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The Philadelphia Print Shop, Ltd.

A Nation Divided.  The Civil War in contemporary prints
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Printmaking Processes


By 1860, printmaking in America was at a fairly mature stage in its development. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, American prints were produced in very limited numbers either by copper engraving or wood cut; by the end of the century, American prints were mostly mass-produced, often using photo-mechanical processes. During the century, non-photographically based printmaking processes were introduced and developed--including steel engraving, wood engraving, lithography and chromolithography--and by the beginning of the Civil War prints of all these types were being produced.

[ Printmaking terms | Steel engraving | Wood engraving | Lithography | Chromolithography | Photography ]


These are terms it is useful to understand when reading about the different printmaking processes

A {wood} block is a piece of wood used as a matrix for a print. Wood blocks are used primarily for woodcuts or wood engravings.
An impression is a single piece of paper with an image printed on it from a matrix. The term as applied to prints is used in a manner similar to the term "copy" as applied to a book.
An intaglio print is one whose image is printed from a recessed design incised or etched into the surface of a plate. In this type of print the ink lies below the surface of the plate and is transferred to the paper under pressure. The printed lines of an intaglio print stand in relief on the paper.
A matrix is an object upon which a design has been formed and which is then used to make an impression on a piece of paper, thus creating a print. A {wood} block, {metal} plate, or {lithographic} stone can be used as a matrix.
A planographic print is one whose image is printed off a flat surface from a design drawn on a stone or plate using a grease crayon or with a greasy ink. In this type of print the printing ink is absorbed by the greasy design on the stone and is transferred to the paper under light pressure.
A {metal} plate is a flat sheet of metal, usually copper, steel or zinc, used as a matrix for a print. Metal plates are used for intaglio prints and for some lithographs.
A single print is a piece of paper upon which an image has been imprinted from a matrix. In a general sense, a print is the set of all the impressions made from the same matrix.
A relief print is one whose image is printed from a design raised on the surface of a block. In this type of print the ink lies on the top of the block and is transferred to the paper under light pressure.
A {lithographic} stone is a slab of stone, usually limestone, used as a matrix for a print. Lithographic stones are used to make lithographs and chromolithographs.

GoFor definitions of other printmaking terms, see our on-line dictionary.

Steel engraving

An engraving is an intaglio print printed from a metal plate upon which the image has been engraved, in reverse, using a burin or some other tool. The earliest engravings were produced from copper plates, which were easily worked with a burin. Steel was first used at the end of the eighteenth century (for banknote printing), and then this process was further developed in the 1820s. It fit in well with the ethos and demands of the Industrial Revolution, for it allowed many more impressions of a print to be pulled than could be done from a copper plate.

This made steel engraving perfect for book illustrations, as thousands of impressions could be pulled from a steel plate, allowing these prints to be used as illustrations in books with very large runs. Another benefit of this process for book illustrations was that it allowed the production of prints with finer detail than with copper. Many of the prints showing scenes and personages of the Civil War that appeared in books during and after the Civil War were steel engravings.

Steel plates also allowed the production of prints of significantly larger size than could be produced on copper. This was taken advantage of by publishers of large, separately issued prints beginning in the middle of the century. Many of the larger Civil War prints, including battle scenes, portraits, genre, and allegories, were steel engravings.

Wood engraving

Wood engraving is a relief process, where the image to be printed is created on a block of wood by cutting away the parts that are not to hold ink. A wood engraving differs from a woodcut in that the latter is cut parallel to the grain, whereas in the former the image is cut against the grain.

Wood engraving is a printmaking process with a long history, but it had mostly disappeared by the 1700s until it was revived at the end of that century by Englishman Thomas Bewick, thereafter becoming one of the more common processes used by printmakers. The initial advantages of wood engraving were that the material used was inexpensive and relatively easy to work, and being a relief process, the images could be printed using the same presses and on the same pages as text, which itself was printed from relief typeface.

The development of the wood engraving process continued in the nineteenth century so that it became even more efficient and affordable for use for illustrations. A procedure was developed where small blocks of wood were bolted together to create a larger block, upon which the image to be carved was transferred. Then the individual blocks were separated and given to a number of engravers, providing a more manageable size for the engravers to work with and a more rapid process to complete the entire image. Once the individual blocks were carved, they could be bolted back together to produce the larger image. At the same time, electrotyping of the woodblocks allowed tens of thousands of images to be run off without loss of quality.

