Popular Graphic Art Prints at the Library of Congress (1600s-1970s)
This guide provides information about a premier collection of approximately 65,000 historical prints produced primarily in the United States as well as examples from Mexico and Europe, highlighting subject strengths and search techniques.
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Sara W. Duke, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art, Prints & Photographs Division
Created: March 23, 2020
Last Updated: July 15, 2020
The Prints and Photographs Division offers researchers one of the largest collections of popular historical prints in the United States. These approximately 65,000 prints were published primarily in the 1800s and early 1900s, although more than 500 date back to the 1600s and 1700s and some are as recent as the 1970s. Lithographs and chromolithographs (lithographs printed in color) predominate. Woodcuts, engravings, and other print processes are also represented.
The prints provide an opportunity to understand famous and everyday people, objects, buildings, events, and attitudes of the past. The older prints, especially those that predate the existence of photography, can be the only visual record of a person, place or activity. Starting in the mid-1800s, the publishers hired artists and produced prints inexpensively in large quantities. These prints can be rare or unique today, because very few copies survived.
The subject matter ranges widely. Many publishers created beautiful and idealized landscape and genre scenes, religious iconography, and sports, ships, and city views with which to decorate the walls of homes and businesses. Humorous pictures, some of them now considered racist stereotypes, amused people in an era before television or the Internet. Instructional prints educated children and adults about plants, animals, literacy, biblical topics, politics, as well as objects associated with manual skill trades.
Provenance: The Library acquired most of the popular graphic art prints through the copyright registration and deposit process. Starting in 1870, the Library of Congress became the copyright repository for the United States, and the quantity of prints received greatly expanded. Over time the Library has added to the collection through significant gifts and select purchases. For example, images by José Guadalupe Posada published by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo came by bequest from Caroline and Erwin Swann.