Charles Magnus Illustrated America’s Past, 1850–1900

Charles Magnus, ca. 1880.

Charles Magnus, ca. 1880s.

Charles Magnus was born in 1826 in Elberfeld, Germany. He emigrated to the United States around 1850, presumably as a consequence of German and European political unrest. During the 1850s, Magnus established a printing business in New York City, operating it in tandem with a store until his death in 1900.

Magnus is known to us today as the publisher of many forms of paper ephemera, though in his time, he probably simply referred to himself as a job printer. He issued city views, song sheets, envelopes, maps, scenic prints, board games, jigsaw puzzles, playing cards, and valentines. In an advertisement from the early 1860s, he noted that he also produced rewards of merit, wine labels, copy books, and what he called commercial blanks. Larger publications included an atlas of the world and a map on rollers entitled “Largest Railroad and General Map of the United States and Canada.” According to a newspaper advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer, in the 1890s, Magnus was involved in producing prints for home china decoration.

A New Yorker once he landed in America, Magnus never hesitated to promote his adopted hometown. In issuing illustrated stationery, he provided his customers with views of New York and its environs that they could later paste into scrapbooks or mail to family and friends together with comments about life in the city.

Song sheet, Oh Jeff! Oh Jeff! How are you now?

Song sheet, Oh Jeff! Oh Jeff! How are you now?

Magnus is perhaps best known and appreciated for his Civil War–era printing and for his unwavering support of the Union cause. His patriotic envelopes, song sheets, and views of army encampments are all evocative of that time in our country’s history. His series of envelopes, called “Secesh Chain,” and face cards showed portraits of Confederate politicians and soldiers. In issuing the song sheet Oh Jeff! Oh Jeff! How Are You Now? Magnus helped perpetuate the myth that Jefferson Davis had tried to disguise himself in his wife’s clothing before he was captured in April 1865.

As author Robert W. Grant stated: “It is clear that Charles Magnus was a real businessman as well as an artist. His work is well respected for both quality and design variation. He seems to have had the ability to capture the mood of the times and produce material that would last through the years to communicate once more the life of an era gone by.”

Stationary showing New York streetscape.

Stationary showing New York streetscape.

Because of the thousands of items that he issued during his lengthy 50-year career and since so many have survived, Magnus has provided historians and collectors alike with a large quantity of products that visually document late 19th-century America—perhaps like no other printer or printing business, including the iconic Currier and Ives. Winterthur has about 350 examples of his work.

Even though Magnus was so prolific in what he produced, until now there has not been a substantive study of his work. Seeking to fill the void, Winterthur and Oak Knoll Press have published a 200-page book, Charles Magnus, Lithographer: Illustrating America’s Past, 1850–1900.

Chapter one covers Magnus’s background in Germany and his early years in the United States, focuses on him as a businessman, addresses how he advertised, and discusses how through his work he never relinquished his ties to Europe and his native Germany. Chapter two is about the multitude of Magnus’s non-Civil War products—those he created and those he sold. Chapter three summarizes Magnus’s Civil War output.

The book contains more than 100 color illustrations of Magnus’s work as well as portraits of him and his family. An appendix lists many of the items mentioned by title in the book and records where at least one copy of each is located. A comprehensive index completes the volume.

It is hoped that Charles Magnus, Lithographer—a general study of an important figure in American publishing history and popular imagery—will inspire other researchers to study specific aspects of Magnus’s career as well as his fellow 19th-century printers.

Charles Magnus, Lithographer: Illustrating America’s Past, 1850–1900 by E. Richard McKinstry is available at the Winterthur Bookstore or from Oak Knoll Press.

E. Richard McKinstry is the Winterthur Library Director and Andrew W. Mellon Senior Librarian

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