As many researchers already know, life stops in 1876 for many parts of the American Antiquarian Society’s collections which are limited to the pre-Centennial era. Recently, however, the Society has amended its collection policies to permit the curator of graphic arts to add prints produced between 1876 and 1900 to the Society’s holdings in order to tell the story of print production through the end of the century. The ephemera and photography collections both already include the 1876 to 1900 period, so adding the prints (lithographs and engravings, as well as relief prints) made sense contextually. This change will allow late-century chromolithographs to be added to our holdings.
Not long after this policy was put into place, I was reading Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which starts out set in 1879 when a bump on the head sends protagonist Hank Morgan back in time to medieval England. Samuel Clemens, writing the text between 1885 and 1889, was well aware of the proliferation of inexpensive prints in the United States and often includes chromolithographs in his detailed descriptions of American interiors. In chapter 7 of A Connecticut Yankee, Hank Morgan is settling into his spacious chambers in Arthur Pendragon’s castle. His reaction to the space, while thick with Twain humor, reflects the ubiquitous, homey nature of chromos as understood by late-century American readers. Hank states,
As for conveniences, properly speaking, there weren’t any. I mean little conveniences; it is the little conveniences that make the real comfort of life. The big oaken chairs, graced with rude carvings were well enough, but that was the stopping place. There was no soap, no matches, no looking glass….And not a chromo. I had been used to chromos for years, and I saw now that without my suspecting it a passion for art had got worked into the fabric of my being, and was become a part of me. It made me homesick to look around over this proud and gaudy but heartless barrenness and remember that in our house in East Hartford, all unpretending as it was, you couldn’t go into a room but you would find an insurance chromo, or at least a three-color God-Bless-Our-Home over the door; and in the parlor we had nine.
AAS has a collection of just over 300 individual chromolithographs intended for framing, most dating from 1845 to 1875. This group includes several examples of prints issued by insurance companies (see top) and we even have chromos printed in Clemens’ adopted hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, a city that supported several thriving print production factories (right). The collection includes excellent examples made by Boston firms, and is somewhat slanted towards premium prints—images that were given away to subscribers by newspaper or magazine publishers, Sunday schools, book stores, etc. We have examples of brightly colored advertisements, religious scenes (yes, we even have a God-Bless-Our-Home chromo), humorous prints, landscapes and portraits of adorable children. Now, with the recent policy change, we can make our best effort to find additional examples from after 1876, because, as Twain insinuates in his final line (“and in the parlor we had nine”), quantity and easy proliferation were part of the attraction of these vivid, inexpensive, kitschy and sometimes even artistic prints.