The first illustrated magazine to be published in the world, according to Jackson (1885), was the Penny Magazine of Charles Knight, launched in London in 1832. This publication was promoted by the Society for the Development of Useful Knowledge, of which Knight was a founder. Inspired by encyclopedism, its content mainly concerned “useful knowledge,” namely, information that aimed at educating the public. Each issue of the magazine comprised dozens of wood engravings that contributed to the explosion of the market for papers, which, until then, had not been illustrated. The engravings also immediately boosted the publishing industry and the occupation of wood engravers. Engravers trained by Thomas Bewick were responsible for the prevalence of the English model in other countries. The French Magasin pittoresque and the German Pfennig Magazin had to hire English engravers for years before they could train their own. Consequently, they often published illustrations with English topics, which intensely annoyed their readers!
The importance of wood engraving increased even more in the second generation of the illustrated press (Bacot 2006), which began with the Illustrated London News in 1842. Doubling the size of the earlier format with the help of newly developed print technologies, this paper’s 16 pages included various sizes of illustrations, some of them even doublepage spreads. It sold at a high price and exclusively on subscription, and became a model for many other illustrated periodicals, which sprang up in other countries. Among them, both L’Illustration in Paris and the Illustrierte Zeitung in Leipzig appeared in 1843. These papers offered a mixture of diverse subjects (news, novels, etc.). Progressively, however, they were transformed into illustrated newspapers as their content was dedicated to reports on current events, thereby modifying the press industry once again. For instance, the European revolutions of 1848 forced these papers to create an illustrated news reporting service, with sketchers and draughtsmen working in the field, and a team of engravers handling the production process. Later, coverage of the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) reshaped the nature of reporting and, by extension, the structure of occupations in the publishing industry.
Reporters producing illustrations worked in peculiar conditions. Pressed by time, they often simply sketched a scene roughly, as the assignment deadline did not allow them to finish the drawing. Hence, even the most accomplished artists were little more than journalists on the front, aiming at a literal representation of what they saw, which was more or less faithfully reproduced in the engravings published in the papers. The production of illustration in newspapers relied entirely on engravings. For papers such as The Illustrated London News or L’Illustration, large teams of draughtsmen and engravers worked on the same picture at the same time. As soon as one section of the drawing was reproduced on wood, it was sent to the workshop, where it was engraved, while the draughtsman drew another section. At the end of this process the engraver-in-chief set all the pieces together and engraved the lines to make the parts of the picture look like a whole (Martin 2006). This type of assembly line did not produce the most artistic engravings but had the advantage of being very quick, which was of prime importance for a newspaper. It was the source of the progressive proletarianization of the occupation of engraver.
From the 1850s the rise of nationalism transformed the illustrated newspaper into a means of constructing national imaginaries, using stereotyped images representing “us” and “others”. This was crucial during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 – 1871 (Martin 2006), especially due to the growth of competition from cheaper papers in the early 1860s. Although few papers belonged to this third generation, these often had a very large circulation. Once again, London was the first to launch such papers, with the Penny Illustrated Paper in 1861, imitated by the Parisian Journal illustré in 1864 and the Presse illustrée in 1867 (both sold for 10 centimes). These generously illustrated newspapers were barely less luxurious than their predecessors and much cheaper, which made them accessible to a popular mass readership. As a result, however, their workers gradually fell into anonymity.
Finally, in the 1890s, a fourth generation was born in France, that of the daily papers’ weekly supplements, especially the Petit Journal and the Petit Parisien. Sold for one sous, they attained a circulation of over three million. Despite the huge circulation of these publications, this should by no means be seen as the democratization of the press. It must be remembered that all of these papers were owned and edited by members of the middle classes, if not the bourgeoisie. The knowledge/information offered to their readers was undoubtedly top-down, and working class interests had little to do with the content, although people had to be satisfied enough to buy it regularly. Yet these newspapers did much to spread information in everyday culture by offering high-quality illustrations on current events. The intentions of the owner-editors generally went further than profits alone, as they were willing to offer a content that would “educate/inform” their readers. As such, these papers mostly promoted the interests of those who held the social, economic, and political power, but that did not prevent them from occasionally publishing “radical” ideas promoting actions for improving the well-being of the less fortunate classes.
While the distribution of illustrated newspapers mushroomed over the following decades, it took some time before engravings were replaced by photographs in periodicals. This was particularly true of popular papers, which tended to focus on violent events until World War I. It was only in 1936 that Life launched a new model from the United States, the news magazine, in which photography was the only means of illustration.
- Bacot, J.-P. (2005). La presse illustrée au XIXe siècle: Une histoire oubliée. Limoges: Pulim.
- Jackson, M. (1885). The pictorial press: Its origin and progress. London: Hurst and Blacknett, p. 277.
- Martin, M. (2006). Images at war: Illustrated periodicals and constructed nations. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.