The Engraving Trade in Early Cincinnati: With a Brief Account of the Beginning of the Lithograph Trade is a beautiful book, as it should be, given its subject matter. In the early years of the 19th century, before photography — let alone the multitudinous means of communication of the early 21st century — images in publications were the way people saw the world beyond their own experience. And talented engravers made those pictures meaningful and often beautiful.
The first book by The Engraving Trade’s author, Donald C. O’Brien, was Amos Doolittle: Engraver of the New Republic. Around the turn of the 19th century, Doolittle operated in New Haven, Conn., but other members of the Doolittle family went west, taking the engraving trade with them. In following up the Doolittles, O’Brien’s second book developed, with a chapter devoted to Doolittle & Munson, “the primary job-engraving company in the city [of Cincinnati] for nearly a score of years.”
O’Brien made two trips to Cincinnati to research his book, delving into material in the archives of the Cincinnati Museum Center, in the genealogy and local history department of the Public Library and at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where he saw its excellent collection of lithographs — the source of many of the book’s most appealing illustrations. Why lithographs in a book about engravings? Because lithography replaced engravings and is the subject of the book’s next to last chapter: “The Beginning of the Lithograph Trade.”
The engravings themselves, mostly provided by the American Antiquarian Society, are often very handsome and reward close attention. The range of grays between white and black is capable of great subtlety, and engravers took full advantage. Engravers worked by hand, cutting grooves into a steel or copper plate, a tedious, demanding process that required artistic ability to be successful.
Another chapter is given over to the wood-engraving trade, which developed alongside metal engravings and permitted a new approach to color. Copper or steel engravings had to be individually hand colored, but wood engravings could be created in individual blocks for each color and print in volume.
By far the longest chapter in the book is given over to the Ladies’ Repository and Gatherings of the West, a monthly magazine published from 1841 through 1876 by the Western Methodist Book Concern, located in Cincinnati. Its wide distribution was not only by subscription but also by way of itinerant preachers, who carried copies along on their travels. Many of the illustrations include in their identification the phrase, “Engraved Expressly for the Ladies’ Repository.”
And what did readers find in the Ladies’ Repository? Articles about art, literature and religion; advertisements for sewing machines; illustrations of exotic locales — “The Banyan Tree,” for one; copies of daguerreotypes. The artist Worthington Whittredge has a tenuous connection here. Artists’ one-of-a-kind paintings were often engraved and reproduced to reach larger audiences, and two of his paintings were reproduced for the Ladies’ Repository. Whittredge was a founding member of the Cincinnati Academy of Arts, O’Brien says, and learned the daguerreotype process early on in Cincinnati, then moving to Indianapolis to open his own daguerreotype studio. His daguerreotype studio perhaps fortunately failed, as Whittredge went on to become a successful and admired landscape artist.
The modern reader, who thinks of printing money as an arcane process carried out only by the U.S. government and counterfeiters, may be surprised to find the chapter on “The Development of Bank Note Engraving,” a brisk and necessary business in this western outpost. Doolittle & Munson, the transported New Haven engravers, advertised “Bank Notes executed in the most approved style.” They were issued not by the government but by individual banks. Archives at the Cincinnati Museum Center were most helpful for this information, O’Brien says in his introduction. Anne Witteking Kling, archives manager at the center, confirms saying O’Brien made extensive use of the Rowe family papers. The Rowes, prominent in Cincinnati banking circles for several generations, accumulated records that reflect the financial situation in Cincinnati from the mid-19th century on.
The book disappoints in its paucity of hard facts concerning the people involved in the engraving trade and the life they lived in Cincinnati, the nearest thing to a city the western reaches of the country could offer. You can, of course, go to Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans for that, but her brief time here in the early 19th century is recorded with a jaundiced eye and decidedly prejudiced outlook.
O’Brien’s text, however, is heavy with “might have,” “very likely did,” “perhaps knew…” so that the people he writes about remain ciphers.
Diane Mallstrom, reference librarian for genealogy and local history at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and a contact thanked by O’Brien in his introduction, says, “City directories are about the only source for that period, as newspapers aren’t indexed that early.” City directories, as anyone who has worked with them knows, provide sharply limited information and often reflect a year or two before their actual date.
The book is perhaps most satisfying as a picture book, since the story it tells is not enlivened by individuals. As a visual, it succeeds admirably. The format is large, the page layout generous and the pictures themselves provide a look into the times that the text fails to summon.
THE ENGRAVING TRADE IN EARLY CINCINNATI is available at ohioswallow.com.