A picture is worth a thousand words. Whether or not Napoleon Bonaparte was actually the first person to coin this adage, newspapers certainly took it to heart. When digging through microfilm of older newspapers, I have always been happy to find great drawings included with stories, adding to the enjoyment of the topic at hand. Even advertisements in earlier times carried drawings that were entertaining as well as illustrative.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, newspapers employed multiple artists. Sketch artists would be sent to an event to rapidly make sketches of whatever was going on. Returning to the paper, the artists’ sketches would be filled out and turned into a finished drawing on a boxwood plate, made up of many little blocks of boxwood, screwed together. After the drawing on the plate was finished, the blocks would be disassembled and assigned to several artists to engrave. Each artist would only have a few pieces of the final drawing to complete, making the engraving go much faster. When each smaller block was completely engraved, all the blocks would be reassembled to form the final drawing…a wood engraving. This was then included on the page block for inking and printing.
By 1890, this process was slowly turned over to metal plate engraving. This was still time-consuming and required staff artists to complete. After World War I, processes for photo engraving were discovered. This was welcomed by the journalistic community in that photographs were seen to be much more objective than the previous artwork. Less “artistic license” could be taken when describing, say, a demonstration or a newsworthy event.
At this point, the need for artists on the staff of newspapers was reduced. Many of them turned to political cartoon drawing, where commentary and opinion were essential and objectivity was not the point. The political cartoon has continued to grow and develop since that time.
Today’s digital world has changed journalism beyond recognition and expanded art to include technology, as well. It’s reassuring to go back a hundred years and appreciate what the human hand can do without a great deal of assistance from software and hardware.