copyright 1997 Joshua Brown

Social Types, Readers, and the Pictorial Press,
by Joshua Brown

A version of this article was originally published in Radical History Review
38 (Fall 1996): 5-38. It is republished here with permission.

Constructing Representation
Reconstructing Representation


In April 1875, in a rare public acknowledgement of reader response, an editor of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper addressed objections the publication had received about its pictorial coverage of the "Long Strike" in the hard-coal region of eastern Pennsylvania. Special artist Joseph Becker's February report on "The 'Molly Maguires' of the Pennsylvania Coal Regions," accompanied by a page of engravings, had focused on the brutal nature of the miners' secret society, blaming the destitution of miners' families on a "spirit of lawlessness" engendered by ignorance, alcoholism, sloth, and susceptibility to the demagoguery of irresponsible union leaders.[1] In the wake of the report, Frank Leslie's received a flurry of "ill-spelled" and "violently abusive" letters from the mining districts that, in the editor's view, only confirmed Becker's depiction. He felt obliged, however, to address the more measured protest of Hugh McGarvy, President of the State Council of the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, the miners' union. "[B]oth the illustration and the pen-picture of the Miners of Pennsylvania are unfair," McGarvy had complained, "the miners are not all drunkards." McGarvy went on to defend his members' morals and sobriety, stating that if they were given "fair remuneration" from their employers "there would be no trouble. They would willingly work, and make happy families and comfortable firesides." Concluding, McGarvy wrote: "I was not surprised when first I saw such things in Harper's Weekly, but from FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER better things were expected. We respectfully solicit at your hands simple truth and justice for the miners as a whole."[2]

The editor subsequently conceded that strikes "are sometimes the only, and in that case, the legitimate, resort of labor in a conflict with capital." The significance of this brief correspondence lies less in the editor's qualified acquiescence than in its suggestion that readership of the illustrated press in the decade following the Civil War extended into even isolated areas like the coalfields of Schuylkill County. In this instance, moreover, specific readers had resolutely rejected their reduction to a criminal, degraded "social type" in the pages of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. The incident raises questions about the relationship of representation and readership in the production of news images in the nascent weekly illustrated press. These questions are largely ignored in a historiography that has acknowledged the wood-engraved record of the Civil War, only to treat the following forty years of news imagery as a prelude to the revolutionary "half-tone effect," the technological process that would finally permit direct reproduction of photographs on the printed page. Such formalist and technologically-determined approaches to the history of popular imagery, privileging the influence of photography or innovations in block printing, view the reporting of news in the form of "white-line" wood engravings as a historical parenthesis, a limited process awaiting obsolescence. They fail to consider how wood-engraved news imagery in the illustrated press was a social practice, and how, over time, it was altered and mediated by a rapidly changing social context and the demands of its readers. The relationship between the production of news imagery and its audience would become evident in the years following the Civil War as the visual signs used to represent the "social types" composing American society changed in the pages of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.[3]

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Constructing Representation

Born out of the conjuncture of the transportation revolution, innovations in printing technology, an expanded literary and pictorial market, and national crisis, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper exemplified mid-nineteenth-century pictorial publication.[4] After running the engraving department of the Illustrated London News for six years, Frank Leslie (the name adopted by Suffolk-born Henry Carter when he took up wood engraving in defiance of his glove-manufacturer father) arrived in New York City in 1848 to discover no comparable news publication requiring his services.[5] Opening an engraving establishment on Broadway, within a year Leslie found work with an individual who would steer him down a path that dramatically departed from the genteel approach to the news espoused by his previous employer. In 1849, P. T. Barnum hired Leslie to illustrate a lavish program to promote Jenny Lind's whirlwind concert tour of the United States. The successful promotion of the Swedish Nightingale's 1850-51 tour soon led to another collaboration in 1853. Although Barnum's Illustrated News did not survive the first year of its publication, Leslie (who served as its chief engraver) had amassed enough capital by then to finally go out on his own.[6] Frank Leslie's Ladies' Gazette of Fashion and Frank Leslie's Journal of Romance, a story magazine, both published in 1854, turned out to be lucrative ventures, and they were soon joined by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1855. Weathering the 1857 depression, the Civil War would finally put Leslie's operation on firm financial footing. With its pictorial coverage of the national crisis, the American illustrated press--represented by Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Harper's Weekly (founded in 1857) and the New York Illustrated News (1859-64)--became an established source of news, over the four years of the war providing a picture-hungry public with thousands of images.[7] By the 1870s, Leslie's firm at 537 Pearl Street employed between three and four hundred people, including 70 engravers, and published seven publications bearing his name that sometimes reached editions numbering into the hundreds of thousands.

