Two extraordinary Civil War portfolios


Two extraordinary Civil War portfolios.

Portfolio 1.   Cincinnati, mid 1863.  Folio (16 x 12) with original buckram boards.  40 lithographs, mostly by Ehrgott, Forbriger & Co., Cincinnati.  Prints with some typical staining, but generally very good condition.  Binding with some wear, but overall good condition.

Portfolio 2.  New York, ca. Sept. 1863.  Folio (16 x 12) with original buckram boards.  Spine worn and mostly loose; some prints loose but in order.  40 lithographs by Currier & Ives with bright, original hand color.  Most prints with marginal stains, but in overall very good condition, except as noted.  All prints with full margins.

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The discovery of these two portfolios, compiled probably in the fall of 1863 and each containing 40 prints related to the Civil War, provides new information on one manner in which popular prints were sold in the mid-19th century, a means of marketing popular prints which has not really been appreciated previously.

Portfolios or albums of prints have a long history, where collections of prints—often which were also sold individually—were compiled and bound together for sale as a unit, sometimes with and sometimes without text.  In the United States, portfolios like those of Alexander Wilson and Thomas McKenney come to mind.  These portfolios were expensive to produce, usually being sold by subscription, and were intended for a moneyed audience, most ending up either in institutions or in the libraries of the wealthy.

The notion of putting together a portfolio of “popular prints,” is one that seems to have appeared in the early 1860s, particularly in Cincinnati.  Perhaps the earliest portfolio of popular prints was the 1862 Album of the Campaign of 1861 in Western Virginia, a collection of 20 lithographic scenes drawn by J.N. Roesler of Union troops during the Civil War and produced by the Cincinnati lithographic firm of Ehrgott, Forbriger & Co.

A popular print is one that was produced relatively inexpensively so it could be sold cheaply to the general public.  These prints did not usually end up in fine libraries or on the walls of the wealthy, but were passed around as ephemeral pictures or perhaps hung in lower or middle class homes.  The audience for these prints did not usually have many books, beyond the Bible and the idea of creating an album of prints for this market didn’t seem to be a financial winner.

This may have changed early in the Civil War for a number of reasons.  First was the growth of the American lithographic economy, where a number of medium sized businesses were able to produce thousands of prints at low prices.  Currier & Ives were the prime example of this, and by the early 1860s, Cincinnati also had a number of thriving popular print publishers.

This period was also a time when the American middle class was growing, its members beginning to be interested in things beyond merely getting by and looking to acquire a more refined life style.  This combined with the great interest on the part of American middle class in the Civil War—where many of its members were either serving or had loved ones serving—seems to have inspired the attempt to produce Roesler’s album of lithographs of the “Campaign of 1861 in Western Virginia.”  Individual popular prints of the Civil War were being sold across the country in great numbers, so perhaps a portfolio of these prints might also do well.

Interestingly, the year that Roesler’s portfolio was issued, or perhaps early the next, someone put together an album of 40 Civil War prints, most of which were portraits of Union military and naval officers by Ehrgott, Forbriger & Co.  From then over the next year or so, a number of other portfolios were issued, most of which had the following characteristics

  • They were bound in plain buckram covers with simple black spine
  • There was no title page, number to the pages, nor text
  • Most began with two Currier & Ives prints, the first facing the second
    • “The Star Spangled Banner.”
    • “Go. Washington.”
  • This was then followed by a number of political portraits of Lincoln and his cabinet members, as well as some mid-west state governors
  • This was then followed by a Gibson & Co. portrait of General Winfield Scott
  • This was then followed by a number of portraits of U.S. Army officers
  • The portfolio was finished by a number of portraits of U.S. Navy officers

We have identified nine different bound portfolios like this, and have found four other groupings of prints, including at the Library of Congress and the Clements Library, which may at one time have been similarly bound.  Clearly, someone was binding the Ehrgott, Forbriger & Co. portraits, with the accompanying images, into albums for sale as a unit.  We have found no record of these portfolios being advertised, but the number of almost identical albums proves these were not simply case where the prints were gathered and bound by different collectors who had purchased the prints separately.  There was clearly a single agent who was marketing these prints in a new manner.

The question becomes who did this?  It could have been Ehrgott, Forbriger & Co., though there is no evidence of this and one thinks that they might not have used prints by other publishers or at least have added some sort of publisher information title page or advertisement if they were selling the albums.  More likely, it was a book or print seller who did this as a marketing experiment.  The location of the seller was certainly the mid-west, as many of the generals are from the mid-west and the only governors are of Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee.  The sale of the portfolios seems to have been something of a success, given the number of existing volumes, and they seem to have been sold up through late 1863 or early 1864.

All of this we have learned over the years as new portfolios have come to light.  What is new is that we have just come across a very similar album of Civil War prints by Currier & Ives!  We have never heard of nor seen such a thing, but the new portfolio consists similarly consists of forty prints, in this case all by Currier & Ives.

It has a binding that exactly matches some of the other portfolios, and it even starts with “The Star Spangled Banner” facing the first of the other prints.  The other prints in this portfolio are either scenes of forts or of Civil War battles.  These have a similar order to the prints as the Ehrgott & Forbriger albums, for after the Banner print come twenty-nine battle scenes in chronological order, mostly land-based, followed by ten images related to naval engagements.

It would appear that this volume was put together by the seller of the other album as an accompaniment to it, showing mostly battle scenes as opposed to portraits.  The latest engagement shown in one of the prints is the Battle of Chickamauga, which was fought on the 19-20th of September, 1863, giving the earliest date that this portfolio could have been assembled, a date which fits in with the dates for the other portfolios.

It is interesting that the coloring of all the Currier & Ives prints was obviously done by the same colorist(s), as the tones and style match throughout.  This would rule of the prints having been gathered by prints that were just around, instead indicating that they were all purchased at the same time.  As the coloring matches that typically found on Currier & Ives prints, and not typically on any prints by Cincinnati lithographers, it would seem that the prints were probably ordered directly from the New York firm at one time.