Today’s post is contributed by inveterate MissPreser Ed Polk Douglas:
Early in 2019, in doing some research on another topic, I was reminded of the existence of a folio- sized volume, originally issued in 9 paper folders, called Art Work of Mississippi/Gravure Illustration Company of Chicago/1901. I had seen other volumes of this type before–either about cities, regions, or, like this one, states(there are two editions of such a volume about nearby Rochester [1896 and 1913])–and I began to search the net to see if the MS volume was ‘around’ and if it had been digitized. I discovered that a few of the major institutions of higher learning in MS–U of MS, USM, MSU, plus MDAH–had copies (as did the Birmingham, AL, public library), but none of these was digitized.I could well have seen an original volume at USM or MDAH years ago, but any notes I took then were long-gone.
This ‘Art Works of …’ series is oddly named for it wasn’t about the fine arts in each locale, but was created to showcase the ‘accomplishments’ of the places portrayed, and, as such, included a short text (authors often unacknowledged) accompanied by handsome illustrations of important civic, commercial, religious, educational, medical, fraternal, and domestic structures plus streetscapes, cemeteries, and parks. Most were created before 1925, and, as one can imagine, each shows both extant buildings and scenery but also spots which have been changed and/or destroyed; thus, these works are a fascinating but often depressing look at the past.
Serendipitously, I remembered that an organization devoted to creating digital access to Mississippiana was based at USM (in my hometown of Hattiesburg), the location of a copy of Art Work of Mississippi (Special Collections, The University Southern Mississippi Libraries). So, through various avenues, supported by a number of friends in academia and historic preservation, I was able to convince the wonderful staff at MS Digital Library that ‘worldwide access’ to this volume would be of value. This has just happened, and I want to share my excitement with you.
Things were still very tough in 1900 for many residents of Mississippi, but Art Work… attempts to show that life was moving ‘onward and upward.’ The first photos would now be considered ‘politically incorrect’–the Confederate Dead monument in Jackson, two grand Natchez antebellum homes (“Dunleith” and “Stanton Hall”[then Stanton College], and blacks picking cotton–but, that was then. My collation of the book’s contents is interesting and reflects what an outside source, presumably with ‘in-state’ assistance”, considered important in 1900. Those results are as follows(and, this material is scattered throughout the nine sections, with no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the photos): 17 pages of text(a summary of Mississippi’s history to date, most of the emphasis on ‘early times’); 17 photos of Vicksburg; 11 of Jackson; 10 each of Natchez and Yazoo City; 8 of Columbus; 7 each of Meridian and Greenville; 5 each of Oxford and Greenwood; and, finally, 2 of cotton fields. There were no images of Holly Springs, Corinth, Aberdeen, Port Gibson, Hattiesburg, or Biloxi. The paper covers of each section are in a flamboyant Art Nouveau style.
My research on the publisher, Gravure Illustration Company, Chicago, is just beginning. I have yet to find out how long the company was in business, but volumes known to me date from the 1890s until the mid-1920s. The coverage across the country was incredibly wide, and some volumes were larger than others, with several editions. Yet-to-be answered questions include the authors of the respective texts and to the creators of the fine photography, which is reproduced beautifully; in the case of the latter, the ‘style’ of the photography in each of the volumes I have seen is rather uniform, so maybe the company had a team of photographers that traveled around. There is a chance that one could pay to be included, and, in fact, I believe I have seen some of the photos in some of the volumes copied in other books or as post cards.
At the present time, volumes from this series, when they surface in the marketplace, are expensive; interestingly, two companies in India have started reproducing some of them, in two formats, at very reasonable prices, but they haven’t tackled the Mississippi volume yet. Needless to say, I wonder about the prices of the original books, how many of each place were printed, etc. I suspect that there were fewer done of Mississippi than of Cincinnati, for example. Since the books were issued in paper folders, the buyer could choose to pay for a fancy binding from another source or not.
Gradually, I hope many of the Art Work of Mississippi images can be posted on this blog, grouped by locale, in the hope that readers will comment on the history and status of the buildings and landscapes shown. In the meantime, I urge all of you to take a look at this remarkable volume ‘in toto’ and ‘enjoy’!