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The Color Explosion: Nineteenth-Century American Lithography from the Jay T. Last Collection

October 17, 2009 - February 22, 2010



The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens highlights the largest private collection of color lithography in the United States with the exhibition "The Color Explosion: Nineteenth-Century American Lithography from the Jay T. Last Collection," on view October 17, 2009 - Februrary 22, 2010, in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. Color lithography revolutionized the printing industry in 19th century America and brought art, literature, and music to the masses. The exhibition features about 250 objects, including advertising posters, art prints, calendars, children's books, product labels, sales catalogs, sheet music, toys and games, and trade cards. (right: California & Oregon Stage Company advertising poster, lithographed by Britton & Rey (San Francisco), ca. 1870. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © The Huntington)

The Jay T. Last collection -- about 135,000 objects in all -- has never before been on public view, and is a promised gift to The Huntington. "The collection opens a wide window onto the developing field of graphic arts as a means of expressing cultural ideas," says David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library.

Lithography was invented in the 1790s by Alois Senefelder, a young German playwright who sought a cheaper and faster way to publish his plays. Unlike copper engraving or woodblock printing, the newer printmaking process did not require any cutting into metal or wood. Basically, an image was drawn with a greasy crayon onto a flat block of limestone. The lithographer applied water to the stone and then a layer of ink. The ink adhered to the greasy surface but nowhere else, as the lithographer then pressed paper against the block to produce an image.

"The printing technique was a great achievement," says David Mihaly, curator of the exhibition and curator of lithographic history and ephemera at The Huntington," but its full impact wasn't felt until color entered the picture in the mid-19th century."

Early in the 19th century lithographers used only black ink and recruited workers to Hand color illustrations for books. American print shops started applying multiple colors beginning in the 1840s, leading to the proliferation of color on book illustrations, sheet music, and maps. By the 1870s, salesmen were pitching products using graphic trade cards and catalogs, and women and men alike beautified their homes with purchases of color prints, city views, posters, and wall calendars. (left: "American Autumn," lithographed by Thomas Sinclair (Philadelphia), 1867. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © The Huntington)

The exhibition shows the veritable explosion of color that filtered to consumers in mid-19th century America. Among the items on view will be a sampling of lithography that found its way to the shelves of general stores, including labels from food cans, cigar boxes, and fruit crates. The invention of lithography has a direct link to the early history of branding and advertising, as manufacturers and merchants began to recognize the powerful appeal of a package over the actual product. Generic goods in barrels, jars, bins, and sacks were replaced by brand name products in boxes, cans, cartons, and wrappers. Color lithographed labels provided crucial identification and promotion in a sea of consumer choices.

Lithography not only changed the way consumers interpreted the world but also the way merchants constructed the space for selling products. On cigar boxes, for example, large labels were pasted inside lids that were then opened and displayed on shelves and counters in tobacco shops, saloons, and hotels. Smaller labels on exterior lids and sides provided easy identification when boxes were closed. Cigar box labels remained a staple of lithographic production until American consumers traded cigars for cigarettes in the early 1900s and the need for labels shrank with the package size.

Color lithography dramatically altered a publishing world that had previously been constricted by the limits of hand coloring. Natural history books of mammals, birds, fish, flowers, and fruit abounded -- gift books with color lithographed frontispieces and presentation pages commonly appeared -- and frequent texts about scientific treatises, medical reports, government land surveys, and architecture made special use of color to convey complex information. (right: Product label for Yule Tide Brand Oranges, lithographed by Los Angeles Lithographic Co., ca. 1895. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © The Huntington)

Lithographers also applied their skills to the depiction of current events. As advances in printing accelerated production and lowered costs, lithographed prints became popular news sources and helped launch the field of pictorial journalism. In one of the earlier examples of this trend, New York lithographer Henry Robinson produced Battle of Buena Vista shortly after that 1847 Mexican-American War confrontation.

"In short, color lithography transformed American culture," says Mihaly. The ubiquity of examples from the Last Collection extends to seed catalogs, sheet music, and toys and games. The well- known game pioneer Milton Bradley got his start as a lithographer. In the early 1860s, he created and printed a simple lithographed board game called The Checkered Game of Life. Bradley continued as a general lithographer of labels, posters, and book illustrations but also became one of America's biggest game manufacturers by the 1870s and helped launch the American toy industry.


