Visual Century

The Visual Century

Though it may be somewhat counterintuitive to assert that the nineteenth rather than the twentieth century was the age of the image, it makes an increasing amount of sense to me. Frank Luther Mott’s monumental A History of American Magazines is rich with period sources that reflect the state of illustrated publishing at the turn of the twentieth century.

“It is confessed, declared a writer in the New York Tribune in 1885, “that no literary magazines in the world equal ours in the matter of illustration.” As events developed, the American magazine went on increasing its pictorial content in richness and variety. “Nowadays it is often the text which is illustrative, rather than the pictures,” said the Kimball Survey at the end of the century [Arthur Reed Kimball in Journal of Social Science, v. 37. p.37 1899]. The author of Bauble, one of the chapbooks, voiced a common critical opinion of the later nineties when he referred to the “picture-phobia” of the magazines: “Modern publishers,” he said, “seem to think the eye measures the depth of the popular mind.” He thought that in Munsey’s, for example, “the writers are only space fillers” [v.2. p. 83, Aug, 1896].

But all critical protests were in vain: the people liked copious illustration. There is no doubt that a considerable proportion of these pictures were mediocre or worse, represented careless and unintelligent editing, and were poorly engraved and printed. On the other hand, many of them were attractive and finely printed, and performed their illustrative function well. (v. IV 150)

Another indicator that illustration was a key selling feature in the nineteenth century is the career of Edward Charles Allen, who was Frank Munsey’s mentor as a young man. Mott has no kind words for Augusta, Maine, the center of nineteenth century pulp publishing:

In the field of the general literary monthly, the East produced few successful new magazines after the prolific years of 1865-1870. . . . But if we turn to the field of the story-paper, we find the enterprising publishers of such cheap products extremely active in the monthly field. It was in 1869 that the mother of a whole brood of mail-order papers, the People’s Literary Companion, appeared in Augusta, Maine. This group of periodicals, which for forty years was to blacken thousands of tons of cheap paper annually, began with one E.C. Allen. (v. III 37)

The story of Allen which follows is snide, but probably true. Allen began his publishing empire in order to sell his washing powder recipe. He began by publishing a sixteen page small folio with stories, household hints, fashions, poetry and humor distributed at the cost of fifty cents per year. However, Mott indicates that the majority of copies were circulated for free, as he sold advertising space to other merchants to offset costs. Engravings and chromolithographs were used to attract attention and increase circulation for these thinly veiled advertising vehicles.

Mott notes that the Postal Act of 1907 pretty much closed the curtain on this particular type of mail-order paper. Though he doesn’t overtly state it, it seems that much of the content probably bordered on obscenity, and the removal of the mail as a distribution system closed the curtain on these scandalous popular publications. In the same grouping of popular magazines, Mott describes two New York papers of 1868, Stetson’s Dime Illustrated and Joseph Carter’s Last Sensation. According to Mott, “they out-Heroded their Herod and played up the sex angle in crime beyond anything that had been done before.” Day’s Doings, also founded in 1868 relied on sex stories culled from the newspapers with titles like “Free Love” and “Wedded to Death” and “A Maiden’s Perils” complete with woodcuts as sensational as the articles occupying half of the print space.(v. III 44).

The peak of the image craze which started in the mid-nineteenth century was 1937, according to publisher’s surveys. In 1937, nearly 40 percent of the available space in newspapers was dedicated to pictures. This really helps explain the veritable explosion in illustrated books which began that same year.

2 thoughts on “Visual Century”

  1. Contrasting the appeal, or perhaps impact, of image then and now is interesting. Today our society is essentially ruled by image – television, movies and omnipresent ad copy. That the majority of today’s images are not static is, by and large, irrelevant. We are at a consciuos level I think much less susceptible to image impact than previous generations. We are in image overload.
    In the 19th C. there was a great deal more illiteracy than there is today (despite the best efforts of our educational system to overcome that progress :-)). Given that, and that print was the sole mass media available for transmitting ideas to the public at large, images were of greater significance.

  2. Ah, but the age of television and movies is the age of sound. Television or movies are intelligible without pictures, but not without sound.
    The saturation level in images was reached, I think, in the 1930s. That was when the broadcast rather than print media began to take over our consciousness. Now, we have voiceovers to explain what the images mean before we even see them.
    The eye has become lazier, waiting for the comment soundbytes to tell us what we see. For example, British tanks rolled over statue after statue; but when the big “press event” in Baghdad took place, suddenly the war was over. It was the commentary, not the image, that made the difference in the public perception.

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