As the nascent railroad industry gained hold and began to expand into new regions, the demand for equipment with which to operate increased dramatically. The first machinery was imported from England, the birthplace of the industrial revolution, and the only place where locomotive designers and mechanics had any experience in the new technology. But, within just a few years, mechanics in the United States learned, copied and then pioneered their own designs. The dramatic increase in rail building was accompanied by an ever-increasing number of mechanics that entered the business of locomotive building. So, with the entry into the market of each new locomotive factory, the competition increased between the builders.
Because the locomotive was such a new invention, and railway promoters were often ignorant of mechanics, locomotive builders soon found it convenient to supplement their correspondence with simple lithograph images of their latest product. Of course, it was only natural that one entrepreneur or another would begin to produce more elaborate presentations of their products in an effort to sway the opinions of prospective customers in favor of their designs. So, the natural result of this competitive frenzy was the creation and production of an industrial fine art form displaying some of the highest levels of the lithographers’ skill.
The lithographic process
The art of stone lithography, by which all of the early lithographs were produced, has been so thoroughly described in numerous works that it is not necessary to give but a brief description here for the benefit of those new to the subject. Some references will be found on the links page.
Simply put, lithographic printing relies on the fact that oil and water do not mix. An image is created on the printing plate (stone) using oil or grease based material. The plate is then chemically treated, dampened with water and inked. When the paper is pressed onto the plate under pressure, the image is transferred to the paper.
Applying color to the early lithographs was done by printing as described above, by hand coloring or a combination of both. When printed colors were used, extreme care was necessary to position the paper on the plate so that the color matched the boundaries of the basic drawing without overlap in any direction. In the cases where multiple colors were used (15 in one case), the difficulty and expense increased dramatically. In time, the reliance on a single outline drawing containing all of the details as the foundation of the print was replaced by a technique whereby the various overlapping colors alone were used to depict features. This process is called chromolithography.
Proceed to the images page to view a few examples.