Frank Leslie created a pictorial publishing empire predicated upon innovations in cheap printing, the subdivision of labor in the production of illustrations, and the appeal to a broad and diverse audience. Unlike his arch-rival, the House of Harper, Leslie teetered on the cusp of respectability, prepared to attract the circulation necessary to support the expense of an illustrated press by addressing the varied constituencies comprising the vastly expanded market. Leslie viewed his publishing house as a marketplace in itself, with specific periodicals targeted at specific audiences, his publications ranging from didactic children's magazines to scandal-sheets (which, bowing to gentility, often bore no indication of his proprietorship). The capstone of his endeavors, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper--"giving to the public original, accurate and faithful representations of the most prominent events of the day"--was Leslie's most inclusive publication, addressing the broad "middle," an elastic range of readers that, in the mid-nineteenth century, stretched from mechanics to merchants.[8]

With impressive rapidity, the sixteen-page newspaper (often accompanied by supplements and special editions) regularly depicted the events and personages of the previous week. Adopting the methods of mass production that were transforming the labor process in mid-nineteenth-century America, Leslie's was able to rapidly deliver illustrations of the news to the public, often within days of its occurrence. The artist's sketch was but the first step in a process of pictorial reproduction that would progressively reconfigure and transform its initial interpretation. After the art superintendent chose a sketch to be worked up into an engraving, a staff artist drew a new version on paper, rendered in outlines. The drawing was then rubbed down in reverse upon the whitewashed surface of a block of Turkish boxwood, itself composed of smaller sections of wood secured together by a system of nuts and bolts. Draughtsmen applied further detail in washes and pencil (sometimes dividing up the block among artists with particular skills for rendering figures, architecture, landscapes, machinery, etc.), and then the composite block went to the engraving department where it was unbolted and distributed to a team of engravers. The engravers laboriously carved out the design (leaving the lines in relief to print black) on their individual pieces, after which the constituent blocks were rebolted together and a supervising engraver insured that the incised lines met across the sections. The engraved block was then sent to the composing room where it was locked into place with handset type to create a Frank Leslie's page to be made into an electrotyped copper plate.[9]

Supplementing daily press coverage, the pictures in Frank Leslie's added the dimension of palpability to the news, displaying the faces of noted individuals, the contexts and content of events. This information was rendered with particular attention to the detail of streets, scenery and interiors. Deriving their authenticity in the eye-witness (or ear-witness) presence of the "special artist," aided by an "ambulatory" photographic staff and vast photographic file providing architectural and topographical references, the engravings constructed news events into visual performances. The illustrations, often framed in proscenium-like compositions, imparted a brief narrative, extending the sense of time and conveying cause and effect. Leslie's also published news engravings based solely on photographs (in addition to the regular portraits in the weekly), usually duly noted in their captions. But, in contrast to the narrative of the standard news cuts, the faithful reproduction of photographs often appear detached and static, marking an event as opposed to delineating its meaning and atmosphere. "We do not depend upon the accidental transmission of photographs, with their corpse-like literalness," Frank Leslie's intoned in 1859, "but upon our own special artists." Disingenuous as this remark was in the light of Leslie's use of photographs as source material, it nevertheless accurately described the differing representational effect of the two media.[10]

In Frank Leslie's archive of places, events and people, portraits were ubiquitous. Mathew Brady and his contemporaries may have captured the features of "illustrious Americans" on the photographic plate, but it was the illustrated press that made the faces of politicians and pundits, actors and artists, clergymen and charitable reformers, diplomats and royalty familiar to the public. As Alan Trachtenberg has argued, however, Brady did more than merely record; he codified the conventions of the formal public portrait into a facial map of success.[11] The idealized face of the "emulatory" photographic portrait became the standard by which the notable were represented in the pages of Frank Leslie's and its competitors. Individual engraved portraits based on photographs supplied by specific studios (including Brady) graced every issue.

