The locomotive industry emerged in mid-nineteenth-century America with the development and rapid expansion of the railroad network. As the number of locomotive manufacturers increased, the industry became intensely competitive, and builders vied with one another to capture the attention of railroad companies, officials, and agents. The first locomotive builders’ prints were created in the late 1830s and ‘40s in response to this industry competition. These lithographic portraits of locomotives were soon considered to be essential to the manufacturers’ promotion of their machines. Locomotive builders’ prints differed from ordinary advertising prints or landscape views with picturesque trains. Instead, they were a unique type of print, a hybrid designed both to attract potential customers and to provide accurate technical information about locomotive engines and cars.
The earliest locomotive builders’ prints were issued as black-and-white line drawings of a locomotive engine and car. The locomotive was shown in side elevation on railroad tracks with little or no reference to the surrounding environment. The trains were frequently drawn to scale, and textual information about the weight and various dimensions of the locomotive were printed below the image. Many of these drawings were the work of mechanical engineers employed by locomotive manufacturers. For example, Oliver E. Cushing (fl. 1850s) was employed as a mechanical draftsman in the Lowell Machine Shop when he created the design seen in Locomotive Engine for Passengers, as Built for the Lowell Machine Shop, Lowell, Mass. 1852. Matthias N. Forney (1835-1908), designer, builder, and editor of the Railroad Gazette, was a young draftsman at the Hinkley and Williams Works when his drawing of the Dakota locomotive was printed by J. H. Bufford in The Hinkley and Williams Works 552 Harrison Avenue, Boston. Although it is unclear if these engineering draftsmen actually drew the images on the lithographic stone, they nonetheless played an important role in the production of these prints. Their accurate and detailed drawings not only gave credibility to the depiction of the locomotive but also communicated important technical information to prospective clients. Few locomotives of this early era survive intact or unaltered, and locomotive builders’ prints provide a valuable visual record of these machines in their original state.
With the introduction of chromolithography in the 1840s and ‘50s, locomotive manufacturers began commissioning color prints of their engines. Early American locomotives were often painted and colorfully decorated; chromolithographic locomotive builders’ prints offer a rare insight into the decorative designs, finishes, and materials favored by manufacturers. The use of color in the 1850s ushered in what has been called the golden age of the locomotive builders’ prints. Larger in scale than the prints of the 1830s and early 1840s, they were composed of bold, opaque colors with glittering bronze and metallic powders. As locomotive manufacturers competed for the customer’s eye, lithographic artists began portraying locomotives in landscapes often with reference to the factories in which they were built. A wonderful example of this is J. H. Bufford’s print, Amoskeag Manufacturing Co., Manchester, N.H. Here the locomotive, shown in the foreground and in side elevation, is still the main subject of the composition. But the surrounding landscape with its dramatic view of the firm’s factories and their belching chimney stacks conveys a powerful vision of industrial America, certain to impress itself upon the mind of any railroad client.
These lavish prints were much prized by locomotive manufacturers. The daguerreotype, Hyram White, Engineer, Taunton Locomotive Works, depicts White holding a locomotive builders’ print, and reflects the designer’s pride in both the engine and its elegant lithographic portrait. The November 8, 1856 issue of the Railroad Advocate stated that these prints were the “appropriate adornments for the offices of every variety of business connected with railroads; they are consulted by master mechanics and locomotive buyers; they are the master-pieces in the parlors of many engineers of good taste. . . .” The time and money invested in producing locomotive builders’ prints indicates that they were not typical advertising ephemera. In fact, they were clearly designed as framing prints to be hung in railroad offices and depots, hotels, saloons, and parlors where they might seduce not only prospective buyers but the general traveling public as well.
These exuberant productions were costly, however, and in the 1860s, manufacturers began to use the more cost-efficient medium of photography to advertise their locomotives. Lithographic prints were soon phased out and The Hinkley Locomotive Works, Boston, drawn on stone by Dominick I. Drummond and printed by Charles H. Crosby in the early 1870s, was one of the last of the great locomotive show cards of the era. But photographic locomotive prints continued the earlier conventions of depicting the engine and cars in side elevation with weight and measurements provided on printed mounts as in James Wallace Black’s photograph, Eastern Railroad Company.
Although the locomotive builders’ print mirrored the rise and decline of the locomotive industry, they have proven to be more resilient than the heavy equipment they portrayed. Today they are often the sole historic record of these “iron horses.” As noted by the Railroad Advocate in the issue cited above, these prints “[w]hen showy they attract attention, when accurate they give dimensions and details, and in all cases they constitute a better than . . . written history of the American Locomotive.”
Curator of Prints & Photographs
E. P. Alexander, Iron Horses American Locomotives 1829-1900. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1941).
David Rousar, “Images of Iron Makers’ Pride,” Imprint 33 (Autumn 2008): 2-18.
John H. White, Jr., “Locomotives on Stone,” Smithsonian Journal of History 1 (Spring 1966): 49-60.