are not reflections of the actual relative "civilization" of these cultures, so much as a reflection of the self-satisfied and blinkered attitude of the publisher and many western citizens. That is not to say that people from the other cultures (Indian, Chinese, and Turkish) wouldn't have had their own hierarchy with their own civilizations at the top, but this chart does give us a really good look at the attitudes held in the U.S. at the time.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Western prints by Frederic Remington

Nowhere is the American West to be found more completely illustrated than in the works of Frederic Remington. Born an Easterner in upstate New York on October 1, 1861, he had by age 19, distinguished himself as a football player and pugilist at Yale. Leaving upon his father’s death, he arrived on the western plains in 1880 and found the demanding life to his liking, excelling in the use of the lariat and six-gun. He became friends with the working men of the times, prospected for gold, rode with military troops on campaigns, and roamed such fabled routes as the Santa Fe Trail and Bozeman Road. Remington quickly realized that he was witnessing the end of an era. As he wrote later in Collier’s Weekly: “I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever-and the more I considered the subject, the bigger the ‘forever’ loomed.”


Five years later, with his inheritance exhausted and a net worth of three dollars, Remington arrived in New York City packing his voluminous portfolios resolved to break into art and illustration. Initial successes were thin, yet within 18 months editors were seeking him out and his painting, “The Courier’s Nap on the Trail” appeared at the annual exhibition in the National Academy. Within a few years he was recognized as the foremost western illustrator, short story author (Roosevelt preferred him to Owen Wister and Bret Harte) and sculptor of his day. Yet he continued to roam each summer for the increasingly elusive characters of the Old West. Fascinated with and befriended by the Indians, Remington anticipated the last rebellion by the Sioux. Narrowly escaping death in combat in the Badlands, he rushed to the East to document the events for Harper’s Weekly. Remington is unique for his “caught-in-action” style, a legacy of his lack in formal training and its stifling pedagogy--which he could never tolerate. He died in 1909 after surgery for appendicitis, his career at apogee, some 48 well-lived years of age.


There are essentially three types of original antique prints by Remington (there are lots of modern reproductions): magazine and newspaper illustrations, halftone prints sold separately or in portfolios, and original chromolithographs. These prints were all done for commercial purposes; that is, they were created with the intent to be used as illustrations in books or magazines, or for sale to the public to purchase to hang in their homes. They were issued in large numbers, though through attrition the antique Remington prints can be quite scarce.


Newspaper & Magazine Illustrations


The first commercial print after Remington was “Cow Boys of Arizona, Roused by a Scout,” issued in the February 25, 1882 issue of Harper’s Weekly (Remington had two illustrations published previously in college publications). The story is that Remington sent his sketch drawn on wrapping paper to the editors of Harper’s just to see if he could sell his work to the paper. They liked the image, but it was so crude that it had to be redrawn by staff artist W.A. Rogers.


In the next years, Remington sold a few more sketches to this illustrated newspaper, but he got his big break in 1886 when he was commissioned by Harper’s Weekly as an artist-correspondent to cover the U.S. government’s campaign against Geronimo. He never was able to catch up with Geronimo himself, so Remington focused more on “Soldiering in the Southwest,” taking many photographs and making sketches, which upon his return east he turned into illustrations for Harper’s and the magazine Outing. This was the beginning of a very successful career as an illustrator, with Remington providing art work for these and other publications, as well as providing images for books and art portfolios.


Between 1882 and 1913 Remington’s drawings and paintings appeared as original illustrations in seventeen publications. Initially, they were done as wood-engraving, but in the 1890s the publications started to use photomechanical screened halftones instead, so the later Remington illustrations tend to be made by this process. In the early twentieth century Collier’s Weekly and other publications started to reproduce his work as color halftones.


Portfolio Prints


Collier’s thought so highly of Remington’s work (one assume not only a commercial viewpoint, but also artistically), that in 1905 they began to issue color halftones after his paintings in portfolios and as separate prints. These were done in a number of sizes, over a number of years, and with different levels of quality. Interestingly, the early prints were called “Artists Proofs” by Collier’s. Traditionally, this term meant a print was pulled before publication, so the artist could inspect it, but Collier’s was simply using this terms as a selling tool. Collier’s also issued a number of Remington halftone images as separate prints for framing, again in different sizes.


