During the 19th century advances in printing technologies quickly made newspapers, magazines, and books more affordable to many American consumers. Publishers used enlarged or decorative moveable type to grab viewers’ attention, highlighting merchandise, events, or news via creatively formatted texts on the printed page. Large broadsides papered street corners, and shop signs listing mercantile goods and services filled urban spaces with a barrage of letters, shapes, words, and ideas. With this new sea of printed verbiage, sight became the primary, favored sense, and the ability to clearly read was rendered even more important for everyday people navigating their surroundings.

William Sidney Mount (American, 1807–68)
California News, 1850
Oil on canvas, 21 ½ x 20 ¼ in.
Long Island Museum, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Ward Melville, 1955

William Sidney Mount’s California News presents a group of Americans inside a post office in an undisclosed location, likely in or near an East Coast urban center. The disparate figures in the picture, including a white child, a young white woman, and a Black man, among others, appear focused on the information contained in the copy of the New York Daily Tribune held by a young white man seated at the table in the foreground. Aside from the newspaper, the second most prominent text in the picture is a large advertisement posted to the back wall publicizing passage to San Francisco via the railroad. The California Gold Rushes of the 1840s and 50s fascinated and tempted Easterners, and art historian Peter John Brownlee has noted that this composition does a particularly good job of collapsing the vast space of the expansive United States, linking readers in Boston to those in California.

Richard Caton Woodville (American, 1825–55)
War News from Mexico, 1848
Oil on canvas, 27 x 25 in.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2010.74
Photography by Edward C. Robinson III

Richard Caton Woodville was born into a prominent Baltimore family, but left for Germany in 1845 at age 20 to enroll at the Düsseldorf Academy. Woodville remained in Europe until 1851, executing some of his best known pictures like War News from Mexico, Politics in an Oyster House, and Waiting for the Stage in London and Paris. Given Woodville’s expatriate status, it is not surprising that many of his compositions include references to travel and communication over distance.

War News from Mexico, perhaps Woodville’s most well-known work, presents a group of Americans eagerly digesting the latest updates from the front lines of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). A hierarchy of Americans of the time—white men within the central space of the porch, with women and a Black man and child on the fringes—all gaze toward the newspaper at the center of the composition. The outcome of this conflict had far-reaching implications for many men, women, and children living in the United States, as it was still unclear whether the practice of slavery would be extended to the regions ceded by Mexico. In this microcosm of American society, access to information and the ability to read is equated to personal agency and freedom.

Richard Caton Woodville (American, 1825–5
Politics in an Oyster House, 1848
Oil on fabric, 16 ¼ x 13 1/16 in.
The Walters Art Museum, Gift of C. Morgan Marshall, 1945, 37.1994

This small picture was painted for prominent Baltimore lawyer and inventor John H. B. Latrobe, son of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. The two men in this picture have finished their meal and appear to be discussing a perspective from the newspaper grasped by the young man wearing a top hat on the right side of the composition. While the young man appears animated and earnest, fueled by the political perspectives in his newspaper, the older man has removed his spectacles in his right hand and gazes out at the viewer with a look of amusement or resignation.

Art historian John Wilmerding has noted that this picture grounds ideas about the relationship between sight, intellect, and the visual representation of optical aids in American painting, while also reflecting an interest in growing rates of literacy within the American populace and narrating themes surrounding the expectation of new and faster modes of communication during the 19th century. Woodville’s compositions effectively link the idea of a physical exterior with that of a psychological interior, revealing some of the ways that American 19th-century academic painters employed the motif of eyeglasses to function as agents of ideological clarification and highlighting the importance of the roles of these devices in educating citizens of the young Democracy.

Richard Caton Woodville (American, 1825–55)
Waiting for the Stage, 1851
Oil on canvas, 15 x 18 1/8 in.
National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund, William A. Clark Fund, and through the gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Lansdell K. Christie and Orme Wilson), 2014.79.36

Waiting for the Stage provides a window into a tavern, a common waiting space for stagecoaches. Gathered around a table are three men: two are engaged in a game of cards, while the third stands and ostensibly reads a newspaper. Two details about the standing figure—both the newspaper’s masthead which reads “THE SPY” and the figure’s dark glasses—indicate that there may be more going on in this picture than a simple card game. The standing figure’s dark glasses, while usually associated with blindness, conceal where he may actually be looking. Further, it is unclear whether the three men in the composition are actually traveling or just pretending to travel, complicating the narrative of a picture that is all about sight, deception, and the importance of a good poker face.