These developments, along with its initial advantages, made wood engraving the perfect vehicle for producing illustrations for newspapers. Beginning in the 1850s, a number of these newspapers were published in the United States with large circulations. During the Civil War, wood engraved newspaper illustrations provided most of the images the public saw of its events, places and personages.


Lithography, invented at the end of the eighteenth century, allowed for the efficient and relatively inexpensive production of large numbers of prints. A lithograph is created by drawing an image, in reverse, onto a stone (lithography = "stone-drawing"), which then is used to print the image. Unlike steel engraving, which is an intaglio process, or wood engraving, which is a relief process, lithography is a planographic process, using a flat surface.

The advantages of lithography were that it was relatively simple to create the image onto the stone (either by a transfer process or by free-hand drawing), the stones could easily be corrected or modified, the stones could also easily be reused, and a very large number of impressions could be run off without any loss of quality.

Lithography was brought to America in the nineteenth century and by the 1830s, lithographic firms appeared in a number of American cities producing affordable lithographed prints intended for the general public. These "popular" prints covered any topic which the publishers thought the public would have an interest in, and they were inexpensive and often colorful. By the time of the Civil War they were commonly hanging in the homes and work places of Americans of all classes.


A chromolithograph is a colored lithograph, where the different colors are each printed from a separate stone, as opposed to a hand-colored lithograph where the uncolored, printed image is colored by hand using water colors. Chromolithography had the advantage of consistency and it allowed the printmaker to create an image which looked more like a paintings. However, as long as manual labor was relatively inexpensive, it was quicker and less costly to hand color lithographs, so during the Civil War chromolithographs were relatively uncommon.

At the time of the Civil War, most chromolithographs were printed in an attempt to look like an original painting, with heavy inks used to imitate oil paint and the prints often framed without glass. Later in the century, as the process of chromolithography became more efficient, and as labor costs went up, more firms used this process to produce popular prints, so many of the late nineteenth century prints of the Civil War are chromolithographs.


Some of the most common contemporary images of the Civil War are photographs. This web site deals only with non-photographically produced images, but it is appropriate to discuss Civil War photographs to some extent in order to put them, and the other types of prints, into context.

In 1860, photography was a relatively new medium, but one that was becoming big business. Photographs were accurate, immediate and powerful. Thousands of soldiers and sailors had their photographs taken and made into daguerreotypes and CDVs (cartes de visite). Many of their families and loved ones would have kept these photographs as mementos, but most of these images were seen only by a small circle of people, so their impact on the general public would usually have been relatively insignificant.

However, this is not the case of all photographic portraits, for many of the portrait prints made by other processes--of military and political leaders or others in the news--were based upon photographic sources. Without the original photographs, it is certain that most of the other printed portraits would not have been nearly as accurate.

The other main type of photograph related to the war were the encampment and battlefield photographs taken by a number of photographers who traveled out into the field to make these images. In particular, Mathew B. Brady organized a corps of photographers to follow the troops in the field to record their life and death during the war.

Because of the limits of the photographic process, it was impossible to take action pictures of battles and action events during the war, but there was a significant body of encampment and battlefield photographs produced. Like with the portrait photographs, these two types of photographs were often used as the source for other types of prints. Many of the wood engravings in the illustrated newspapers, for instance, were based on photographs.

In one particular case, the photographs themselves had a significant impact on the public's perception of the war. In 1862, Brady set up an exhibit of "The Dead of Antietam" in his New York gallery, displaying photographs of battlefield corpses. This was one of the first times the public was so faced with such graphic images of the carnage of war and this had a great impact on the public's feeling about the war. As the New York Times said, Brady had brought "home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war."

However, besides their derivative influence on prints and their use as personal keepsakes by many, photographs had less of impact on the public's understanding of the Civil War than did non-photographic prints. First of all, their subject matter was quite limited. Not only could they not show battles or other events, but it was hard to produce a "patriotic" or political image, popular subjects for other sorts of prints. Secondly, they were not really designed to be used for display or decoration, as they were small, uncolored and not really "attractive" for display. And finally, photographs were printed in much smaller numbers than other types of printed images. They are certainly important in their recording of and impact on the Civil War, but I would argue that non-photographic prints were even more important and have been, relative to photographs, under appreciated.


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