Creating Harper’s Weekly engravings: a fascinating process…

March 23, 2009 by  
Email This Post Email This Post | Print This Post Print This Post

Harper’s Weekly issues of the 19th century remain among the more popular in our inventory, as the multiple engravings found in each issue document much of American history from 1857 through the end of the century. We have over 60,000 issues in inventory but still some dates are sold out as soon as they arrive. I suspect most of you have seen this title, but few may be aware of the interesting process of creating the prints in a timely manner.

The story of how Harper’s delivered this amazing product during the Civil War  is a fascinating one, and I must give credit to for much of detail.

The process started by the deployment of not only reporters but also artists to the battlefield.  Some of the most renowned artists of the 1800’s got their start as illustrators for Harper’s Weekly, including Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast.   These artists would sketch scenes of the battles that they witnessed and the sketches would then be dispatched back to Harper’s for publication in the upcoming papers.

In order to publish the artwork, the images first had to be carved onto a block of wood.  But it would take too much time for a single engraver to carve an entire print, particularly given the timeliness of each issue.  To provide the illustrations as quickly as possible, a very clever idea was developed.  The illustration would be cut into 2 inch squares and each square would be engraved onto a different small block of wood by an assigned carver.

By dividing the illustration up, each artist assigned to just a portion, a team of workers could carve a full page illustration in a short period of time.  After the small blocks were completed they were then screwed together to form the overall illustration and a finishing engraver would provide final touches to be sure the pieces were perfectly aligned.  This completed wood block was then used as a “master” to stamp the illustration onto all the newspapers being printed.  If you look at a Harper’s engraving carefully you can often see where the blocks of wood were joined together.

It wasn’t until the 1890’s that the technology of printing caused the end of hand-done engravings for the pages of Harper’s and other illustrated periodicals. With the demise of this labor-intensive trade also came the end of some of the more beautiful works of art to be found on paper. They remain treasures today and hearken back to an era when artistry and long hours of work were an important part in providing the news.

Code = RN72109SH

Code = RN72109SH

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy...


14 Responses to “Creating Harper’s Weekly engravings: a fascinating process…”

  1. bob pfister on May 26th, 2009 2:59 pm

    Where can I find 200 dpi BMP or Jpg files on engravings from the 1850’s to 1900’s?
    Thank you
    bob Pfister

  2. Haystack on June 15th, 2010 11:04 pm

    Bob–It depends on what you’re looking for. There are various clipart websites that will sell high-res engravings, as well as numerous books/CDs (many published by Dover) of public domain engravings–but these tend to be of simple subjects like people, objects, ornaments, etc.

    If you want high-res engravings of historical scenes and what not, your best bet is to scan them from the source. Major publications like Harper’s can be purchased in reprint–check out “An American Album: 150 years of Harper’s Magazine” on Amazon, available used for a few bucks. This probably includes reprints of the engravings, which you can scan at the proper resolution.

  3. Jon Reuter on October 15th, 2010 11:08 pm

    I have and have been asked about an engraving plate that seems to be made of a hard foam. The reason for contacting you is that the image is a Remington image that apparently appeared in harpers weekly and your site speaks of this publication. Would you know anything about this plate? The image is the one you show as two Indian men on horseback Cheyanne Warriers in Canadian oaklahoma.

  4. Bob Creed on April 28th, 2013 11:56 am

    Very interesting article… I have a Printing plate that was used to create a civil war image of the installation of telegraph lines that appeared in Harpers Weekly January 24 1863 on page 53. The original sketch was drawn by Alfred Rudolph Waud. I’m interested in selling the piece which is in fantastic condition. Not sure the best path for offering the item for sale.

  5. Deborah Tint on January 13th, 2014 4:01 pm

    I thank you for your very informative blog!
    I have heard that there was a series of articles in Harper’s Weekly sometime in the 1860s that described the process of printing the magazine. I am particularly interested in how the wood engravings made their way from sketch to printed page. Would you by any chance know which issues these articles appeared in?
    Thanks for your expertise.
    Deborah Tint

  6. wtbelljr on March 28th, 2015 7:59 pm

    nice article

  7. Melisss on September 1st, 2017 5:16 am

    Hi Bob. My name is Melissa Winn and I am the photo editor of Civil War Times magazine. We are looking for photos of a Waud printing blocks and are interested to know if you still have yours and could provide images for publication. Please contact me at or (703) 779-8369 if you can help! I am hoping this message will reach you, as I see your post here is many years old. But I do hope to hear from you. Thanks so much!

  8. Thomas M. Lee on February 2nd, 2018 4:58 pm

    I’ve seen many pages from Harpers Weekly advertised for sale that are colorized and reportedly hand tinted. I don’t believe that Harper’s Weekly was published already in color. If they are original copies of the publication when would they have been colorized? Are they perhaps reprints that were colored? Thank you.

  9. Richard Stack on February 7th, 2018 5:09 pm


    I am fortunate to have acquired for my collection an original carved Thomas Nast wood print block for a Harper’s Uncle Sam. It is in two panels, as was the process. I’ve only found these in museums, and wondered whether you have seen others in private hands. I’m not looking to part with it, just curious. Thank you for any information.

    Richard Stack

  10. GuyHeilenman on March 28th, 2018 8:21 am

    Hello Richard, Sorry this response has been so long in coming. Others on occasion have contacted us in regards to similar woodblocks, but unfortunately we do not know anything regarding their value. They’re simply outside of our scope of knowledge. Good luck with it. It does sound like a nice item.

  11. Richard Stack on May 15th, 2020 10:51 pm


    I acquired some original Thomas Nast wood blocks, and am unable to find others in any collection. Do you know if others survived? Thank you.

    Richard Stack

  12. GuyHeilenman on July 22nd, 2020 10:49 am

    Hello Richard, We really do not know much about them, but every now and again someone mentions having these. Rare, but I do not know if they have any value as far as a collectible since they are outside of our area of expertise.

  13. Mauricio Ortiz on April 26th, 2021 11:46 am

    Hello Mr Bob
    Hope you are doing well
    Where can I find a site that may have wooden blocks carved for Franks Leslies and Harpers weekly newspapers for period 1855 -1860?
    Where did they end up once used ?

    Thank you!

  14. GuyHeilenman on May 20th, 2021 10:18 am

    I have no idea, but I’ll leave this post here in case someone else knows.

Feel free to leave a comment...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!