American Scenes

1839 Engraving of Northampton, Massachusetts, based on a drawing by W. H. Bartlett (photo: Susan Barsy)

While I was out of town over Thanksgiving, I bought this hand-colored engraving in an antique shop in Milwaukee.  I’m not even sure why.  Partly because the print is so old—1839—and was made at a time when printed pictures were still something of a rarity.  This picture is a steel-engraved print to which color was added by hand after its printing.  It shows the town of Northampton, Massachusetts, a place that I see through this print for the first time.

Back when the print was made, ‘media,’ as we call it now, was at a simpler stage.  There were newspapers (without illustrations).  There were letters (which circulated privately).  Photographs were just coming into being, but they were laborious to make and couldn’t be reproduced—every photographic image was unique and singular, bound to metal or glass of some kind.  So this type of engraving, which was becoming increasingly viable as a ‘mass medium,’ was a spectacular technological breakthrough, enabling printers and artists to share visual information with a broad audience for the first time.  Short of traveling, looking at an engraving or lithograph was about the only way a person could glimpse a place far away.

This picture of Northampton was printed in London by George C. Virtue (1794-1868), whose publishing company specialized in such scenes.  He worked with the artist, William Henry Bartlett (1809-1854), also English, who traveled widely, depicting the sights, landscapes, and peoples of America, Europe, and the Middle East.  Various engravers then had the job of rendering Bartlett’s drawings; in the case of the Northampton print, the engraver credited was one “R. Sands.”  Virtue published black-and-white versions of the etchings in books, the most famous of these being the 1840 volume, American Scenery.  The engravings were exotic in that they depicted places most viewers had never seen.  Bartlett’s subjects included large American cities and the most famous US buildings (such as the White House and the Capitol), as well as many small towns and other spots of scenic interest.

How soothing yet tantalizing such limited glimpses would be!  Imagine if this were the whole of my knowledge of Northampton: a prosperous place, with decent buildings—a wide verandah to lounge on, a steeple to contemplate, birds fluttering on the baluster, noble trees like something out of a Longfellow poem.  A pink house gleaming at the end of the green.

Click on image to enlarge.