Illustrated Histories and the American Imagination, 1840-1900

Written by Gregory Pfitzer

In this online exhibit, explore and contrast the production histories of two mid-19th-century pictorial history projects.

Through interactive graphics, magnified images and text, come to understand the personal agendas and the two-way and three-way collaborations at work in the making of pictorial histories; that is, the relationships among publishers, artists and historians.


Consider how visual history gradually overcame anti-pictorialism in the nineteenth century.

Part I

Focus on the creation of John Frost's Pictorial History of the United States, published in 1844, and the early obstacles to the rise of illustrated histories.

Part II

Compare that to Jesse Spencer's History of the United States, printed in 1858, and the golden age of pictorial history.


How pictures came to assume a larger responsibility for conveying historical meaning and the consequences of that shift.

Inside the exhibit, navigate in these ways:

  • use the arrows at the bottom of the page, or
  • select an item from the outline on the right of the page, or
  • click on sections of the interactive Venn diagram—the colorful illustration of overlapping ovals

Consider these questions as you navigate the exhibit:

  1. In what ways is the past understood differently when it is presented in pictures and words rather than in traditional literary form merely?
  2. How do illustrations interact with the narrative discourses in these volumes and how do various word/image combinations condition, alter and even distort the past?
  3. What does the popularity of pictorial history tell us about the visual literacy and reading habits of nineteenth-century Americans?
Enter the exhibit

Reprinted from Picturing the Past: Illustrated Histories and the American Imagination, 1840-1900 by Gregory M. Pfitzer (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press). Used by permission of the Smithsonian Institution. Copyright 2002.