But depictions of events involving notable figures also remained gripped in the vise of conventional portraiture. The even, modulatory gaze of the posed shot tyrannized every cut, unchanging even in the most dramatic circumstances. When Charles Sumner lost the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 9, 1871, he was observed "pulling his hair over his forehead, then plunging both hands in his pockets, again giving his hair another pull, and anon throwing the lapels of his coat wide open. . ." But the engraving that accompanied this text describing his agitated state merely showed his fingers picking at the tresses adorning his classical head [Figure 1].[12]

Engravings like this succeeded in supplying readers with the details of news events, delineating the assembled personages, the layout of rooms, and the composition of surrounding scenery. But the mission to preserve the official faces of notable Americans culminated in ideal heads planted onto ill-matched bodies, perpetuating (according to New York World illustrator Valerian Gribayedoff) photography's creation of a new genus called homo uprights .[13]

Expressions appropriate to trying circumstances--unmasking and revealing the private, unholy countenances of the famous--were isolated on pages reserved for political caricatures and cartoons.[14] The discrete separation of idealized and caricatured portrayals of notable figures, however, did not extend to the greater balance of humanity depicted in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. When it came to the representation of events in the newly-discovered terrain of the defeated South, the burgeoning settlements of the West, or the prosperous and poor neighborhoods of New York City, the faces of "anonymous" Americans took on explicit and exaggerated features, expressions, gestures, and poses. Distinguished by traits primarily linked to specific regions of the nation (each in turn bearing its own variations and subgroups), this differentiation of citizens into representational social types was instantly recognizable to readers. The device of typing dated back to the first years of the republic, but it had blossomed in the Jacksonian era's culture industry. The self-confident and calculating Yankee "Brother Jonathan" of New England; the independent and irrepressible western Frontiersman; the rude backwoods southern "cracker;" and the pugnacious and preening urban plebeian "Mose" were among the most popular of the regional characters performed on the popular stage, described in popular literature, and illustrated in comic almanacs and genre painting. Their features, styles of dress, and poses served as components for a normative description of society that classified individuals into a range of "social types" bearing predictable and predetermined characteristics.[15]

In the antebellum period, types as images had been subordinate to theatrical performance and literature, appearing mainly as crude woodcut illustrations in comic almanacs or lithographs that portrayed actors as celebrated characters. The advent of the illustrated press in the 1850s rejuvenated the practice of typing through broader distribution, greater accessibility, and better reproduction techniques. Through the science of physiognomy, social types appeared in visual codes that revealed their innate character and motive to a vast American public. Rooted in Aristotelian precepts of the ideal, physiognomy's long history had reached a milestone in the late eighteenth century with the publication of Johann Caspar Lavater's multi-volume Physiognomische Fragmente. The Swiss theologian's work, translated into many languages, codified precise visual rules about facial structure and expression to identify inner moral and social qualities. Establishing the ideal in the classical Greek profile--the nose and forehead forming a vertical line denoting intelligence and spirituality--Lavater's many diagrams delineated how deviations from classical balance and symmetry compared with traits found in animals to confirm characterological flaws, from idiocy to immorality. More to the point, Lavater's diagrams, and those appearing in subsequent physiognomic tracts, served as models for artists, both in the studio and in the newspaper office, for drawing the populace. Depicting social types whose features and figures were imbued by the rules of physiognomy, the resulting illustrations in the pictorial press constructed an orderly, detectable and moral map for what seemed so hidden and chaotic in the industrialization and urbanization of mid-nineteenth-century America.[16] Through the palpability of appearance, Frank Leslie's and other weekly illustrated papers offered a way to comprehend and represent the increasingly complex and perplexing nineteenth-century social reality. The pictorial representation of social types in Frank Leslie's suggests many of the conventions governing mid-nineteenth-century Parisian "social caricature"; but, whereas French lithography used physiognomy and social typing for satirical comment, these American pictures used the devices to report the conditions and events of the day.[17]