Chromolithographs


The rarest and best quality prints by Remington are chromolithographs. These are images which were printed from multiple lithographic stones, one per color. The first of these were two prints, “Antelope Hunting” and “Goose Shooting,” issued in 1889 in a portfolio entitled Sport: or Shooting and Fishing. This portfolio included fifteen chromolithographs after important American sporting artists of the day, such as A.B. Frost, Frederic S. Cozzens, Frank H. Taylor and R.F. Zogbaum. For Remington to be included in this august group was evidence of his increasing fame.


Just over a decade later, in 1901, a portfolio was issued by R.H. Russell of New York containing eight lithographs based solely on Remington’s work. This set, A Bunch of Buckskins, included folio sized chromolithographs, four of ‘rough riders” and four of Native Americans.


A year later, Charles Scribner’s Sons reissued four prints, which had appeared previously in Scribner’s Magazine, as chromolithographs in a portfolio entitled Western Types.


The last chromolithograph after Remington was a separate print issued in 1908 of “The Last of His Race.” This print is an “oleograph,” which essentially is an elaborate chromolithograph printed using oil based inks on canvas and varnished so as to resemble an oil painting.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Thomas Nast Cartoons

Thomas Nast is one of our favorite artists. He is among the most famous illustrators of all time, often called the ‘father of American political cartooning.’ Nast was born in Bavaria in 1840 and at six years immigrated with his family to the United States. His father, a musician, had enrolled the artistically precocious child in an art school by age 12. Three years later Nast was forced to leave his training to help support the family, fortunately gaining work as an illustrator at Frank Leslie’s Weekly. Five years later Nast had traveled abroad to cover the Heenan-Sayers fight, later joining Garibaldi’s forces in Italy as a war correspondent. He had been employed by the New York Illustrated News for these assignments, but by early 1862 he had become a war correspondent again, this time for Harper’s Weekly. His patriotic themes created such attention that President Lincoln cited Nast as his “best recruiting sergeant”.


During the first 25 years following the War Between the States, Nast became the most significant illustrator of American political and social issues. His pointed cartoons exerted a great impact on public opinion. Every presidential candidate to gain his support won and his stature increased with the successful campaign in 1870-71 to bring down “Boss” Tweed of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall and his political machine. More than a mere cartoonist, Nast was an innovator of images, popularizing or instituting many now familiar subjects such as the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, John Bull, Uncle Sam, and Columbia. Nast’s Santa Claus, modeled from Clement Moore’s St. Nicholas in his Twas the Night Before Christmas, serves as our present-day jolly old elf. Harper’s Weekly was Nast’s principal forum, and those prints hold a significant place in our American past.


On January 9, 1875, Nast produced a cover illustration for Harper’s Weekly applauding the proposed Specie Resumption Act which Grant had introduced to Congress and which passed just five days later. This had to do with the debate between “hard” and “soft” money proponents. In order the finance the Civil War, the federal government had begun to circulate paper money, “green backs,” which was not backed by gold specie. When the war ended, some wanted to continue with this policy, while others wanted to resume the use of a specie backed currency.


Most Democrats were soft-money advocates, hoping that inflation would be encouraged, so easing to some extent the extensive debt of their constituency, mostly farmers. Most Republicans, including Grant, were hard-money advocates, as were most of their capitalist supporters, and they believed that gold-backed currency would stabilized the money supply and sustained a prosperous economy. In the 1874 elections, the Democrats won enough seats that they were gong to take control of the House of Representatives, so the lame duck Republicans pushed through the Specie Resumption Act in early January, returning U.S. currency to a gold-based system.


Nast’s cartoon strongly backed this Act. Grant is shown standing on the “Ark of State, depicted as a Noah figure reaching out to the Dove of Peace, shown flying over a rainbow entitled “Our Credit.” Strewn behind the ark, floating in a sea of inflation, are the soft-money proponents.


Though the Act passed, the time-table for the retirement of the “green backs” was to take place over an extended period. The Democratic led Congress was not able to kill the act, but they were able to pass the Bland-Allison Act in February 1878, which succeeded in raising the amount of paper money not backed by gold allowed to be in circulation, thus diluting the Resumption Act.


The Republicans and Nast continued to be against this move, so Nast reissued his “Ark of State” cartoon, but this time reinforced his point by adding his own picture and titling the print with "Our Artist Indorsing the Above Cartoon.” Nast is shown sitting by the solid rock of “Sound Specie Basis,” with the quote “I, Th. Nast, A Fellow Workman Want 100 cents on a $ You Bet. Not 90 or 92 cents on a $ in silver, gold greenbacks of soft soap.”


