Antiquarian Prints & Collecting

by Ronald Lauzon
Glenwood Manor Antiques Center

For all practical purposes, print means a copy. There are innumerable interpretations of this, and probably the best definition can be found in Wikipedia. In this article, “print” means an engraving, etching, lithograph, photo/heliogravure, wood engraving and wood block and exercised on paper. While my writing is as a collector, there are books with far better descriptions, definitions and explanations.

Woodcuts originated in the 8th Century and the process was picked up in Europe in the 14th Century. From there, copper engraving came into use, and lithography was invented in Germany in the 1790’s. The thirst for visual depictions of events in the 1800’s prompted additional processes. The most active period of these types of print productions in American was probably during the period 1835 to 1910 when technology emerged with numerous new processes of replication.

The wood block print is the carving of wood around an image, and then put under pressure to provide the image of the remaining portion of wood. Wood engraving was the incision of the image on wood, usually on a hard wood such as boxwood, inked and printed similar to an engraving. Lithography was the creating of an image in wax crayon on a limestone or similar surface, that when mixed with water produced the waxed image. The traditional method was etching/engraving on a copper plate, that when inked and put into a press created an image on paper. Steel engraving was initially the steel surfacing of a copper plate that allowed numerous impressions of the same image without excessive wear to the plate. In the 1870’s up through the 1900’s (and beyond) mechanical enhanced photographic processes known as heliogravure and photogravure were developed that were the most common and ran parallel to the development of photographic processes. Another method that came into use during that period, and still is in use, is the silk screen. There are many other processes and variations that further reading will identify.

The processes described were mainly driven by the evolution of the book and the demand for visual images. This created a historical record that was more commonly understood than the verbal description that was more interpretive. Prints were also made for visual stimulation for historical purposes. These are the ones that collectors usually seek out.

A good example of the early woodcut process is located in the Nuremburg Chronicles which is available for viewing in the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls. While good selections of antiquarian prints are pretty much limited to big city shops, a great selection is to be found in Saratoga at Lyrical Ballad Books. A much more limited selection can be found in the Queensbury antique gallery of Glenwood Manor.

For a much more detailed account of these processes, I would refer you to Bamber Gascoigne’s book, “How to Identify Prints,” that with a 30 power scope can show you how complex and detailed the processes are.

• Ron Lauzon has been a print collector for almost 45 years, a former member of the American Historical Print Collectors Society and volunteer at the US Marine Corps print collection in Washington DC.