Sometime during the late autumn of 1806, the Scottish artist and engraver William Charles packed up his belongings and boarded a ship that would carry him away from England to start a new life in America. Charles had spent his formative years scratching a living on the margins of the satirical print trade in London and Edinburgh. He had engraved at least a dozen satirical plates by the mid-1800s, publishing them himself from a small shop in Holborn which he rather implausibly dubbed the “Emporium of Arts & Fancies”. Unfortunately the quality of his engravings rarely equaled that of his rhetoric, with most of his caricatures being poorly executed copies of other artists designs, and by 1805 his business had begun to founder. He therefore finally decided, at the age of 30, to take his tools and what was left of his stock, cross the Atlantic and begin his business anew in the young United States of America.
Charles landed in New York, acquired premises at No. 17 Liberty Street and took out the following advertisement to announce his arrival to an unsuspecting American public:
William Charles having lately arrived from London, has brought a large collection of modern caricatures, also a variety of prints by the first masters, fancy gold and filigree papers – ornaments for chimney pieces, card racks, hard screens, medallions, transparencies, drawing books, &c., &c.,”
The above articles are sold wholesale and retail, at the Repository of Arts, No. 17 Liberty Street, where new caricatures will be published every week .
I found the advertisement while looking through the British Library’s collection of early American newspapers to see what they can tell us about the trade in satirical prints in the United States during this period. Specifically, I was looking for evidence within trade advertisements which would cast further light on the way in which the market for graphic satire operated in America and its relation to the print industry in London. What follows is a summary assessment of the advertisements mentioning satirical or humorous prints which were placed in American newspapers in the years between the War of Independence and of 1812.
In many respects William Charles’s advertisement offers us a microcosm view of the American print trade at the dawn of the nineteenth-century. The development of a distinctly American approach to arts and culture was still a generation away and in the decades between the War of Independence and the War of 1812, Americans still looked to Britain to set the standard of all that was considered fashionable and in good taste. Networks of commercial and cultural exchange between Britain and her former colonies remained unbroken and American’s retained a prodigious appetite for all manner of British goods, ranging from clothing and porcelain, to books and prints .
References to imported satirical prints can be found in numerous trade advertisements from this period. Indeed, prior to 1800, advertisements for British caricatures appear in the American press far more frequently than those for their domestically-produced counterparts. A typical example of one of these advertisements come from the Pennsylvania Packet of 16th February 1788:
Imported in the Last Vessels from London and Glasgow, and on daily sale, at Thomas Seddon’s Book and Stationary Store, in Market Street, near the Old Coffee-House,
Family School and Pocket Bibles… Gibbon’s Roman Empire 6 vols… Cymyn’s digest of the laws of England 5 vols… London court register, New London register… Dr. Johnston’s edition of the English poets 68 vols… Tarleton’s campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the southern provinces of North-America…writing paper of the best quality… inkstands of various kinds…black lead pencils of the best quality…playing cards… maps prints and engravings by the best artists, landscapes, portraits, humourous [sic] and satirical prints, a variety of new caricatures and watch prints .
And again from the Albany Centinel of 24th July 1798:
Just imported from London, An elegant assortment of Ladies Hats and Bonnets… Some Fashionable Ladies Shoes, A Quantity of the best London made bootees, 80,000 Whitechapel Needles, a handsome collection of prints, with a few caricatures too .
