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Illustrated History Index

The Origins: Early Photographys (1839-1879)
The Origins: Early Prints (1850-1885)
Early Trade Cards and the First Baseball Cards (1868-1879)
The Tobacco Revolution (1886-1899)
Non Commercial Cabinets & Photos of the 1880's-90's
Baseball Albums



Early Printing Processes

1886 Chicago Tribune Printing Plate used to make a cartoon of Cap Anson



Many baseball prints pre-date baseball cards. These include programs, scorecards and newspaper woodcuts. As the printing processes became easier and cheaper and the prints became more attractive, it was only a matter of time before they were used to make mass produced baseball cards.

The early prints used one of two major categories of printing processes: Relief printing or Lithography. In some cases it is difficult to tell which process was used on a particular item. In the early days these processes were primitive. They produced monotone prints and could not be printed in quantity. However, with advancements attractive prints could be printed for commercially purposes.

These early prints were not photograph realistic. Unlike today, a newspaper couldn't have a picture look like a photograph. In these early days prints had to be made up of solid lines. If you look closely at an early print you will see these lines. The prints almost look like drawings. The lines could be made shorter and tighter allowing for more detail, but a realistic print was not possible. It wasn't until near the end of the 19th century that a new invention called the half-tone process was being used to make realistic commercial images.

The following is a brief description of the two major categories of prints, Relief and Lithography.

Relief Prints


On the left is a Carte de Viste of Abraham Lincoln. On the right is a copy of Harper's Weekly with a woodcut based on the Carte.


Specific examples of relief printing include woodcuts, engraving, etching and typesetting.

Relief printing has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and is still used today. The newspaper you read was relief printed with photoengraving and typesetting.

A relief print is made by cutting away part of the surface of a printing plate, adding ink to the surface that is left and pressing the plate surface to the paper or whatever item you are printing on. The area that was cut away will not appear on the paper and the area that was left will. If you take a block of wood, carve your initials into it, ink it up and press it on a piece of paper, you have made a relief print. Everything but your initials will appear on the paper. If you had instead cut away everything except your initials, it would print just your initials.

Commercial printing of detailed relief prints is a laborious and technical process. Even early engraving artists such as Albert Duher hired someone to prepare the plate. A printer from more modern times would use special acids to prepare the plate. Bulky machinery would produce multiple prints.

Some of these early relief prints, especially the newspaper woodcuts, were made from photographs. A photographic negative shown through a special screen would make an image on the chemically treated printing plate. Special acids were then applied to make the impression in the plate. Remember that the impression could only be made up of lines, so the resulting print did not look like a photograph. See the photograph and woodcut of Lincoln above.

Relief printing was often used in combination with photographs. For example, cabinet cards have the studio name and location written on the mount. Some later baseball cards use a combination of photographs and relief printing.

Of particular focus to baseball fans are the baseball woodcuts that appeared in newspapers and magazines. The most famous baseball woodcuts appeared from 1859 to 1890 in pages of Harper's Weekly, a national tabloid published in New York City. Harper's was famous for its woodcuts on various subjects including the Civil War, famous people and current events. Their attractive woodcuts of baseball subjects included famous teams and players of the time. Harper's Weekly measured 11" X 15-1/2". Woodcuts were usually a full page, though in several cases the prints were on portions of pages or extend over two pages. Either way, they are substantially larger than baseball cards.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper also created popular baseball woodcuts, and woodcuts can be found in other national and local magazines and newspapers.

With the availability of photomechanical printing, woodcuts in magazines were phased out in the early 1890s.

Woodcuts are often framed. They are delicate and especially sensitive to direct light, so they should be handled and displayed accordingly.










Lithography was invented after the woodcuts. Early lithographs were one color and crude. With time color lithography (a.k.a. chromolithography) created some of the most beautiful baseball cards of the late 19th and 20th Century. Color lithography is still used today to make limited edition prints and posters.

As with relief printing, early lithography was used by famous artists including Picasso. It was also developed for mass-market production.

Unlike relief printing, lithography is printed using a completely flat printing sheet. Lithography is based on the principle that water and grease do not mix. On a suitable printing surface marks are made in a greasy medium. The surface is dampened with water, which settles only on the unmarked areas as it is repelled by the greasy drawing medium. Next, a roller with greasy printing ink on it is rolled over the surface. The ink now adheres only to the drawn marks, the water repelling it from the rest of the surface. Finally the ink is transferred to a sheet of paper by running paper and the printing surface together through a special press. The mass-produced lithographs are a complicated process, but use these same principles.

To make color lithography the above process had to be repeated for each color. Each color was printed on the same piece of paper. Sometimes up to ten colors are used. You may occasionally see some chromeolithographed baseball cards in which the colors aren't quite lined up right.

