July 15, 2000

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A frustrated, down-at-the-heels Bavarian playwright, along with a deadly disaster at sea and the innovative newspaper publisher who covered the story, all combined to determine what hung on the walls of our great-grandparents' homes.

The playwright was Aloys Senefelder. Pfennigs being tight among beginning playwrights then, as now, he bridled at the amount of scarce money he was spending on having his plays duplicated. Being of an inventive turn of mind, he began looking for another method of duplication. Copper plate engravings were too costly, so he decided to experiment with a rock floor tile. Legend says his mother asked him to jot down a laundry list and that rather than hunting down a pencil (no easier back then) he grabbed a hunk of ink made from dried wax and scribbled onto the floor tile. When he washed it off later he noticed the wax repelled the water. Playing around with this effect, the playwright-inventor added another hyphenate to his job description - lithographer. This was about 1796.

Jump now to 1840. January 13th. The 205-foot wooden steamboat Lexington, with a crew of 40 and over ninety passengers, carrying 150 bales of cotton on deck, is 3-and-a half hours out of New York, plowing eastward through the frigid water of Long Island Sound toward Stonington, Connecticut. A stray smokestack spark lands; quickly several bales of cotton are engulfed in flames. The alarm is given. Crewmen head for the boilers to shut them down and are driven back by the flames. The tiller ropes burn through and the ship plunges through the night, out of control. A rescue ship setting out from Connecticut runs aground and sticks fast. Other available ships are frozen in at their moorings. The three lifeboats of the Lexington, overcrowded with panicking passengers, are swung over the side but all are flipped by the rushing waves, dumping their occupants. One boat is chewed up by one of the steamer's revolving sidewheels. The crewmembers and passengers toss the unburnt bales overboard, hoping to use them for rafts. When the long night is over, the Lexington is at the bottom of the Sound. Exactly four people, clinging to cotton bales, are spared. One survivor washes ashore fifty miles to the east, 43 hours later.

January 14th. Word of the disaster is received in the offices of the New York Sun. Publisher Ben Day knows an headline grabber when he hears one. He sends around to a local lithography studio on Spruce Street, which puts artist W. K. Hewitt on it immediately. In three days, as soon as the plates are ready, the presses roll. Copies of this first illustrated extra-edition newspaper are snapped up by a horrified and fascinated public. It sells out five times. Copies of the print itself are still being purchased eleven months later. And editor Day has spawned more than he realizes. Almost overnight, Hewitt's employer, 28-year-old Nathaniel Currier, gains a national reputation. Twelve years later, when he hires a bookkeeper with artistic ability named James Merritt Ives, a team is born, and a firm name goes generic.

OUTRO For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

 

© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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