The Winterthur Library contains an abundance of colorfully printed ephemera from the second half of the 1800s—trade cards, greeting cards, postcards, calendars, scraps, games, product boxes, and more. The imagery of beautiful women, sweet children, playful animals, and other charming scenes quickly attracts viewers, but understanding the process of creating these pieces is equally compelling. A significant portion of the 250,000 pieces of chromolithography in the John and Carolyn Grossman Collection is cigar box ephemera, including original artwork, lithographic stones, keyline drawings, progressive proof books, and sample and final labels, documenting this printing process that resulted in stunning final pieces.
Invented by Bavarian copperplate engraver Alois Senenfelder in 1796, lithography was the first planographic, or flat surface, printing process. Based on the mutual repulsion of grease and water, an image was drawn in reverse with greasy ink on a damp, porous stone, most often limestone. Printing ink adhered to the image, not to the non-greasy wet area. The stone then passed through a press transferring a positive image onto paper. This technique offered artists great freedom in design and flexibility in materials and methods, easily producing thousands of faithful images, a huge improvement over the paltry 30 to 50 sharp prints from metal plates, and becoming the most popular commercial printing process of the 1800s.
The later decades of the 1800s witnessed an explosion of color in printed material, and the number of lithography firms employing scores of employees structured into several departments grew exponentially to meet the demand. Printing in more than one color was a multilayered progression requiring much skill, precision, and teamwork by artists and printers involved. Artists first rendered their designs on paper, which were then translated onto stones by lithographic or stipple artists, who had to know how all colors and gradations would work together. Each color typically required its own stone, but sometimes two identical images for different colors could share stones for possible separate yet simultaneous runs, as seen on the lithographic stone for the “Social Smoke” cigar label. A keyline drawing was then created with registration marks or crosses to ensure the perfect alignment of colors in a print run; the succession of light to dark tones is recorded in progressive proof books. Stones could then be repolished and reused for new designs. Popular as it was in the 1800s, chromolithography for large-scale commercial printing was gradually eclipsed in the 1900s as faster and cheaper processes were invented.
We are fortunate that early lithographic firms kept such meticulous records of stones, colors, and labels that today deepen our understanding and appreciation of this labor-intensive process and its exquisite results.
To view a sampling of chromolithographed cigar labels and calendars from the late 1800s and early 1900s in the Grossman Collection, visit our online collection.
For further reading:
Twyman, Michael. A History of Chromolithography: Printed Colour for All. London: British Library, 2013.
Last, Jay T. The Color Explosion: Nineteenth-Century American Lithography. Santa Ana, Calif.: Hillcrest Press, 2005.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, librarian of the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.