I’m rather ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of the Charles Peirce Collection of Social and Political Caricatures and Ballads until I happened to stumble onto the American Antiquarian Society’s website the other day. It’s a shame that the Collection isn’t more widely recognised, as I think it’s a great resource for anyone with an interest in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century visual satire. It’s actually quite rare to find a collection of Georgian caricatures that’s been left in its original state and not mucked about with by antique dealers or print collectors, and it offers us a rare glimpse of one of the ways in which contemporary consumers would have interacted with caricature prints. The fact that the Collection predominately consists of American caricatures makes it doubly interesting because it also provides some sense of the nature of the overseas trade in British satirical prints.
As the name suggests, the collection originally belonged to a chap called Charles Peirce (1770 – 1851) of Portsmouth New Hampshire. Peirce was a stationer and bookseller by trade but also dabbled in publishing and printmaking. Sometime during the late spring or early summer of 1807, Peirce took receipt of a set of caricatures which had recently been brought over from London. These prints, along with a number of designs by the American caricaturist James Akin, were then bound into an album and offered up for loan from Peirce’s shop. An advertisement was placed in the Porstmouth Oracle of 6th June 1807 to inform his customers that
A Book of Caricatures, consisting of handsome figures, pleasing likenesses; ugly but necessary positions etc., etc., may be hired by the hour, day or evening from the Columbian Bookstore and Portsmouth Circulating Library, No. 5 Daniel Street.
In October 1807 Peirce refreshed the contents of his album and placed a second advertisement, announcing that
His Book of Caricatures is now completely filled with new BEAUTIES! and ready to be let for 20 cents an hour.
This was the last known reference to the album to appear before it was handed over to the American Antiquarian Society by one of Peirce’s descendants in the early 1990s. So what does the Peirce Collection tells us about the production and consumption of caricatures in America at this time?
Firstly, the fact that British designs account for fifty-four of the sixty-five prints in the Collection is a clear indication of the dominant position which British printsellers appear to have enjoyed over the American market in the early 1800s. The United States in this period was essentially a post-colonial society which still looked to England to set the pace of its cultural life and define the patterns of material consumption. One observer, writing in 1794, noted that “what is obvious about American culture… is that it is a steady, resolute, instinctive, reproduction of contemporary English culture” and went on to provide examples of how Americans continued to ape their English cousins in everything from the theatre, to fashion and music. Americans were also voracious consumers of British books, pamphlets and newspapers, with even moderately successful authors such as the conservative playwright Hannah More, being able to shift tens of thousands of copies of their latest works in the United States. Knowing London, experiencing life there personally, was considered to be a crowning social achievement for many American families and the practice of packing eldest sons off to Britain to acquire degrees in law and medicine, or simply a little social polish, was to continue long after the formal separation between Britain and her former colonies. For those Americans who still considered themselves to be upwardly mobile but who could not afford to travel to Britain in person, a couple of hours spent perusing a set of British prints would have provided a comparatively cheap means of keeping up with the latest news from London.
Secondly, the American prints in the Collection give us some indication of the direct influence which English caricaturists exerted over the nascent school of American graphic satire. James Akin, who was responsible for producing all ten of the American caricatures in Peirce’s album, frequently touted his connections with the European art world and benchmarked the quality of his own work against that of British printmakers. For example, when Akin outlined his plans to produce a set of engraved images in 1797, he evidently felt it was necessary to assure his publisher that he had “employed a considerable part of [his] life acquiring a knowledge of the fine arts from the most celebrated and esteemed masters in Europe” and that the prints would be based on original works by a British artist that Akin had brought back from London. Whether or not Akin ever actually visited London is open to doubt, but an analysis of the prints which appear in the Charles Peirce Collection would certainly suggest that at least had a good working knowledge of English caricature and may have used this as the basis for some of his own designs. A Philosophic Cock (c.1802) for example, is remarkable similar to Robert Dighton’s The Royal Cock Pitt (1796), while Dighton’s Intelligence on the Change of Ministry (1783) may have provided the inspiration for All in my eye! (1806). There are also similarities between Robert Sayer’s The Flowing Can (1791) and another print by Akin which appears in the Peirce Collection entitled Sailors Glee (1805). Akin was by no means the only American caricaturist to borrow from English satire in this period. Ironically, many of the patriotic caricatures for which the Anglo-American printmaker William Charles was to become famous during the War of 1812, were in fact copied from prints by British artists such as William Holland, Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray.
Thirdly, the prices which Peirce mentions in his advertisement suggest that the market for caricatures in America was probably smaller and even more exclusive than that in Britain at the time. Borrowing Peirce’s book of “new BEAUTIES” for the evening would have required a total outlay of between $3-4, which was roughly equivalent to four or five days wages for an unskilled American labourer. In London on the other hand one would usually have expected to pay 2s.6d. (50¢) to borrow a similar folio of caricatures for the night, which was equivalent to only two days pay for a working man.
Taking all this into consideration the Charles Peirce Collection paints a picture of an American market for prints which was still very much trapped in eighteenth-century patterns of supply and consumption. Independence had done little to dampen the enthusiasm of wealthy Americans for British consumer goods and the economies of scale generated by London’s vast publishing trade allowed British publishers to dominate the domestic market for caricatures and other printed materials. It would take the introduction of lithography and some rather hefty import tariffs, as well as the gradual development of a distinctly American sense of culture and national identity during the 1820s and 30s, to finally spur on the creation of an American school of political and social satire later in the nineteenth century.