Education Room

The exhibition includes an education room featuring printing demonstrations, a tools and techniques station, and an interactive spin-the-wheel game. Children and families will have an opportunity to learn about the five major stages of lithographic production: stone preparation, drawing on stone, application of water and ink, printing, and cleaning the stone for the next job. An antique lithographic press will be on display in the main gallery.


Jay T. Last

Collector Jay T. Last, a physicist and founder of Fairchild Semiconductor Corp., is also an independent scholar of the history of lithography. His award-winning book The Color Explosion: Nineteenth-Century American Lithography (Hillcrest Press, 2005) will serve as the exhibition catalog. Last's promised gift to The Huntington will serve as a significant scholarly resource in social history as well as the history of commercial advertising and the graphic arts. When combined with The Huntington's other holdings in graphic arts -- European and American printmaking, book illustration, and design photography (particularly of California and the West) and cartography -- the vastness of the material makes the Library an important center for scholarship in the field. (right: Advertising poster for Mandeville & King Superior Flower Seeds, illustrated by Louis Rhead (New York), ca. 1895. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © The Huntington)

Jay T. Last is considered one of the "fathers" of Silicon Valley. Born in Butler, Penn., in 1929, he graduated from the University of Rochester in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in optics and earned his doctorate in physics from MIT in 1956. Last then worked for William Shockley, who won the 1956 Nobel Prize for his role in the invention of the transistor. In 1957, Last and seven other scientists and engineers left Shockley Semiconductor to form Fairchild Semiconductor Corp., the firm that produced the first planar silicon diffused transistors. Fairchild helped establish Silicon Valley as a center for technological innovation and entrepreneurialism. At Fairchild, Last directed the group that produced the first integrated circuit chips. In 1961, Last left Fairchild to start Amelco Semiconductor as a division of Teledyne, Inc. A few years later he became the vice president of technology for the parent company in Los Angeles.

As Last was working in Silicon Valley, he also pursued his passion for collecting. He began acquiring African Art in the early 1960s. An interest in fruit-box labels in the 1970s sparked a passion for color lithography that would lead to his amassing about 135,000 printed items, most of them created in 19th-century America when techniques in lithographic color printing were rapidly developing. Last's collection is rich in books, advertising posters, product labels, sheet music covers, trade cards, historical prints, railroad ephemera, and city views from this era. In 2006 he announced his plans to donate to The Huntington the entire collection, which is now being transferred and cataloged. Last also has provided funds to support a curator of lithographic history and ephemera.

Last's interest in the history of lithography extends to his own independent scholarship. He is the author of The Color Explosion: Nineteenth-Century American Lithography; he is co-author, with Gordon McClelland, of five other books: California Orange Box Labels, Fruit Box Labels, The California Style, California Watercolor Artists 1925-1950, and California Watercolors 1850-1970.

Last is also a founder and member of the board of directors of the Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization established in 1980 to preserve archaeological sites in the United States. The conservancy, based in Albuquerque, N.M., has helped preserve more than 300 sites in 39 states. In 1999, Last received the Hutchison Medal from the University of Rochester. The award is given annually to a graduate for achievements in business and community service, along with distinguished service to the university. In 2005, he won the Maurice Rickards Award from the Ephemera Society of America for his important contributions to the field of ephemera studies. In 2007 he received the Newman Award for the outstanding book of the year dealing with print studies from the American Historical Print Collectors Society for The Color Explosion. Last lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., with his wife, Deborah.




The Huntington Library is one of the largest and most complete independent research libraries in the United States in its fields of specialization. Only a tiny portion of its collection, composed of approximately 6 million items, is on display at any one time in the Library's Main Exhibition Hall and Dibner Hall of the History of Science. To provide visitors with more access to its holdings, the institution regularly presents changing exhibitions in the West Hall of the Library and the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. Some 1,400 scholars come from around the world every year to conduct advanced humanities research using The Huntington's collections. Through a rigorous peer-review program, The Huntington awards approximately 125 grants annually to scholars in the fields of history, literature, art, and the history of science.



The Huntington's holdings include manuscripts representing English and American history and literature from the 11th century to the present, including European medieval manuscripts, Renaissance exploration and cartography, Latin American history, and the history of science and technology. Particular strengths include Middle English literature, English politics and law in the Early Modern era, the English aristocracy from the later Middle Ages through the 18th century, American colonial history, 18th-century British and American military history, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the exploration and development of the AmericanWest, and California from its discovery to the present. English and American literary collections from the Renaissance to the present are especially strong in material relating to 18th-century Britain, Victorian literature and the pre-Raphaelites, American literature in the second half of the 19th century, and theater and drama covering some 500 years.