The imperative for reading character and social role became particularly acute in the new, heterogeneous "world of strangers" of the mid-nineteenth-century American city. The city's geographic expansion and discomfiting mix of classes prompted the production of literary and visual categorizations that assured an anxious, inchoate middle class that there still was coherence in the universe: the threatening urban landscape could be read and, with this knowledge, safely traversed. The pictorial press played a crucial role in making the city seem decipherable, serving as the perfect complement to genteel rules of decorum and public behavior that required the controlled gaze of "civil inattention" in the street; in private, perusing a pictorial newspaper, the respectable reader could let his or her eyes rove promiscuously over the urban scene.[18]

Information guiding the genteel citizen through the treacherous streets was readily available in the pictorial press, and it was New York City in particular, the home of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and its competitors, that became the nation's paradigm for urban life. Society balls and political campaigns, building construction and conflagrations, theater openings and funerals, parks and processions--significant or not, events in New York predominated in Frank Leslie's coverage. The "customs and manners" of the city were portrayed through a range of social types (and their subcategories) stretching across the classes: Wall Street types tussled in the financial district; middle-class types thronged the ferries on weekend excursions; polite-society types attended banquets and fancy balls; and a panoply of ethnic types participated in their customary pastimes.

In their day to day lives, New Yorkers endured the promiscuous bustle of humanity, but for readers of the illustrated press the spectacle of the mixed urban crowd faded from view. Like the expanding metropolis fragmented into class- and ethnically-defined enclaves (albeit with imprecise and unstable borders), the panorama of the streets was a cumulative effect for Frank Leslie's readers. In a manner reminiscent of the city guides of the period, Leslie's mapped the city through a collection of separate representations of distinct social types, each contrasting to the last, each populating its own characteristic haunts and environs. New York was perceptible only through its parts, a metropolis composed of several cities that bridged a spectrum from sunshine to shadow--in an 1874 article, divided into "the commercial metropolis," "the metropolis of vice," "the boarding house belt," and "the fashionable metropolis."[19] A unified pictorial sense of the city existed but, like the lithographic and photographic urban representations of the era, it was largely confined to idealized aerial views, promotional pictures of new Grand-Style buildings, laudatory cuts displaying urban improvements, or fantastic renditions of how the streets should look.[20] There were exceptions to the pictorial segmentation of the city, but engravings portraying the mixed crowd were limited to the occasional sentimental or cautionary contrast, preserving the exclusiveness of types within the representation of the city. An 1866 double-page engraving called "The Moral, Social, Architectural, and Business Contrasts of New York City," perhaps the most panoramic contrast, merely enunciated the segmentation [Figure 2].[21]

Unlike the British illustrated press, American pictorial papers did not avoid the more unpleasant aspects of urban life. The genteel Illustrated London News, subscribing to Reynoldsian precepts of the ideal, simply erased the chaotic and morbid aspects of city life, and Punch placed poverty, crime and corruption within humorous frames that made their representation palatable, but Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper regularly depicted accidents, fires, hazards, crime, and, most of all, poverty.[22] The era's preoccupation with sanitary reform and the heavy sales that attended Frank Leslie's exposŽs of health scandals attested to general agreement, legitimated by repeated epidemics, that hidden horrors could at any moment transcend the geographical boundaries of class to wreak havoc on the entire city. Readers needed to know the hazards lurking in the metropolis; the value of the illustrated press lay in its ability to represent the threatening disorder of poverty, obviating the need to learn through direct personal experience.[23]

