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About Lithography

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OVERVIEW •  HIGHLIGHTS •  ABOUT LITHOGRAPHY •  DIGITAL RESOURCES & FINDING AIDS


 

In the mid-1790s, a young German playwright named Alois Senefelder (1771-1834) developed lithography. This new printmaking process enabled Senefelder to make more copies of his plays in less time and for less money than ever before. Little did he know that his discovery would also start a communication revolution.

 

Over the next century, lithography, or stone printing, transformed the exchange of information and the activities of everyday life. It brought art, literature, music, and science to the masses; gave rise to product advertising and consumer culture; helped launch pictorial journalism; established graphic design as a profession; and converted commercial printing from a craft to an industry. Lithography also “colorized” America as newly affordable images in a rainbow of hues came to almost every community and home. For the first time, advertisements, news articles, and drawing room pictures exploded with color.

 

Lithography is based on the simple principle that oil and water do not mix. A lithographer draws an image—in reverse—on stone with a greasy crayon, wets the stone with water, and inks it. The ink adheres to the greasy image but is repelled by the moist areas of the stone. When paper is pressed against the stone, the ink transfers as a mirror image. The original greasy image remains on the stone so multiple copies can be made by re-inking and reprinting.last-lithography-studio

Lithographer from Prang’s Aids for Object Teaching, printed in 1874 by Louis Prang & Co., Boston.

1. The stone grinder polishes off an old design and smooths surface for a new one.

2. The lithographic artist draws directly on stone from a reference image.

3. The proof press printer checks for accuracy by inking and printing stones.

4. The production press printer pulls final prints from the press.

 

For color lithography, a printer uses multiple stones, one stone for each hue. Colors can be printed side by side, layered, or intermingled as dots of ink. Printing with 5 or more colors was standard by the 1870s, and high-quality prints used 20 or more colors. Queen of the Woods (below right) was printed with 25 colors. To verify colors and check alignment, the lithographer printed each color and every sequence of colors on separate proof sheets (below left). The proofs survive as a rare bound volume called a progressive proof book.

  

 

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Some sheets from the Queen of the Woods progressive proof book, and the finished lithograph; all items printed in 1867 by Louis Prang & Co., Boston.

 

 

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Topics in the Jay T. Last Collection:

Agriculture

Animals

Art Posters

Beverages

Chemicals

Cleaning

Communications

Construction

Education

Entertainment (including Circus & Performing Arts)

Fairs & Exhibitions

Fashion

Finance

Firefighting

Food (including Food & Vegetable labels)

Furnishings

Gambling

Grooming

Hardware

Holidays

Horticulture

Industrials

Insurance

Louis Prang Archive

Maps & Atlases 

Maritime

Medicine

Military (including American Civil War)

Music

Office Supplies

Organizations

People

Photography

Politics

Printing & Publishing

Religion 

Rites & Ceremonies

Science & Technology

Sports & Leisure

Tobacco (including Cigar box labels)

Toys & Novelties

Transportation (including Railroads)

Travel

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