September 27, 2011

Teitelman Collection of Woodblocks

        The American Sunday-School Union was the most prolific publisher of children's books in nineteenth century America (which gives you a good idea of why non-didactic books like those by Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter were so beloved!)  But the American Sunday-School Union publishings did have lots of illustrations, mostly printed from wood engravings.  These wood blocks were the property of the publisher, not the artists, and were kept and reused through multiple printings (and probably multiple publications, too.)  Although names of some of the artists are available, including George Gilbert (d. 1836), Alexander Anderson (1775-1870), John Warner Barber (1798-1885), Augustus Kollner (b. 1813), and James Barton Longacre (1794-1869), the individual blocks are not labelled with their artists or their carvers, so they're effectively anonymous.

        The entire collection of woodblocks of the American Sunday-School Union was eventually purchased by S. Robert Teitelman, and was left at his death to the Library Company, which is now digitizing the collection.  On their web site they have photos of the blocks, along with an image to show how it prints.  The ultimate aim is to match up all the blocks with their actual prints in publications, but for now the images shown for most of the blocks are approximations done by scanning the block and photoshopping.  Of course, this process doesn't really give you the right result.  The main issues are that the image is not reversed from the block (meaning it is reversed from how the actual printed image appeared) and that large
carved away areas, especially backgrounds, appear black when they ought to be white.  For the block print of the Earth you can see all three images: the photo of the carved block, the approximation of its image, and a page from a printed book in which the image actually appears.  You can see how hard it is to get a sense for the finished print by looking at the block or its scanned approximation!  Still, it gives you an idea, and the real value of this collection is the ability to see the carving of the blocks themselves.
        I love the grace and delicacy of this lily, and the sly glance of the lion below.  Since these are nineteenth century wood engravings they are all about the tiny little lines, reproducing line drawings as opposed to really using the unique properties of the relief print medium.  You don't get much of a sense of carving from looking at the print.  But that's why it's so much fun to be able to see the carved block itself and really see the strokes of the tools where wood has been carved away.

[Pictures: View of Jerusalem, wood block;
Earth and the sun, wood block, scan, and printed image;
Lily, wood block and scan;
Lion, wood block and printed image,
all from the American Sunday-School Union collection of the Library Company.]


  1. I work for InFaith, the organization that used to be known as the American Sunday School Union. We no longer publish books (nor do we start many Sunday schools), but our Home Office has quite a few of the original ASSU books, and there is also a large collection in the Philadelphia Free Library. When the time comes to match up the blocks with the publications, those are two good places to start.

  2. Shannon, thanks for the info. It's nice to know so many of these books are still around with their wonderful block print illustrations.