Anyone who collects books from the nineteenth century, or the earliest decades of the 20th century, is likely to have encountered titles illustrated by chromolithographs.
The process of lithography was invented by Alois Senefelder in 1798, which discovery was first documented in his 1818 book Vollständiges Lehrbuch der Steindruckerey (A Complete Course of Lithography). The first English edition of this landmark work was published a year later, and it has since been reprinted many times. (The original 1818 First Edition is almost never available in the marketplace, and when it is available it commands a substantial premium, as does the first English edition. This also is true of the other books discussed in today's post. Many of these have been broken up over the years, so their chromolithographs could be sold as separate plates.):
was the first fundamentally new printing technology since the invention of relief printing in the fifteenth century. It is a mechanical planographic process in which the printing and non-printing areas of the plate are all at the same level, as opposed to intaglio and relief processes in which the design is cut into the printing block. Lithography is based on the chemical repellence of oil and water. Designs are drawn or painted with greasy ink or crayons on specially prepared limestone. The stone is moistened with water, which the stone accepts in areas not covered by the crayon. An oily ink, applied with a roller, adheres only to the drawing and is repelled by the wet parts of the stone. The print is then made by pressing paper against the inked drawing.
This process was refined over the next several decades, as methods were sought to replace hand-coloring of illustrations. Lithography suggested a solution:
Multiple stones were used, one for each color, and the print went through the press as many times as there were stones. The problem for the printers was keeping the image in register, making sure that the print would be lined up exactly each time it went through the press so that each color would be in the correct position and the overlaying colors would merge correctly.... Overprinting and the use of silver and gold inks widened the range of color and design.
It is difficult to convey to someone who has never actually examined one in person just how extraordinarily beautiful a well-printed chromolithograph can be, especially when heightened with gold or bronze:
The best examples of chromolithography, which required several months of labor utilizing multiple stones printed in exact register, were so good that they were successfully marketed to the public as replacements for original oil paintings.
America's first chromolithographic printer, William Sharp, produced his first chromolithograph in 1840, although his first high-quality chromolithographic book was not published until a few years later. This book, The Fruits Of America, Containing Richly Colored Figures, And full descriptions On All The Choicest Varieties Cultivated In The United States (by Charles Mason Covey) was first published in parts (1847-1856) before being published in book form (two volumes with ninety-six plates):
What is arguably his best chromolithographed book, though, would come a few years later, with his publication of John Fisk Allen's Victoria Regia; Or, the Great Water Lily of America (1854), which has the distinction of being the earliest example of large scale color printing in the United States:
At about the same time, in a country not all that far away, an Englishman was preparing to print what is arguably the most influential chromolithographed book ever published....