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926)
Reading Le Figaro, 1878
Oil on canvas, 40 x 31 ½ in.
Private Collection
Photo © Christie’s Images
Licensed by Bridgeman Images

Born in Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts during the Civil War. In 1866, she departed for Europe, settling in Paris to study Old Master works at the Louvre and work with local teachers, with additional travel to France and Spain. Her friendship with artist Edgar Degas led to an invitation to join the French Impressionist movement, the only woman and American to be treated as a peer. While Cassatt never married or had children of her own, her gender meant that she had access to tender domestic scenes for her pictures. Accordingly, her body of work includes an extensive group of compositions featuring women and children in private moments like bathing, nursing, and reading. This portrait of Mary’s mother, Katherine Kelso Johnston Cassatt, presents the subject wearing a pair of glasses that pinch her nose called a “pince-nez,” focused on reading the French daily newspaper Le Figaro.

Printed by Stacys’ Prints (Burlington, Vermont)
M’Neil & Ross Ferry! Horse Boat Eclipse, 1844
Ink on paper, 19 11/16 x 17 1/8 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, Gift of Mrs. Patrick Hill, 1981-59.2
Photography by Andy Duback

This Vermont broadside used a variety of eye-catching typefaces to attract passengers to the horse boat ferry, Eclipse, which operated between Charlotte, Vermont, and Essex, New York in the 1840s. The large block letters that inform readers about the horse boat Eclipse stand out against the neutral paper, while additional details like departure times are printed in smaller type below. The boat had two paddlewheels, each powered by a team of three horses walking on a treadmill.  The boat was first used in New York City and gradually moved up the Hudson River as it was replaced by steam powered vessels.  The remains of the decommissioned vessel are said to be buried in the sand near the Charlotte Ferry landing.



Moveable Type from the Print Shop at Shelburne Museum, 2021
Photography by Andy Duback

The Shelburne Museum print shop houses a variety of 19th- and 20th-century presses and a vast collection of movable type highlighting the technological changes that transformed communication during the period. Movable type comes in a broad variety of both pragmatic and highly decorative forms. Early movable type was carved from wooden blocks; later type was cast from steel, which proved more durable over time under the tremendous pressure of the letterpress. The various forms could be combined in many ways, allowing a printmaker to create eye-catching designs on paper.

Unidentified maker
H. L. Adams Optician’s Trade Sign, date unknownPainted iron, 10 ½ x 30 x 1 ¼ in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, Gift of Roger Wentworth, 1964-64
Photography by Andy Duback

Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb was one of the earliest collectors of American folk art. The most desirable forms often combined a lively graphic sensibility with a strong sense of everyday practicality. Accordingly, the Museum’s collection of trade signs includes easily identifiable oversized forms like a milliner’s top hat, cobbler’s boots and shoes, a jeweler’s pocket watch, a pharmacist’s mortar and pestle, a locksmith’s skeleton key, and more. This factory-made sign, individualized with the optician’s name, used to hang in Manchester Center, Vermont.

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Unidentified maker
Spectacle-Optometrist’s Trade Sign, 1867-1900
Wood, paint, glass, and iron, 29 x 82 x 3 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, Museum purchase, 1947, 1961-1.36
Photography by Andy Duback

Trade signs by usually anonymous carvers and painters flourished as both practical and visually witty sculptural objects. By necessity, many of these forms were larger than life and intended to hang over shop or office doors, indicating the types of merchandise or professional services offered within. As legible at a distance as it is close up, the unmistakable meaning of this large, carved wood pair of spectacles would have been comprehendible to passersby no matter how clear their vision or ability to read.

Ralph Fasanella (American, 1914–97)
Blind News Dealer, 1947
Oil on canvas, 39 x 39 in.
American Folk Art Museum, gift of Eva Fasanella, 2004.27.1
Licensed by Art Resource
© Ralph Fasanella

Prior to the advent of the internet newspapers historically served a critical role in society, making a plethora of ideas available to a wide range of people from many walks of life. Ralph Fasanella’s Blind News Dealer, ensconced in his newsstand, peers out at the world through the lenses of his dark shades. While Fasanella’s early background was as a light industry worker and labor organizer, he turned to art-making in the 1940s and was “discovered” when his work was featured on the cover of New York magazine in 1972. The feature framed Fasanella as a “primitive” artist, and while he disliked the label, the recognition allowed him to focus full-time on creating compositions filled with questions about politics, leisure, notable events, and life in New York. Rather than literal sight, Fasanella seems to indicate that the news dealer maintains a kind of inner vision, a way to tell truth from fiction in the customers and headlines of the day.