Throughout the period ca.1895 through 1915, a particular approach to design was commonly seen: photographs of dimensional, shallow relief (bas-relief) constructions reproduced by halftone. The technique was used for the covers of booklets and magazines, and for advertising.
In some cases, the complete composition—image, typography, rules, border—was entirely rendered in clay (possibly plaster or paper maché in some cases), then photographed and reproduced by halftone, nearly always in black-and-white. The reproduction of greyscale images by halftone (shooting the continuous tone photograph through screens which converted an image to dots with uniform spacing but varying size depending on lightness or darkness of the area) had been used for print reproduction since the 1880s, but came into widespread usage in the 1890s. Most were black-and-white reproductions because today’s four color process—which simulates continuous tone color through the use of four different dot screens (cyan, magenta, yellow and black)—had not been sufficiently refined for everyday printing usage.
At the other extreme, covers and advertisements which appeared to be bas-relief, dimensional constructions were actually done totally as artwork that simulated bas-relief. Between the two extremes, many printed images of the era were combinations, bas-relief constructions retouched by painting or airbrushing (invented in 1878 and refined in the 1880s), by “stripping in” other material such as a product image or a portrait) or combining with line art elements. It can be a real challenge to try to sort out just how some of these images were created.
At least one image of the day, a postcard of The Doubleday Page Art Company was carved in oak before being shot for reproduction! Upon close inspection, it can be seen that two piece of oak were butted together in the process.
When I first became interested in these sorts of images, I suspected that perhaps many of the three-dimensional constructions might have been created using the paper maché (known in the 19th century plate-making trade as “flong”) process which enabled the making of stereotype (i.e. copy) plates for printing on either flat bed or rotary presses. In this process, metal type was set up and locked into a form in normal, letterpress printing fashion; carefully covered with layers of particular papers (together, “flong”); pressed into the locked-up metal original under great pressure to pick up all details of the original; dried; used to received new hot metal, which thus produced a one-piece metal copy of the original locked up type elements. By stereotyping, one plate could be made, or many. If for a rotary press, the flong was appropriately curved before the drying step. Using one material or another (flong was later replaced by a wood fiber material and even later by various plastics), printing from plates made from “mats” (matrices) continued right up until the era of digital platemaking, particularly in the newspaper industry. The process is still being used in some places.
The 1902-03 edition of Penrose's Pictorial Annual, a British annual "yearbook" focused upon graphic reproduction techniques and styles, is heavily oriented toward this approach, known to practitioners as "modelled design". The cover of the volume and many of the included advertisements were done in this manner. An article in that book by George Stuart Littlejohn, entitled "Modelled Designs" reads: "The necessity of adapting every possible means towards the end of pleasingly attracting the attention in some more striking manner than that afforded by wash and pen drawings (the most serious limitations of which are their flatness) gave the impetus that prompted the combination of the sculptor's and the photographer's arts and evolved the modelled design. It is evident to even the most casual observer that sculptured designs, on being photographed and the photographs being reproduced by the half-tone process, retain all the lights and shades of nature and have a strength and atmosphere impossible to be obtained by any other method. For calendars, show-cards, book and catalogue covers, advertisements, etc., in fact, all commercial art, the boldness of good designs by this process have all the requisites that make for remunerative publicity, they having the effect of standing out in greater relief at the distance of the passer-by. By it the letterpress printer is able to produce, on his ordinary presses, work which will have a better effect than embossing, at half the cost, as he will be able to dispense with the expensive embossing dies, and it will make it possible for him to compete favourably with the lithographer, in that black and white, of course, require only one printing, while the effects are enhanced by printing in two colours, namely, the dark and light shades of the desired color or black first and the full strength of the tint, one on top of the other, from the same block. Designs embodying a number of colours can be produced by tint blocks, the black of the half-tone being printed last, harmonizing the whole and giving the embossed or raised effect. It presents no difficulties to the half-tone engraver, the block being produced from an ordinary photograph, taken from the plastic modelled design."
An early adopter of the bas-relief process was Quaker Oats, the first cereal to register a trademark, “a figure in “Quaker garb’ ”, in 1877. Quaker Oats began the first national advertising campaign for a cereal in 1882. The earliest bas-relief advertisement for Quaker Oats I have come across to date appeared in 1897, though it is entirely possible that earlier examples may be found. At that time Quaker Oats advertising was handled by the Paul E. Derrick Advertising Agency, a large firm of the day. An interesting letter to the editor of the New York Times from Paul Derrick on December 24, 1903 decries an earlier Times editorial entitled "Is Oatmeal a Curse?", which Derrick labels a "screed" based on nonsensical information from competitive cereal makers. Derrick says that Quaker Oats has "amply demonstrated the superiority of oatmeal as an article of food".
A curious bas-relief-related item is the 1914 National Press Club Yearbook, a small, hardcover publication which was bound in pieces of actual mat.
(Minnesota Historical Society)
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