Illustration and Social Change

Illustration and Social Change

Illustrated magazines began just after the invention of photography, but photography was not used in the first decade of these publications. First on the scene was the Illustrated London News in 1842, quickly followed by Paris’ L’Illustration, and Leipzig’s Illustrirte Zeitung in 1843. The success of the Illustrated London News was phenomenal; the first issue reportedly sold 26,000 copies. Frank Leslie, the manager of the engraving department at the Illustrated London News, came to America in 1848. He founded Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1855.

Between 1855 and 1856, the Illustrated London News featured pictorial reportage of the Crimean War engraved from original photographs by Roger Fenton and others. The use of images in America, however, relied primarily on sketch artists sent out to cover the scene. In 1858, Frank Leslie sent his chief artist, Alan Berghaus, and staff artists Thomas Nast and Sol Eytinge to investigate a social wrong—“the swill milk trade” in New York City.

New York City milk customers had been told that their milk was provided by farms outside the city limits where cows were well cared for. However, the was not the case; the dairy cows were kept in filthy stables inside the heart of the city and fed with wastes from nearby distilleries, often causing illnesses when people consumed the milk. Written reports and exposés had been attempted before. In 1850, the Sunday Dispatch had printed a series of articles designed to drive the corrupt dairy owners out of business. They were unsuccessful. Leslie’s approach was different. He used pictures to place the artist, as witness, directly at the scene to increase believability.

Leslie published eight portraits of Berghaus working in the field. In one “Scene at the Offal Dock,” Berghaus is represented as sketching a veterinarian dissecting a cow. Showing the artist in the process of representing the scene of the crime lent an entirely new sense of “truth” to the scene, even if it was not entirely truthful. The names of the artists were kept secret, and the artists received threats of physical violence, which were duly depicted in imaginative drawings. Leslie attached the commentary to one, “There could be no reason for. . . [a] vicious assault [against the artist] other than the disinclination to have [the milk producers] low lazar-houses truly depicted by the unerring pencil.” This is perhaps the origin of the myth of the “on the spot” reporter who risks life and limb to reveal the “truth” (Pearson 86-87).

Leslie’s campaign was effective at shutting down and cleaning up the dairies. The accuracy of pictorial reporting began to be accepted as early as 1860. In contrast, Harper’s Illustrated Weekly, begun in 1857, used illustration primarily to supplement weekly novellas, perhaps following the examples set by book illustration which was increasing in popularity across this time. The profound impact of illustrated publishing, however, began to gather momentum at the advent of the civil war in 1861, the same year that New York state Senate passed a bill to prohibit the sale of swill milk.