Flashback Friday: Newspaper Portraits from 1888

In December 1888, the Lincoln Nebraska State Journal published four different articles about four different men, all published over four days. The only problem was they used the same exact illustration for every single one and hardly anyone noticed.

The faces in illustrated newspapers of the late nineteenth century often seem surprisingly similar. Engravings of U.S. congressmen, patent medicine purveyors, actresses, soldiers, and other notables attract the eye but contain few distinguishing features other than the style of hair or beard. A modern reader, more accustomed to variety, might end up suspecting that only a few human models must have inspired these portraits.

In December 1888, the Lincoln Nebraska State Journal published a series of brief articles questioning the value of many pictures that appeared in illustrated newspapers. The first article, on December 18, 1888, introduced the portrait of a nondescript man with hair, beard, and mustache arranged in a contemporary style and identified as “Col. Colorow, the famous [Ute-Apache] Indian chief whose death was reported the other day.”

The next day the Journal ran the same picture, this time identified as U.S. Senator Harrison H. Riddleberger of Virginia, lauded for his efforts “to paralyze the rum power.” On December 20, an identical picture was published under the name of Jack the Ripper! The December 21 issue labeled the now familiar bearded face the next speaker of the Nebraska House of Representatives. The climax came on December 22 when the picture appeared in the columns of the Journal for the fifth consecutive day, identified as politician C. H. Van Wyck.

Throughout, readers were invited to note the man’s features-the “low beetling brow” of Jack the Ripper, the “intellectual face” of the speaker of the Nebraska House. The supposed artists were variously identified: an imported student of the “old masters at Rome and Venice,” “a special artist in the JOURNAL’S employ.” The unnamed author of the series plainly demonstrated the irrelevance of the pictures to the stories they were intended to illustrate.

The advent of photography opened a new range of possibilities for illustrating newspapers and other publications. Readers were no longer at the mercy of writers to identify and interpret illustrations.

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