Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Introduction

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Introduction

Article excerpt

Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) became a leading patriot, printer, publisher, and bookseller in the rags-to-riches tradition of the more famous Benjamin Franklin. When he retired in 1802, Thomas was one of the wealthiest men in America. Founder of the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, he donated his library and newspaper files to the Society's archive, which became the leading repository of early American imprints.1 His illustrated productions include cuts, carved with bold, heavy lines into wood or type metal, and engravings, made from a fine network of lines incised on copperplates. The images in these illustrations have an affinity with their texts, and may support, develop, or even change the verbal meaning. Placed in their historical context and analyzed, the illustrated imprints give insight into popular taste and commercial aspects of printing in eighteenth-century America. They also provide evidence of incremental change and persistent practices in artistic production and visual culture, challenging the idea that a new departure took place about this time. Instead of a fundamental shift from a verbal to a more modern visual worldview, which would imply a sharp break from plain texts to illustrated material, the imprints of Isaiah Thomas reveal a continuum of blended image and text. If there were changes, they were gradual, not seismic.

Although some historians have been reluctant to pay close attention to images in their research, new fields, such as the history of the book, and scholars of "word and image" studies have addressed the subject of illustrations directly in their conferences, research, and publications. …

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