Throughout the late 1860s and early 1870s, readers of Frank Leslie's were repeatedly subjected to scenes of degradation and violence, an archive of images that revealed the poverty underlying city life, while also ensuring its viewers that the problem was largely the result of individual moral failure. Consistently accompanied by descriptions of artist-reporters' journeys into darkness, guided and protected by jaded officers of the law, these engravings portrayed enduring and predictable social types, their faces and bodies diagrams of characterological failure, their lives passed in dark, crowded conditions that were the antithesis of the domestic ideal. The causes of their plight were readily apparent. Mrs. McMahan's wretched one-room "apartment" on Roosevelt Street, depicted in an 1867 cut, exhibited the destitution wrought by liquor, its sole male occupant collapsed in an alcoholic stupor on the unswept floor [Figure 3].

While the averted face of the mother suckling her baby seemed to offer a dollop of sentiment to the hovel's female occupants, the center of the composition was devoted to the slouching Mrs. McMahan. In her harsh, angular features bereft of feminine virtues the viewer ascertained the eventual fate of the younger women in the scene, its cause located in the liquor tankard weighing down Mrs. McMahan's left hand.[24] An 1866 engraving of a dog fight in Kit Burns's "Sportsmen's Hall" on Water Street presented evidence of how the "dangerous classes" (joined by a few errant "swells") wallowed in degraded amusements [Figure 4].[25]

Although relieved occasionally by illustrations that showed the ministrations of charitable reformers and the operations of asylums and missionhouses, the overall picture abandoned the "unregulated" adult poor who had irretrievably succumbed to vice.[26] Only one hope for reform emerged out of the visual record of physical and spiritual collapse: the children of the poor. A series of engravings in 1873 depicted the plight of "Italian street musicians," showing depraved "masters" beating indentured children in a Five Points hovel for their failure to earn a requisite amount of money in the city's streets [Figure 5] and urchins who feared such punishment haunting the night streets.

These engravings portrayed extreme behavior but, whether abused by masters or neglected by deficient parents, whether prematurely driven or released from the moral confines of the family to roam unsupervised in the streets, the children of the poor were largely depicted as the blameless victims of corrupted adults. They alone still offered readers the possibility of reform.[27]

Representations of "dangerous women"--whether domestic grotesques abusing and infecting children or dance-hall "Delilahs" preying on foolhardy or addled males--demonstrated the most vicious effects of vice (carving its nefarious path across the women's very countenances).[28] In many cuts of urban poverty, however, the fault-line of female moral depravity could be located in malevolent male influence. The madonna figures depicted crouching in hovels and on the street were failures in the prescribed role of female domesticity; but the sentimental conventions of their depiction placed them in the role of victim, deprived of their rightful vocation by their husbands' abuse, abandonment, incapacity, or death.[29] Helpless and victimized, the faces of these women conveyed less the vicissitudes of vice than the drab dimensions of declension: swathed in rags and smeared with dirt, poor woman often seemed to be wilted versions of the physiognomic ideal.

The relationship of setting to physiognomy was crucial. Subscribing to the dominant precepts of separate spheres that delineated the proper location of women and men in the home and in public respectively, Leslie's idealized female faces found their most perfect articulation in the rarefied, sheltered atmosphere of the respectable parlor. In its illustrations, a limited number of activities was available for women outside the home, accompanied by an equally constrained repertoire of behavior and expression. Public venues, unsheltered and unregulated, were indeterminate and threatening. Frank Leslie's represented women's ventures into public using a prescribed gendered cartography of the city that labeled unescorted individual women, according to their appearance, as either endangered or dangerous. Confronted by a "gauntlet" of "fifteen or twenty well-dressed young men" outside a hotel, the young woman in an 1874 engraving maintained the required idealized visage that followed the precepts of feminine public invisibility [Figure 6].

