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Friday, January 4, 2013

Sneak Peek into the Stacks: A Civil War Chromolithograph

The colorful image shown below and the musical score it illustrates were created to celebrate a Union victory in the American Civil war--the Battle of Fort Donelson, Tennessee, February 11-16, 1862.  Henry Tolman & Co. was the publisher, but the mark of L. Prang & Co. at the lower right indicates that the print is a chromolithograph by Louis Prang, who developed this method for mass-production color printing and established his company in 1860.  He wanted to challenge elitism by making comparatively inexpensive copies of paintings for mass consumption, which proved lucrative for him.  His attempt to democratize art paralleled the proliferation of photographic imagery which swept the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Despite its potential for mass distribution, chromolithography was a complicated, time-consumimg technique.  In view of the instantaneous communication that we expect technology to provide in the 21st century, it amazes me that a musical composition could be written, illustrated, printed, and distributed to commemorate a contemporary historical event in the same year.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Cover for sheet music, "The Battle of Fort Donelson / A Musical Description" by Charles Grobe, 1862, with chromolithograph by L. Prang & Co.  From the Sam DeVincent Collection of  Illustrated American Sheet Music,
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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