This is the fourth of six entries on identifying commercial processes used in early collectibles. This entry is on 19th and early 20th color lithography which was used to make everything from tobacco cards and postcards to silent movie posters and advertising signs, and is known for its beautiful colors and vivid graphics. Happily for collectors, early color lithography is easy to identify.
1800s ‘handmade’ color lithography
1800s color lithography, sometimes called by the nickname chromolithography, was used to print a variety of the most beautiful sports collectables. The key to realize is that these prints were made before the modern half-tone ‘dot’ lithography used to make modern trading cards and reprints. The technique of reproducing painting or photograph into that fine pattern on dots you see on a modern baseball card or magazine picture didn’t exist for 1800s lithography.
The lithographs in the 1800s were ‘hand made,’ meaning the desgns on the printing plates were made by hand and hand-held tools. This is the same by hand way famous artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall made their original lithographs that hang in museums. An 1800s Allen & Ginter baseball card or advertising poster is as much an original work of art as an original Rembrandt print.
As far as identifying handmade printing, that the graphics were made by hand means the resulting print closely resemble paintings or color sketches, both at the naked eye level and even under the microscope.
1800s lithography come in different styles, depending on the taste of the artist and what tools used. Many resemble watercolor or gouache paintings, even up close up and under a magnifying glass. Some resemble crayon or chalk sketches, even up close and under a magnifying glass.
The designs sometimes have ‘stipple’ dots for shading. These dots were added onto the printing plate by hand or hand roller. They key is, unlike the complete dot pattern on a modern reprint or baseball card, the dots were added here and there, often for tone and shading. Up close they look as if they were added by hand, as if on a painting or color pen sketch.
Click on the two links below for super large blow ups of 1880s tobacco cards to see that, even up close, the 1800s lithography resembles paintings or sketches. Notice how there are the stipple dots in some areas, but solid colors and solid lines in areas. Looking at these two links you will see what real handmade lithography looks like and won’t have trouble identifying it.
As the following two microscopic pictures show, even under the microscope the handmade lithographs resemble watercolor paintings. The watery lithography ink settled similar to watercolor paint, settling darker in areas and often creating an irregular dark rim at the edges:
The following two pictures show the handmade lithography on an early 1900s movie poster. In this case the lithography resembles a charcoal sketch, even up close.
Early 1900s Color Lithography
While many early 1900s lithographs were still handmade the 1800s way, and artist continued to made handmade prints, the introduction of the half-tone or ‘dot pattern’ printing process was introduced in he early 1900s. As already mentioned, the half-tone or ‘dot process’ is the printing method of reproducing graphics into that fine pattern of color dot you see in a modern magazine or trading card images. However, early 1900s halftone lithography is distinctly different looking the modern halftone lithography and is easy to identify.
In this early halftone printing, there is a dot pattern but, especially under the microscope, the dots are much more irregular. As with 1800s lithography, the ink was thin and watery and, under the microscope, the printing also closely resembles a watercolor painting. For many early baseball halftone prints, such as the T206s, there were was only a black dot pattern in areas and not in others, and many colors were added in solid in. Up close, and in particular under the microscope, these early 1900s halftone lithographs are easy to differentiate from the fine multicolored dot pattern of a modern halftone lithograph.
Click here to see a blow-up of a T206 Christy Mathewson. Notice how there are dots, mostly black and only in areas, and there are also areas of solid color. This is distinctly different from a modern halftone lithograph image that would have a fine multicolored dot pattern throughout the entire player image.
To end this column, I’ll add a short gallery of early color lithographs to illustrate why they’re so popular with collectors and often considered works of art.