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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Saturday, December 19, 2009

The First Picture of the Boston Tea Party

As a farewell to the Boston Tea Party on this anniversary week, I’m running what I suspect is the earliest visual depiction of the event, created by Philip Dawe in 1774.

Does that proximity in time mean this is our most accurate portrayal? Not at all. Dawe didn’t see the tea destroyed since he was in London. And he wasn’t trying to be historically accurate. The daytime sky and the ease with which the Bostonians are tipping those heavy chests over the rail show that the artist was merely representing what had happened. He ignored what became a major element in later American images: the men’s “Mohawk” disguises.

Dawe was using the Tea Party to make a point in this larger political cartoon, titled “Bostonians Paying the Excise Man or Tarring and Feathering.” It lumped together the destruction of the tea with the mob attacks on Customs officers, the protests at Liberty Tree against the Stamp Act, and the threat of hanging.


Charles Bahne said...

The coloring of this image looks to me as if it were done at a later date -- it appears to be beyond the technical abilities of 1774. I can believe that Philip Dawe created a black-and-white engraving at that date, and also that colored copies were issued then; but these colors don't seem possible on a mass-production engraving in that era. It looks like they were applied at a much later date. Any thoughts on this? Do we have any info on the provenance of this illustration? The link you give cites a source of "Private Collection, Art Resource, NY" which doesn't seem trustworthy to me.

J. L. Bell said...

The Gilder Lehrman Institute has a very similar print—so similar, in fact, that they might be photos of the same print at different exposures or this image might be based on the other.

This is identified as a mezzotint engraving, a technique established in Britain by the 1700s but known to few Americans. It allowed for grays as well as black and white.