J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

NY Library's Picture Collection Online

I had an excellent research trip to the New York Public Library last week, so I'm more than pleased to highlight one of its public resources: the Mid-Manhattan Library Picture Collection Online. According to an article about the collection, it was started in 1914 to serve Manhattan’s publishing industry, which was asking the librarians for visual references of all sorts. Thirty thousand of those images have been digitized and put into a searchable database for anyone to consult. Many relate to the American Revolution (even those events that took place outside New York).

Unfortunately, few of these images come with dates or information on their original publication. Every so often one can glimpse something like the name of artist Howard Pyle and “1892” penciled at the bottom of this drawing of Tories. But usually there’s no clue about the source. And since all the engravings look old, folks (especially young folks, and textbook publishers) might be tempted to treat them as coming from the period they illustrate.

But, with the exception of a couple of reprints, these images reflect the nineteenth-century view of the Revolution and life in America. We can find obviously anachronistic details, like the military uniforms in this picture of the siege of Boston. (Only in the 1800s did military hats become that vertical.) This delightful print of Boston’s schoolboys petitioning Gen. Gage about their “coasting” hill shows the wrong general. (See this Boston 1775 entry for the actual sources from 1775.)

Nevertheless, this database is an interesting way to see different perspectives on the same event. For example, one image of Bunker Hill focuses on Gen. Israel Putnam, another on African-American soldier Peter Salem, and another on the American line as a collective.

Even more interesting are the various ways that artists portrayed the Boston Massacre. The earliest and most famous image of this event was created by Henry Pelham (and copied by Paul Revere) in 1770; while clearly propagandistic, it’s also the only one that can serve as a historical source about the location. Some later artists produced variations of that image, more or less dramatic. The Abolitionist cause made the part-African sailor Crispus Attucks more prominent in their portrayals of the event. By the late 1800s some artists emphasized the violent crowd; in this rare picture, which I’d never seen before, the soldiers aren’t even visible behind the stick-wielding mob.

1 comment:

Apple said...

Interesting article and great link. Thanks!