"With a slight palpitating tremor she advances," ran the accompanying description,

and the profound silence is only broken by the tapping of her feet, unless one of the more experienced youths coughs or utters a low "ahem!" Often her drooped eyes fall still lower, while a blush colors her cheeks. Sometimes she turns her head and covers her face with a vail [sic]. Like a Summer cloud she passes quickly. Then the young heroes congratulate themselves with significant remarks, and, after renewing their strength at a neighboring bar, they return and await the approach of another.[30]

Nevertheless, Leslie's overall construction of a public realm limited to endangered and dangerous females possessed its own hazards. Vast numbers of women used the New York streets every day who failed to comply with a rigid representational dichotomy. Women constituted one-third of the city's workforce by 1870; along with women working in the household, they were a consistent public presence, whether shopping for meals or going to and from work. At least until 1880 the gaze of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper was resolutely male[31], but it occasionally contemplated the "respectable" working woman, attempting to locate her within prescribed codes of conduct and identifiable types. Although the Catholic working-class women depicted in a Fourth Ward fish market lacked the requisite genteel grooming and dress--"bonnets and hats appear to be eschewed," remarked the description--the 1875 engraving clearly demonstrated that "beauty and grace are not altogether lacking among the humble people who frequent the market. Occasionally a bright-eyed damsel, like the girl with shawl-covered head shown in our artist's sketch, . . . and tidy, frugal housewives, can be found mingling with the crowd." A range of female types--in both face and dress--were shown interacting in the market, yet the most compelling representation of proper working-class womanhood remained separate from the promiscuous pack, her eyes averted and perfect features shielded as prescribed by genteel rules of public conduct.[32]

The uncomfortable and indeterminate presence of young working-class women in Frank Leslie's engravings marked a division between the antebellum and postbellum representation of working women. Working-class women possessed no singular social type to articulate their presence in post-Civil War New York. In place of the flamboyant and heterosocial Lize, the plebeian Mose's female counterpart on the antebellum Bowery, working-class women were fractured into a range of ethnic and idealized types. The 1874 engraving of "servant girls" placing advertisements for situations in the uptown offices of the New York Herald thus offered "all classes and all nationalities" to Leslie's readers [Figure 7]:

the refined lady in reduced circumstances who appeals for a position as governess; the widow who is striving to make a living by renting rooms, and hundreds of others who would be willing workers if they had the opportunity. But by far the largest number are the robust daughters of Europe, who have sought our shores to gain an honest livelihood. The rosy-cheeked German, the bright-eyed Irish girl, the French bonne, and the ebony daughters of Africa, go to make up the varied crowd.[33]

In effect, Frank Leslie's confused representation of working women mirrored its broad middling readership, many of whom were clinging to the precepts of gentility as they slid upon the icy terrain of permanent wage work.

The conventions and codes in Frank Leslie's pictorial coverage of New York seem to indicate, to use Raymond Williams' phrase, an asymmetry in the relations between dominant and subordinate cultures in Gilded Age America.[34] At first glance, social typing and the construction of moralistic pictorial narratives in Leslie's appear as the pictorial equivalent of other social and cultural practices that served to define the new urban middle class. To be sure, the expense of pictorial publication was far beyond the means of working-class institutions and periodicals; trade-union and radical publications, at best, could afford to reproduce occasional cartoons into the 1880s. No alternative visual news medium challenged the articulation of the commercial illustrated press. But the pictorial "vocabulary" used to describe the city was based on forms that had been created in the circumscribed antebellum visual culture, one directed to more exclusive audiences. The readership that sustained Frank Leslie's was increasingly defined by diversity after the Civil War, particularly in the face of the fluctuating fortunes and conflicting social relations of industrial capitalism. As an institution predicated upon encompassing the differences constituting its broad middling readership, Leslie's faced a persistently volatile and perpetually conflictual situation. The confusion indicated in its representation of working-class women would find its analog in other areas during the 1870s. At crucial moments, the device of social typing destabilized and Leslie's pictorial narratives became ambiguous or contradictory. Enduring social types were maintained and replicated, but in unexpected places we find the creation of new types and the sundering of categories that should have been preserved if a middle-class ideal held sway.

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