In a recent Times Literary Supplement (June 8, 2012), a review of three new books, each focused on the development of the American railroad, is illustrated with an image simply captioned “Railroad Kings: a nineteenth-century illustration.” Since there were more than a few illustrations in the nineteenth century, I thought a little more information might be helpful.
The plate (seven photographs translated to a wood engraving and electrotyped by J.S. Cushing & Company, Boston) is from the book Marvels of a New West by the Congregationalist minister William M. Thayer (1820-1898). Three similar plates are included in Thayer’s book, listed as Portraits and set apart from the illustrations. The sitters are identified as Railroad Kings, Mining Kings and Cattle Kings. While he used some existing photographs, Thayer tells us “others have been prepared from reliable data for this volume.”
In his introduction, Thayer spends considerable time discussing the portraits and illustrations prepared for this volume. “To make it ‘next to seeing,’ a large number of pictorial illustrations are introduced, without which it is quite impossible for this class to appreciate its marvels. No person can understand a cañon by merely looking at a stereopticon view, unless he has seen a cañon with his own eyes.”
“But transfer that view to a book, by the engraver’s art, accompanied by a careful description, and the reader can readily take it in. That is “next to seeing.” Therefore, the numerous illustrations in this volume occupy a prominent place in its plan. Indeed, in one sense, we may truly say that more dependence is placed upon the pictorial illustrations than the text, to convey the information intended. They are not designed merely for entertainment, but also for instruction. Through the objects illustrated, the character, thrift, and aims of the people appear… . “
“For this reason, we claim a special mission for the many illustrations in this volume. They are furnished at heavy expense; but are indispensable to the author’s purpose. It would be quite impossible to learn what the New West is without them.”
William Makepeace Thayer (1820-1898), Marvels of the New West. A Vivid Portrayal of the Stupendous Marvels in the Vast Wonderland West of the Missouri River … Six Books in One Volume, Graphically and Truthfully Described by William M. Thayer … Illustrated with over three hundred and fifty fine engravings and maps (Norwich, Conn.: Henry Bill Pub. Co., 1887). Rare Books: Western Americana Collection (WA) Rollins 2654