A selection of the most famous and interesting items from the manuscript collections are on public display in the Library's Main Exhibition Hall. These include illuminated Books of Hours, the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Renaissance maps, letters and documents by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Henry David Thoreau's autograph manuscript of Walden, records of the California missions, and manuscripts by Jack London, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, Langston Hughes, and Charles Bukowski.


Rare Books

The collection includes printed books from the 15th through the 20th centuries as well as maps, broadsides, pamphlets, newspapers, and many other printed formats. The approximately 410,000 items are concentrated in the field of British and American culture with many topics and periods covered in extraordinary depth.

The Huntington copy of Johann Gutenberg's Bible is one of 11 surviving copies printed on vellum, and one of three such copies in the United States. It was the first substantial book printed with movable type in the West. Printed about 1450-55 in Mainz, Germany, the Bible is in Latin, in the standard medieval Catholic version known as the Vulgate. The Huntington has the second-largest collection of incunabula in the United States, after the Library of Congress. The term designates books printed before 1501 during the infancy, or "in the cradle," of the new technology of the printing press.

One of the Library's most prized works is the first folio edition of William Shakespeare's collected plays, published in 1623, seven years after his death. The first folio contains 36 plays, 18 of them printed for the first time. This "authorized version," prepared by his friends and colleagues from "true originall copies," is the prime source of knowledge of Shakespeare's texts.



The Huntington Library houses approximately 500,000 prints and negatives spanning 1850 to 1950. This collection, which covers a variety of topics from the American Civil War to the building of the transcontinental railroad, from "Grand Tours" of Europe to modest family photograph albums, is particularly strong in depicting the history and development of the American West. Within this broad regional focus are photographs generated by the great surveys of the American West conducted in the 19th century, commissioned by both railroad corporations and the federal government.

The Huntington traditionally has collected the work of noted photographers, most of whom were active professionally at the end of the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th. The collection contains significant bodies of work by Carleton Watkins, Carl Moon, Frederick Monsen, Edward Curtis, Alfred A. Hart, F. Jay Haynes, William Henry Jackson, Adam Clark Vroman, Andrew Russell, Eadweard Muybridge, C. C. Pierce, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Edward Weston, and others.

In recent years The Huntington has acquired the collections of several commercial photographers whose work documents various phases in the history of Southern California and elsewhere. These include the J. Allen Hawkins collection of Pasadena (1910-60), the "Dick" Whittington collection of the development of Southern California in the postwar boom years, the B. D. Jackson collection depicting the developing suburbs of Los Angeles, and the Maynard Parker collection documenting the modern home and garden in mid-20th century Southern California.


Historical Prints

The historical print collection at The Huntington consists of more than 250,000 images that depict aspects of British and American cultural and political life between the 16th and 19th centuries. Produced as separately issued prints and in extra-illustrated books are portraits, historical scenes and events, political and social caricatures, theatrical and literary history, illustrations to Shakespeare's plays, biblical illustrations, British and American views, and British and American trade cards.

The print collection also is rich in portraiture and iconographic figures and is representative of the history and technical development of printmaking processes through the mid-20th century. This includes a selection of tools and equipment involved in early printmaking. Finally, the collection also includes the work of various well-known engravers and the output of key American, British, and European publishers.



Printed ephemera, that body of material that was produced for a one-time, limited purpose, can be understood generally as transient documents of everyday life. The Huntington's collection of ephemera is an expansive archive of several hundred thousand pieces. The variety of subjects and formats represented in the larger collection support historical research in the fields of American and British cultural studies. The collection emphasizes Western history and culture, especially that of Southern California.

Formats include but are not limited to citrus crate labels, campaign buttons, scrapbooks, maps, sheet music, promotional literature, postcards, playbills, and posters. Subjects include but are not limited to American politics, the development of Southern California, theater and performing arts history, 20th-century American railroads, and commerce and advertising.

Noteworthy collections include the L. E. Behymer archive of early Southern California cultural events, the Diana Korzenik collection of art education ephemera, the John Haskell Kemble collection of maritime ephemera, and the Jay T. Last collection of lithographic and social history.


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