Mon September 21, 2009
Alabama Illustrated: Engravings From 19th Century Newspapers
Although the five illustrated newspapers from which the engravings in Alabama Illustrated were taken were all published elsewhere, two in New York, two in Boston and one in London, the readers of these papers had a strong curiosity about life in the American South.
By Don Noble
Although the five illustrated newspapers from which the engravings in Alabama Illustrated were taken were all published elsewhere, two in New York, two in Boston and one in London, the readers of these papers had a strong curiosity about life in the American South. Between 1850 and 1900, usually to accompany news stories, but not always, those papers published more than 250 engravings with Southern settings, and this volume contains a generous and varied sample , all black and white, of 50 of those engravings, all chosen from the Birmingham Public Library Archives.
As the Introduction explains, engraving was a complicated and surprisingly collaborative process. First an artist made the drawing. He might be working from observation, from memory or from his own imagination based on the accounts of others; or he might even be working from a photograph. In the late 1800s there was photography, but printing photographs in mass circulation papers was vastly more expensive than printing engravings, which could be used thousands of times.
After the artist turned in his drawing, another artist, probably in NY or Boston, as the editors tell us, "copied the paper drawing in reverse onto an engraving plate, usually made of wood or copper." If the engraving was extra large, several engravers might be used, who "divided the printing block into sections with each working on a different part." The engravers were so skillful their work was seamless.
As one might imagine, before the Civil War, the South was romanticized by outsiders. Slaves working the fields was a standard. There are drawings of cotton being loaded onto a steamboat from a long line of wagons, and something I had never seen before, the Cotton-shoot, on the Alabama River, one-thousand-pound bales sent hurtling down a wooden chute, from a height of 50 feet, onto the deck of the steamer, like a huge white bowling ball.
Local holidays and fairs were also commonly shown, especially cattle and horse shows, and there's one entitled "The Tilt" in which riders attempted to stick a lance through a hanging ring.
During the Civil War, the illustrations tended to be from northernmost and southernmost Alabama, the Tennessee River Valley, Huntsville, and Stevenson and around the Port of Mobile. The artists travelled where the Union Army was in control.
Post-war illustrations took several directions. There is one of starving Alabamians receiving rations from the federal Bureau of Refugees. This was necessary because, as the accompanying text remarks, among whites "the curse of laziness, which the presence of slavery inflicted upon them, is hard to overcome?.they are almost entirely without ambition." Oh well.
Nevertheless, some whites were entrepreneurs; there is a wonderful illustration of a woodland whiskey still.
As conditions improved the engravings were more often of commerce and development: the wharf at Mobile, the new bridge over the Alabama at Selma, coke ovens, a pig iron furnace in Birmingham, and the Birmingham Real Estate Exchange, where, in 1887, "the same piece of land frequently changes hands several times in the course of a day, and at sunset is valued at thousands of dollars more than in the morning." It seems that "flipping" was not invented by realtors in Gulf Shores ten years ago.
As always, the papers loved disasters, so there are engravings of floods and hurricanes, complete with families up in a tree being rescued, and a really great train wreck.
We have all noticed that often the dust-jacket author photograph seems flattering and suspiciously youthful. This was even more true of engravings, which were expensive to make and lasted in the files forever. The portrait of Booker T. Washington at 39, published in 1895, had obviously been engraved 15 years earlier.
Students of Alabama history are bound to enjoy this collection.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."