These advertisements tell us two things: Firstly, that English caricatures were imported and sold alongside a broad range of goods. In bigger cities, like Philadelphia and New York, these goods were more likely to be related items such as books, artist’s supplies or stationary. There was less regular demand for such items in smaller towns and cities and consequently prints tended to be sold alongside a broader array of imported luxury items, by retailers who essentially acted as the general store for wealthy locals. In this respect, the market for prints in America appears similar to that in England, where small quantities of prints were often sold in provincial cities by diverse retailers who also dealt in musical instruments, toiletries, and even foodstuffs . Secondly, they demonstrate that the degree of status awarded to items imported from Britain. The proprietors are keen to inform potential customers that their prints are ‘just imported’ aboard ‘the last vessels’ from Britain and therefore conform to the very latest standards of British fashion. Businesses which could go one step further and claim a direct link to Great Britain would waste no time in advertising this fact to potential customers, as it automatically conferred a heightened degree of status on their wares. For example, an advertisement for the firm of Stoker & Donnahy, “Carvers, Gilders & Looking-glass Manufacturers of Boston”, assured potential customers that their “collection of caricatures and transparencies” represented the very best examples of such items that were available because the proprietors had previously been employed “at some of the first shops in London and Dublin” and were therefore adapt at selecting their stock .
Newspaper advertisements also tell us something about the way in which the trade in imported British caricatures operated. Advertisements often mention that quantities of prints had been brought into the country by the captain of a particular vessel, for example:
Imported by Captain Lyde from London and to be sold by Stephen Whiting… A variety of large and small, plain and coloured, Humorous Engravings, and Mezzotinto Prints .
And from Thomas Seddon again:
Just imported in the Andrew, Capt. Robertson from London, a variety of Books, Prints, Stationary, &c., which are selling wholesale and retail by Thomas Seddon… where may be had…humorous Mezzotinto Prints” .
These adverts imply that American printsellers bought their prints from the captains of incoming merchant vessels and did not have a direct commercial relationship with the publishers in England. This view of mariners as the middlemen of the trans-Atlantic print trade is substantiated by advertisements which were taken out by satirical printsellers in London, informing “Merchants, Captains of Ships, and others who buy to export” that they would be “allowed a considerable Discount” on wholesale purchases . This arrangement presumably suited the English publishers, as it meant that they received immediate payment for their goods and did not have to engage in the risky and time-consuming business of dealing with foreign retailers located thousands of miles away. This speculative model of importing prints, whereby a sailor would purchase a small bundle of prints in London, stow them away in his luggage and then find a retailer who wanted to buy them when he landed in America, also implies that American printsellers probably had very little control over the types of satirical prints they received from Britain.
The frequency with which advertisements for imported satirical prints appear in newspapers from the northern states indicates that the trade was centred around Philadelphia, New York and to a lesser extent Boston. From there, prints circulated out into small towns and cities in the north, such as Albany, Newburyport and Portsmouth, or were re-exported to the south . Newspapers from the southern states contain only a couple of advertisements for caricature prints, usually relating to sales at auction:
At the Furniture Warehouse, Market Square, on 16th February next, will be sold positively, to the highest bidder… a variety of caricature engravings… executed in the style of Bartalozzi and other eminent artists” .
This suggests that the market for prints in the south was much smaller and probably could not sustain regular sales though bookshops and other retail outlets.
The fact that so few English caricaturists appear to have been mentioned by name in the American press may have been a result of the way in which caricatures were imported. If American printsellers were simply buying bundles of whatever satirical prints a passing sailor happened to have about him, then it would have been pointless attempting to market the works of specific artists, as one would have no means of guaranteeing the supply of their prints in future. The only exception to this rule, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, is the aristocratic caricaturist Henry Bunbury (1750 – 1811), whose name appears on numerous occasions, for example:
Thomas Barrow, No. 58 Broad-Street, Has Received by the Iris, From LONDON, A very Elegant Assortment of PRINTS, UNFRAMED, Taken from the Paintings of the Most Celebrated Artists, many of them entirely new… [including]… BUNBURY’s Caricaturas, a great variety and many of them new published” .
On Thursday Next,… will be sold… A collection of HUMOROUS CARICATURE PICTURES, the best ever offered for public sale in any country, They are executed by Bunbury and other eminent artists .
