Monday, October 18, 2010

Representations of Economy at Library Company

I spent last Friday at a terrific print conference at the Library Company of Philadelphia. Entitled "Representations of Economy. Lithography in America from 1820 to 1860," this conference was sponsored in part by "Philadelphia on Stone," which I have discussed in an earlier blog. Philadelphia on Stone is a project under the auspices of the Visual Culture Program at the Library Company (VCP@LCP), which joined up with the Program in Early American Economy and Society (PEAES) to put on the conference.

A lot of confusing names of programs, I know, but this conference is a great example of the exciting results of new programs and collaborations which have been appearing at the Library Company and elsewhere. VCP@LCP is a program which promotes the study of historical images as primary source material (note that the images in this blog are all from the image data base they have put up on the Philadelphia on Stone web site). If you have read this blog regularly you will realize is a thing I am very keen on. As Cathy Matson, director of PEAES said, historic images are not just supplements to textural history, but they are primary sources which can provide unique information and insights.

PEAES is a project from LCP which is dedicated to the promoting of the study of early American economy, broadly understood. The two programs obviously overlap considerably and it was in that area of overlap that this conference was conceived.

The period between 1820 and 1860 was one of tremendous change in the American economy, with the country moving from a primarily agrarian/rural society to an industrial/urban one. In this period, lithography made its appearance and grew to be the dominant printmaking medium. Lithography was not only a product of the changing American economy but it also graphically reflected that metamorphosis. Even more, in a period when many were illiterate or did not speak or read English, pictures provided them with much of their understanding of their world. Thus, these historic images helped to both form and disseminate the culture of the period. Last week's conference examined these and more of the fascinating aspects of American lithography in this period.

As an introduction, we were treated to viewing a film posted on YouTube which explains and demonstrates the process of lithography. It is worth viewing for anyone interested in how lithographs are made and can be seen here.

All of the talks were stimulating. I learned a lot and ended the day with a load of questions I'd like to pursue, including:

  • How were the large "trade cards" (really advertising broadsides) of Philadelphia businesses used? We they posted in public spaces, sent out to resellers, put in shop windows, or used to adorn the boxes or packages the goods were sold or shipped in? No one really knows how they were used and there are few, if any, images showing them being used, so there are lots of possibilities to consider.
  • I'd love to learn more about on how popular prints were sold. Gigi Barnhill and Nancy Finlay both discussed the business of print selling by popular print makers, but there is much more to learn.

Without spending far more time than I can spend on this blog, I can only skim over some of the topics and questions generated by the conference. The conference was a great example of how current scholars are using historic prints to not only increase our knowledge of our past, but also to open up new avenues to explore.

In finishing I have to mention another conference which is coming up in just a couple weeks that I know will prove to be just as stimulating and educational as last week's.This is the annual conference of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture at the American Antiquarian Society.

Last year I was able to attend this conference (and wrote a blog about it), and I wish I could go again this year, for it is on a topic which I think is great fun: "History Prints. Fact and Fiction." The conference will take place in Worcester, MA, on November 12 and 13th and it will be well worth attending for anyone interested in historic prints. Registration is open until October 29th. More information can be found here.

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