This is all a rather obscure, and now the conflict seems totally out-of-date, but it is interesting to see Nast step into his own cartoons to reemphasize his position. He was a great innovator and print is a fascinating example of his work.


Friday, April 8, 2016

Terra Australis Incognita

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia, my visit "down under,” and so I am inspired to write about the mapping of the first “Australis,” Latin for ‘southern,’ to appear on maps, the mythical “Terra Australis Incognita,” that is ‘Unknown Southern Land.’


If you look on many maps of the sixteenth century, you will see a very large land mass covering the southern pole, looking much like the continent of Antarctica. This is really strange, as that continent was not actually discovered until 1820. If that is so, how did what looks to be Antarctica appear on maps from four centuries before? This anomaly has been explained by some (most famously Charles Hapgood in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings) as being the result of an ancient advanced civilization or by others (such as Erich Von Daniken in Chariots of the Gods) as evidence of a visit to Earth by space visitors in the distant past. The truth, though more mundane, is still of considerable interest.


During the Renaissance, as scholars were trying to get a handle on their world in a period of discoveries of new lands, there were many who supported a theory that there had to be an as-yet-discovered continent in the southern-most part of the globe. This was based mostly on the supposition that there had to be a large land mass in the south to balance all the land in the north.


If you look at a modern map of the world [such as the one above by Daniel R. Strebe] and look all the land other than Antarctica, it is clear that the majority of the land mass is north of the equator. It was thought that if there were not a large, balancing land mass in the southern hemisphere, the globe would wobble or perhaps tip over.


Gerard Mercator was a proponent of this theory and so he included this continent on his world map.


Once one accepted that there must be a hitherto undiscovered land in the south, one tended to read any information about the southern regions as giving shape to this land. So Marco Polo’s report of “Greater Java” was seen as confirmation of this southern continent, and Polo’s “Locac” became the region of Lucach located there, as well as two other locations based on a misreading of Polo, “Beach” and “Maletur.”


The existence of this great southern land was then further confirmed when in 1520 Magellan sailed through the straits thereafter named after him. Magellan sailed between South America and what he called “Terra del Fuego,” which naturally was assumed to be the shore of Terra Australis. Thus it was that maps began to give a firmer shape to that continent.


However, Tierra del Fuego is an island, not part of Terra Australis, as was proven in 1616, when Jacques Le Maire and Willem Corneliszoon Schouten sailed from the Atlantic Ocean, south of Tierra del Fuego, and into the Pacific.


This did not get rid of the notion of Terra Australis Incognito, however, it just necessitated a modification of the shape of that putative continent. Map makers, not wanting to have to re-engrave entire new plates for their maps which had hitherto shown the continent including the northern shore of Tierra Del Fuego, simply erased the shoreline connected to the now-known-to-be island, ending the coast vaguely somewhere in the oceans to the east and west.


Through much of the seventeenth century, as explorations were being made in the southern oceans, new discoveries of land were often initially assumed to be part of Terra Australis-—for instance this was thought at one time for the New Hebrides and Australia—-until this was shown to be incorrect. As these discoveries were reported, parts of the coastline of Terra Australis, which had appeared on maps since the sixteenth century, were more and more erased, so that by the end of the seventeenth century, people were beginning to doubt its existence.


It was one of the greatest scientific cartographers of all time, Guillaume Delisle, who finally decided—-given the total lack of any evidence—-that he would completely remove the continent from his maps. Quite ironic that the person who was most closely following good, scientific principals in mapmaking, ended up making maps which were the furthest from reality.


The hope for a great southern continent continued into the eighteenth century, with James Cook having secret instructions to search for it during his 1768-71 voyage supposedly just to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti. On his second voyage, of 1772-73, Cook sailed around the seas so far to the south that he proved that if there were any southern continent, it was much smaller than the original theories suggested. It wasn’t until 1820 that the continent was first actually sighted, with the last of the known continents finally making it onto maps of the world legitimately, rather than as a matter of speculation.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Mary Arniotis, Strong Woman

One of the fun things about my business is that even after 35 years selling maps and prints, I still come across items which I have never seen and which I get to research and learn about. As part of effort to redesign and update our web site, I started going through some nineteenth century posters we had not really researched. One of these had long puzzled me: it is a poster entitled "Miss Arniotis Champion Lutteuse de Monde" and it shows a young lady in tights standing next to a series of images of her wrestling another woman.