Indeed, his name became a form of short-hand for English caricature in general, with advertisements for imported British prints stating that they were “after the manner of Bunbury” . The apparent popularity of Bunbury’s works can be attributed to two things: Firstly, it was merely a reflection of his popularity in England at the time. Bunbury’s caricatures were highly regarded by English taste-makers and regularly advertised in the English press . There is therefore an element of Americans simply adopting whatever was considered popular in Britain at the time. Secondly, one also suspects that Bunbury’s polite brand of social-satirical humour was more in keeping with puritanical America tastes than the bums, farts and fornication that often featured in the works of James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson and other English caricaturists whose works have gone on to enjoy a more enduring form of popularity.
The advertisements rarely mention how much it cost to buy an imported British print in America. The only example I have been able to find comes from the New York Daily Advertiser of 5th February 1806, and relates to a caricature-illustrated book rather than a conventional single-sheet print. The ad states that a copy of George M. Woodward’s Eccentric Excursions, with its “100 coloured caricatures” by Isaac Cruikshank, could be had from Collins, Perkins & Co. for the sum of $33 . The 1803 edition of the Modern Catalogue of Books lists the English retail price of the same book at £5 per copy . The exchange rate in this period was roughly $4.50 to the pound, meaning that the American customer was paying the equivalent of just over £7 for an imported copy of Woodward’s book in New York. The fact that prints, books and other imported luxury goods often passed through the hands of middlemen in the maritime trade may therefore have resulted in Americans paying a higher price for satirical prints than their British counterparts. However we should be cautious about attempting to draw such conclusions from a single example.
Of course Americans were also publishing their own satirical prints in this period. And while it’s impossible to determine the relative share of the market for graphic satire that was controlled by domestic publishers using newspaper sources alone, the growing frequency with which American caricatures were mentioned in advertisements from the mid-1790s onwards would seem to suggest that they accounted for a growing proportion of the total number of satirical prints being sold. Evidence of the increased rate of production can be found in an advertisement from the New York Mercantile Advertiser of 28th August 1810, informing the reader that a set of “35 engraved caricature copper plates, some of them engraved on both sides, making in all 50 engravings” is to be sold at auction . The production of such a large number of copperplates would have been unthinkable fifteen to twenty years earlier, when American printsellers spent weeks attempting to promote the publication of a single new caricature design. For example, when T. Stephen’s and A. McKenzie issued a satirical plate entitled No Wooden Houses; Or, A new way to speculate in May 1795, an advertisement for the print was placed in every edition of the Aurora General Advertiser for a period of at least five weeks. This gives some indication of the relative scarcity and novelty value of domestically produced prints in the mid-1790s .
American prints were rarer because the American publishing trade was tiny in comparison with that of England. In July 1799, a man named Jacob Perkins took out an advertisement to promote his method of detecting forged banknotes. In order to test his methodology, Perkins had approached “some of the most eminent and respectable artists in the U.S.” and asked them to use his techniques to assess whether a note was real or fake. The advertisement includes a list of the eight principle American engravers every major city north of Maryland, they were :
In contrast, Kent’s Directory for the Year 1794 lists at least 15 engravers who were working in London alone . Further evidence of the disparity between the British and American print trades can be found in Frank Weitenkampf’s bibliographic study of American graphic satire – Weitenkampf catalogued 16 caricatures which were published in America between 1789 and 1800 and a further 54 between 1801 and 1815 . While this represents a remarkable leap forward in domestic publishing, it pales into insignificance when compared with comparative figures for British satirical print publishers in this period. Samuel William Fores, who published and sold caricatures from his shop located on London’s Piccadilly, issued around 50 to 60 new caricatures a year during the last two decades of the eighteenth-century, and Fores was only one of a dozen or more printsellers publishing caricatures in England at that time.
