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Boston Athenaeum Hosts a Chromo Exhibit

This past week I attended a lecture on the chromolithography exhibit currently showing at the Boston Athenaeum.

I knew that chromos played a key role in advertising in the nineteenth century and wanted to learn a bit more about them.

A chromo is a colored illustration in which the artist used a flat limestone for each color of the image. He drew the image on a stone, but applied only one color per stone. One chromo could take many stones. It was quite time-consuming, but became an art form that captured nineteenth century America with its life-like colors, something people had never seen.  Most Americans could not experience original artwork like painting since there were few art museums or galleries.

The chromolithrogarphy exbhit right now at the Boston Athenauem.
The colorful invitation for the chromolithography exhibit now at the Boston Athenaeum.


Boston introduced the first  chromos in America in 1840.

Books, newspapers, and, of course, catalogs, had used mainly black and white engravings before that time.

Soon businesses used chromos to show off their products and even their buildings.  The Athenaeum’s collection includes a chromo commissioned in 1873 by the Walter Baker Chocolate Company in Dorchester, Mass. to feature their new building.

The garden industry also used chromos in the seed and nursery catalogs.

According to Charles Van Ravenswaay, former librarian at Winterthur in Pennsylvania,  in 1864  the Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882) was the first to use a chromo in his catalog. In it Vick illustrated the double zinnias which had only been developed four years earlier.

Several chromolithography shops set up business in Rochester at that time, largely to meet the advertising needs of various businesses, including the seed and plant trade.  At the end of the 1880s a magazine called  The Horticultural Art Journal began in that city

But it was Boston, as I learned, where chromolithography began.

The Boston Athenaeum’s exhibit, called Chromo Mania, is certainly worth visiting.  It continues until January 12.

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