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 www.sonofthesouth.net  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.