Finally, the advertisements reveal something about the way in which satirical prints of all kinds were used by the people who bought them. J. & M. Paff of Broadway, New York, sold prints and caricatures individually “with or without frames” for people who wanted to paste them into albums or hang them from their walls . William Charles, in the advertisement quoted above, suggested that his caricatures would make ideal “ornaments for chimney pieces, card racks, [and] hard screens.” It seems safe to assume that many of these prints ended up on display in private homes, but some were also purchased for commercial display. The claim of one contemporary observer, that “there is hardly a barber’s shop in America, whose wall are not decorated with these visible effusions of wit”, is supported by an advertisement for John Coombs “Ladies and Gentlemen’s hair cutter &c.” of Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, which mentions that he kept an array of caricature prints among his stocks of combs, razors, pomades and other hairdressing paraphernalia . A display of caricatures and other prints can also be seen on the wall of the barbershop in James Akin’s 1806 print All in my eye! (1806).
Other forms of commercial use included loaning albums of caricatures out for an evening, a practice which was already widespread among the fashionable printshops of London’s West End. In June 1807, Charles Peirce, a bookseller and stationer from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, took out the following advertisement in the local press:
Entertainment for Tea Parties, &c., 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… .
The scheme was successful enough to provide Charles with sufficient capital to reinvest in a second set of prints some months later, when a second advertisement was placed to announce that the album “is now completely filled with new BEAUTIES! and ready to let for 20 cents an hour” .
The newspaper sources paint a picture of an American market for graphic satire which was growing in size and complexity by the start of the nineteenth-century. The domestic publication of satirical plates increased significantly during the course of the first decade of the 1800s, as war and diplomatic disputes dislocated commercial ties with Great Britain and restricted the inflow of imported British prints. These were also years in which Americans appear to have increasingly hungered for satirical commentary which reflected their unique political and social circumstances. We should not overstate the extent of these change though; the development of a distinctly American school of graphic satire still lay decades ahead and in the period with which were are concerned, the United States still largely clung to colonial-era patterns of commercial and consumption. To all intents and purposes, this was an age in which Americans continued to laugh like Englishmen.
1. People’s Friend & Daily Advertiser, 06/12/06.
2. B. Perkins, The First Rapprochement: England and the United States, 1795-1805, Berkeley, 1955, pp. 7-11.
3. Pennsylvania Packet, 06/02/88.
4. Albany Centinel, 24/7/98.
5. For another example see New York Evening Post, 03/08/03. Advertisement for William Hutson perfumer, who stocks caricature prints alongside colognes, perfumes, soap and other toiletries. For more on the provincial trade in satirical prints in England, click here.
6. Columbian Centinel, 24/06/01.
7. Massachusetts Spy, Or Thomas’s Boston Journal, 09/09/73.
8. Pennsylvania Packet and General Advertiser, 10/04/84.
9. Advertisement for William Holland quoted in T. Clayton, ‘The London Printsellers and the Export of English Graphic Prints’, in A. Kremers & E. Reich (eds.), Loyal Subversion? Caricatures from the Personal Union between England and Hanover (1714 – 1837), Memmingen, 2014, pp. 156 – 157.
10. See Albany Centinel, ibid., Newburyport Herald, 17/02/07 & New Hampshire Gazette, 15/07/90.
11. City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, 31/12/00.
12. Royal Gazette, 28/12/82.
13. Philadelphia Gazette, 05/07/96.
14. City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, 31/12/00.
15. For examples from the English press see London Morning Chronicle, 02/04/01 and Oxford Journal, 08/10/08.
16. Daily Advertiser 05/02/06
17. The Modern Catalogue of Books, London, 1803, p. 55.
18. Mercantile Advertiser, 28/08/10.
19. Aurora General Advertiser, 20/5/95. See also subsequent editions published between 20th May and 26th June 1795.
20. Newburyport Herald, 16/07/99.
22. P. Dupuy, ‘The French Revolution in American Satirical Prints’, Print Quarterly
Vol. 15, No. 4, Dec. 1998, pp. 373-4.
23. Daily Advertiser, 20/12/98.
24. B. Silliman, A Journal of Travels in England, Holland and Scotland, New Haven, 1820, Vol. 3, p. 79. The Monitor, 27/05/09.
25. Portsmouth Oracle, 06/06/07.
26. Ibid. 17/10/07.
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