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The Late Nineteenth Century Launched the Age of Visual Media

Sunday I read a review of  Edward Ball’s new book The Inventor and the Tycoon called “The First Picture Show” in the Boston Globe.

The book discusses the birth of moving pictures.  Photographer Edward Muybridge’s images of horses in the 1880s become a major part of the book’s story which centers on San Francisco tycoon Leland Stanford.  Stanford University today bears his name.

The reviewer Dan Cryer wrote that Ball considered the 1880s ‘the age of visual media’.

Inventor and TycoonThat struck me as a neat way to describe the late nineteenth century in America.  By the 1860s the use of chromolithography took the commercial world by storm.  Then the photograph took its place.  Its natural successor would be the motion picture.

The way people relate to the world changed forever.  Mass images would now circulate among millions of people, especially the middle class.

Of course, the commercial world would also benefit from the use of media images.  Selling after 1880 would never be the same.  People would see images in advertising and marketing materials and demand that the product both resemble the image and, in one sense, become the image that they had already experienced.

American advertising is built on on that kind of stream of imagery.

Nineteenth century garden catalogs responded to the age of visual media both by including more images and becoming more colorful.

The Tillinghast Seed Company from Washington wrote in its 1890 catalog, “This is not a seed catalogue, but a magnificent volume of elegant colored plates, by far the most extensive, and handsomest collection of floral lithographs ever published in this or any other country.”


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