The translation is basically that Miss Arniotis was the world champion at wrestling and that 500 francs were offered for anyone who could stay in the ring with her for 15 minutes. What was all this about?


By doing a bit of digging, I was able to find out that Mary Arniotis was a "strong woman" who was appearing on stage in Paris in the mid-1890s, doing a show which showed how strong she was. This included such feats as lifting two men sitting on a barrel with one hand and lifting a table with a man standing on it just using her teeth!


According to the press articles in 1894, "She does not claim to possess any supernatural or otherwise magnetic power, but says she puts her trust solely in her muscle....Her strength is the result of a careful attention to hygienic laws. She has a matchless figure and is the essence of suppleness and very graceful."


Another article noted that "When she appears on the stage any member or members of the audience is at liberty to put her strength to test in any way that he may choose." Turns out this wasn't always the best idea for "She took one luckless youth by the nape of the neck and slammed him into an empty barrel, which she then used as a baseball, scaring the life out of the fellow as she tossed him into the air, all this because the man said he thought she was but a trickster."


Later in the decade, Mary Arniotis, came to the U.S. and appeared in a number of vaudeville shows, but the poster I was researching was from her time in Paris. This poster was to drum up business for her performances, promising 500 Francs to anyone who would stay wrestling her for 15 minutes. Posters, such as this one, were produced in great numbers to be posted in Paris for various events and given their ephemeral intent and the fragility of paper, few of this sort of poster survive to today. I can find no other posters related to Miss Arniotis so I am especially pleased one turned up here and I was able to figure out its fascinating history.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Houghton's Diagram of the History of Political Parties in the United States, by Vincent Szilagyi

In our line of work we deal with relics of the past that were created to meet some pressing need, be it scientific, cultural, financial or artistic. Sometimes the forces that made these prints important have faded with time, rendering them charming, but somewhat bland, pieces of history. Yet, often the reverse is true, where the events and feelings of today give a deep and often urgent sense of importance to parts of our collection. This is certainly true of this next print.



This marvelous chart, entitled “Plate VI. Diagram of the History of Political Parties in the United States”, is the work of American historian Walter R. Houghton. Houghton was a teacher, author and historian of politics and religion at Indiana University. In 1880 he issued a short work, Conspectus of the History of Political Parties and the Federal Government, expanded and issued over the next several years as History of American Politics (Non Partisan.). This work was the first really detailed look at the subject and its insights are of interest even in today’s world of very partisan politics. The most impressive and influential aspect of Houghton’s work is this chart which showcases the “History of Political Parties in the United States”. Although overwhelming at first glance, the chart is actually quite straightforward and easy to understand. Houghton shows American political history from before the Revolution until 1880 through the lens of political parties, with presidential terms indicated with vertical lines. Each political party is shown as a line, with the thickness or thinness of the line indicating its level of support. The political party that controls the presidency is on top, while the other party (or parties) is below. The party lines splinter and merge often, with various issues causing groups of people to leave one party and join another, or start one of their own. Houghton indicates the reasons for these departures with descriptive text, which briefly explain what fissures drove people to seek new parties.



In our hectic election season we are bombarded with claims that we are hopelessly divided by party, ideology and the breakdown of civil society. While hyperbole might sell papers and fill airtime, the struggles of today cannot hold a candle to the chaos of the 1850s and 60s, as Houghton’s chart perfectly illustrates. The years leading up to the Civil War is where the party lines veer from a mostly simple two party system to a tangle of competing vines. This accurately captures the political chaos of the period, where the struggle over slavery obliterated the Whig Party and severed the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern wings. New Parties like the Free Soilers, Native American [Know Nothings] and Silver Gray eventually coalesced around opposition to the Kansas Nebraska Act, and formed the Republican Party. A few years later, a reconstituted Democratic Party emerges from the union of former Confederates and Northern Democrats and the chart returns to a more simplified give and take between two major parties. People still splinter off and join the opposing Party, but this basic configuration of Democrats and Republicans remains even today, despite some occasional third party challenges over the years.



In light of our current political climate, studying this chart gives us a healthy and much needed dose of perspective. While we certainly have room for improvement, we are a far cry from the rhetoric and vitriol that tore apart all but a precious few American institutions 150 years ago. This marvelous chart is a fantastic tool for viewing America’s political history, as well as a beautiful piece of Americana.