“Pictures for Everyone” Takes a Look Back

The American History Museum explores what happened when pictures became widely available in the U.S. in the 19th century

Pictures of children were used in these 19th-century advertising cards.
Pictures of children were used in these 19th-century advertising cards. Photo courtesy of the American History Museum

Today, we receive and share visual information in many  ways— digital cameras, cell phone cameras, Flip Cams, online photo sharing site likes Flickr and Snapfish, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook—but how did it all start?

In the last half of the 19th century,  the United States experienced what has been described as an “explosion of media,” says Helena E. Wright, curator of graphic arts at the American History Museum. “Improvements in printing and publishing led to the proliferation of pictures that became affordable for everyone—and very desirable.”  The result of this media explosion is the subject of a small display at the museum called “Pictures for Everyone.”

The display showcases both how images were used—illustrated newspapers, sheet music covers, posters, trade cards and scrapbooks—as well as how they helped pierce social and physical barriers of language (there is a German-language edition of the magazine Puck on one panel), class (mass-media formats like advertising were available to anyone) and race (the display includes a quote from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass about pictures being a luxury of free men).

In addition to the pictures, there is also a case that includes objects used in the production of images including: a stereograph viewer and stereographs, a framed chromolithograph, a relief plate for printing sheet music and an early Kodak camera with snapshots. “The 1888 Kodak camera is at the heart of all the cameras that every tourist passing the case possesses,” says Shannon Perich, curator of the museum’s photographic history collection, reflecting on her favorite piece in the display. “This camera represents the shift from buying pictures to having a broader capacity to make their own; to be able to record, and depict the world as they saw, defined and experienced it.”

As pictures became more widely available, they were used and shared in a variety of ways, Wright says, much as the evolution of technology allows people to do today.

Take a look back at “Pictures for Everyone,” currently on display at the National Museum of American History. The museum is open daily from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM (except December 25). See the website for extended visiting hours.

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