Early 19th Century commercial lithography was usually monotone or perhaps with an extra color for background. At this time stones were used as the printing surface which was a cumbersome and expensive method. By the 1850's stones were replaced with metal plates (first zinc, then copper). This made mass-produced chromolithography possible. It wasn't until after the Civil War that commercial lithography flourished. The 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where printers were able to show their colorful wares, led to the wide-spread use of chromolithography in commercial business, including the first baseball cards









1860's Currier and Ives Lithograph

1865 Harper's Woodcut Brooklyn Atlantics. Included with this montage and continued on the pack of the page is article about the public hanging of the warden of the notorious Andersonville Civil War prisoner of war camp. The article says he was unrepentant..

1866 Book with lithographed cover

1867 Home Run Pokka Sheet Music, woodcut engraving.


detail of 1869 Harper's Woodcut of the Cincinnati Red Stockings : This is the most sought after woodcut, as it details one of the most famous early teams. It features Harry Wright ('the father of professional baseball'), seated center, and his shortstop brother George, seated right. Any memorabilia related to this team commands a premium.

1869 'The Red Stockings' Sheet Music. This is an extremely rare copy of the song celebrating the Cincinnati Red Stocking. The above pictured copy in ExMt condition sold for $4,000.

1870 Lewiston Baseball Club Dance Card Invitation

1874 Harper's Woodcut of the Boston Bostons. This team included the Hall-of-Fame Wright brothers, Al Spalding (with ball) and Ross Barnes (upper left). This team is now the Atlanta Braves.

detail of 1874 Harper's Boston Bostons, showing George Wright.


1870's Calling/Business Card. An early two-toned woodcut. Notice that the scene (or the name) is upside down

1874 Harper's Woodcut of The Maple Leaf Base-Ball Club of Gulph, Canada. The man in bow tie is the team president

1874 Harper's Woodcut showing the Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics playing in England. This trip was made in hopes to spread the game abroad.


1874 Harper's Woodcut showing a different view of the game in England. See detail views below.


detail of 1874 Harper's Woodcut showing baseball in England

detail of 1874 Harper's Woodcut showing baseball in England



1874 Harper's Woodcut of the Philadelphia Athletics: These are the team members who played the Red Stockings in England

detail of 1874 Harper's Woodcut Philadelphia Athletics, showing a 21 year-old Cap Anson.

1877 Woodengraving of Chicago Nationals Champions. A woodengraving is a type of woodcut where the final image is more detailed


1884 Relief Print National League Schedule Booklet

1880's Lithographed Score Card

early 1880's tobacco label

1884 Brooklyn Grays American Association Score Card/Program


1885 Police Gazette Woodcut, depicting freshman female baseball players at the Wellesly Female Seminary. In 1866 Vassar formed the first female baseball team and women played sporadically throughout the 1800s, often meeting outside pressure.

1888 Cincinnati Reds Scorecard featuring pitcher Tony Mullane









Halftone Printing: realistic pictures

The following discussion of the halftone printing process is jumping ahead, as it was not widely used until the late 1880s.

As the early prints used lines to make images they could not be detailed enough to look realistic. The invention of the halftone process replaced lines with dots. This allowed for much more detail. While halftone can't produce the quality and detail of a real photograph, it can make a realistic representation. This process is used today to make pictures including for newspapers, magazines and books. If you look closely at a picture in today's image is made up of tiny dots. The smaller and closer together the dots, the more detailed the image. This process could be applied to both the relief printing and lithography. Halftone applied relief printing is called photoengraving. Photoengraving is used to make images in newspapers. Halftone applied to lithography is called photolithography. This is used to make color art posters and baseball cards such as Goudeys and Topps. Your printer at home or the Xerox at work uses the halftone process to make images.

In the mid-1880s into the early 1890's newspapers replaced woodcuts with half-tone images. By the mid 1880's some tobacco cards used halftone lithography. As the technology was still new, the images were not of the quality of today's. Pictures in 19th century newspapers were coarse in detail. Early halftone lithography, in particular, was not realistic. This lithography couldn't create detailed dots. It was also more readily applied to artistic images where realism was not the prime intent. However, any print will be revealed to be halftone by its dots.

Examples of Early Halftone Printing

late 1890s John M. Ward Trade Card: This is a rare photoengraved 19th century card of the Hall-of-Famer. This image was borrowed from the photograph from one of Ward's two Mayo Cabinets.








1893 copper printing plate most probably to make newspaper pictures. It pictures the Vanderbilt University team.

Another printing plate showing the Vanderbilt team in action.

Photoengraved picture in a 1910 Sporting Life magazine



Main Index

The Origins: Early Photographys (1839-1879)
The Origins: Early Prints (1850-1885)
Early Trade Cards and the First Baseball Cards (1868-1879)
The Tobacco Revolution (1886-1899)
Non Commercial Cabinets & Photos of the 1880's-90's
Baseball Albums


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