Capsule History of Newspaper Illustration 1870s-1914

Here we have an article from The Fourth Estate issue of March 7, 1914, in which a pioneer in the technical side of newspaper illustration discusses the progress made in the field up to that point. Cartooning is discussed along with half-tones and other processes. Interesting stuff to me, as I’ve found that to understand the early history of newspaper comic strips that a knowledge of the technical side of newspaper illustration is a valuable tool.

by S. H. Horgan

[The writer of this article has had the fortune to witness the culmination of what may be termed the “Golden Age” of wood engraving in the United States; to be present at the birth of photo-engraving; to have taken an active part in the struggle for supremacy between wood-engraving and photo-engraving; to witness the decline of wood engraving, and to contribute somewhat to the success and popularizing of what is now included in the generic term “process-work.”

In 1874 Mr. Horgan was initiated into the mysterious chambers where processes of the New York Daily Graphic, famed for its wonderful illustrations, were worked out behind locked and barred doors. From that day Mr. Horgan’s life has been given to the study of all of the methods by which photography could be applied to producing pictures in printing ink. Many of these methods he has put into practice. For many years Mr. Horgan was associated with the New York Tribune.-editor’s note.]

In newspaper engraving and illustrating methods there has been tremendous progress during the past twenty years. And at the present time we are entering on another radical change which is puzzling publishers.
Whem The fourth Estate was first issued the big daily newspapers were being illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings and line engravings. The World’s Fair had just been “pulled off” at Chicago and some of the papers in that city were setting a pace in illustrating for the whole country. The Chicago Herald’s illustrations and the Inter-Ocean’s colored supplements were the envy of other newspaper publishers.

William Kurtz, in New York, had demonstrated that colored objects could be reproduced by photography into three relief blocks for printing in colored inks. It seemed as if the process would be applied to the newspapers. It was tried without success.

The printing of a half-tone portrait of the late Thomas C. Platt on the front page of the New York Tribune of January 21, 1897, was a sensation politically and pictorially. It proved that a half-tone could be printed on a stereotyping web press. The method was the invention of the present writer, and it may be said to have changed the methods of newspaper illustrating the world over.

It made the New York Tribune conspicuous for a number of years for the excellence of its illustrations. These half-tones, being inserted in stereotype plates, permitted a finer screen to be used than is possible when half-tones are stereotyped.

One result of the Tribune’s introduction of half-tones was the necessity of a photographer to supply pictures of the daily news events. Here began the nervy and necessary news photographer, who has since become omnipresent. One unfortunate feature of the photographer’s coming was the crowding out of the “sketch artist” who was a valued member of the daily newspaper staff.

About this time a wise. newspaper publisher discovered that cartoons, large fashion pictures and comics in series were quicker space fillers in sixteen-page afternoon papers than copy and type, and so the “comic art­ist” has been straining himself harder and harder for ideas since.

In cartoon-making several experi­ments have been tried. Cartoons have been drawn with charcoal that cannot satisfy as the virile pen-and-ink and brush drawing. The crude caricaturist and amateur artist has in too many cases been permitted to usurp the place of the trained and dignified cartoonist, so that the power of the cartoon has declined.

The year 1910 marked several in­teresting occurrences in newspaper il­lustrating. The Freiburger Zeitung in Germany printed a supplement, the illustrations of which were in photo­gravure and the type matter printed from stereotype plates. About the same time there appeared in this country a German etching machine which improved newspaper illustra­tion by engraving plates deeper and quicker than was possible before. The New York World took advantage of this machine to print some repro­ductions of pencil sketches that were marvels in newspaper illustration.

On December 15, 1912, the New York Sun issued a supplement in photogravure which introduced into this country the latest idea in news­paper illustrating. The New York Times, in its last Christmas number, used this new method, called rotary photogravure, to print admirable por­traits of beautiful women
At the present writing papers like the Boston Herald, New York Times, Philadelphia Public Ledger, Pittsburg Gazette-Times, Cleveland Leader and Chicago Tribune are hastening to get in rotary photogravure plants and presses so that we are going to have a run of art supplements in our Sun­day papers
Syndicates have sprung up during the past twenty years to supply plates for color printing, as well as printed sheets and Sunday magazines. The application of the McKee process of self-printing plates, used on the Sat­urday Evening Post, to newspaper supplements has raised their illustra­tions to equal the magazine
It appears now as if there is going to be a contest for popular favor be­tween rotary photogravure and half­tones printed on magazine presses, in the illustration of newspaper sup­plements, with the chances that both will be superseded by newer methods still in the making.

One of the problems which has in­terested inventors is the sending of drawings, sketches, maps and pictures by wire.

The Abbe Casselli of Florence in­vented a system in 1856 that was put into practical use in France and Rus­sia in 1865. The present writer de­vised a system by which a sketch was cabled from London to the New York Daily Graphic in 1879, but little was accomplished until Shelford Bidwell found in 1881 that selenium resisted electricity in proportion to the amount of light falling on it.

Amstutz of Cleveland patented a method of transmitting photographs in 1891.

Palmer and Mills telegraphed a half-tone of President McKinley from Washington to the New York Tribune in April, 1901.

Many inventors have now systems for telegraphing pictures, but Professor Korn, of Munich has shown the most practical results. He wraps an unmounted photograph around a glass cylinder in which is selenium and by use of a single beam of light passing over every part of the area of the photograph and operating with dif­fering degrees of brightness upon the selenium, has telegraphed photo­graphs frequently between Paris and London

Collier’s Weekly has one of the Korn machines in use and it is expected that photographs will shortly be cabled between Europe and this country for newspaper uses.

5 comments on “Capsule History of Newspaper Illustration 1870s-1914

  1. I got Baker and Brentano”s The World on Sunday for Christmas (yea!). Page 39 of that book and this article spurs
    me to ask the question: Was the, what
    we call in the U.S., fumetti comic strip ever in vogue in U.S. papers?
    Did any comic strips ever use the photograph as a substitute for line
    art on a regular basis? The only one that comes to my mind is Stan Lee’s “Says Who” of 1976- ???.
    Which did not transfer onto the
    newspaper pages of 1976 as well as
    the two strips of 1900 in the Baker


  2. DD – Photo comics have never caught on in the US, and the technique has been used on no more than a dozen syndicated strips that I know of, none of which was successful. Adventures of Joyce Arden, Antics of Arabella, and a kid cowboy strip whose title escapes me at the moment are the only ones that come right to mind. All were real cheapo productions. Tell me about this “Says Who” – I’ve never heard of it.

  3. “Says Who” was a gag photo-comic that
    began in 1976 and probably ended in
    1977. It was distributed by The
    Register and Tribune Syndicate.
    In my area it appeared in the
    Modesto (Ca.) Bee.

    It reproduced a grainy photo of the
    day and had a gag lettered onto it
    in a word balloon. If I remember
    correctly it mostly used photos of
    political figures but the jokes
    were non-political. Any photo with
    a reaction shot and a public figure
    was good enough for Stan Lee.

    The one tearsheet I have handy (no
    date other than the 1976 copyright)
    has a picture of President Gerald
    Ford speaking to Congress with
    Nelson Rockefeller and Carl Albert
    (the butt of the joke) seated behind

    Stan Lee seems to have had a
    liking for this
    kind of thing. Before Marvel flooded
    the comic magazine market in 1973,
    they kind of tested the waters with
    a magazine called Monster Madness
    which consisted of movie monster
    photos gag-captioned by Stan Lee.
    These may have just been reprinted
    from his mid-60s magazines of the
    same nature.

    And before they went with all those
    Marvel comic strips in the late 70s,
    Stan tried his hand at this fumetti
    strip (my sample has two panels,
    though it is the same photograph in

    I believe, but cannot swear, that it
    appeared before his Vera Valiant
    strip. I don’t recall if it had a
    Sunday installment.


  4. Well, that’s a new one on me. Sounds awful! Any chance of scanning your lone example and I’ll put it up on the blog so we can all collectively hate it?

    By the way, I’m sure you know this, but Stan’s first newspaper comic writing credit is waaaay before Vera Valiant. He did My Friend Irma way back in 1951, then Mrs. Lyon’s Cubs in 1958, then the excellent but mostly forgotten Willie Lumpkin (with Dan DeCarlo art!) from 1960.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *