by Adie Steinfeld, 2021 Joseph C Burke and Joan T. Burke Scholarship Recipient
Introduction to Miner’s Works on Paper
William Henry Miner produced everything from books to calendars to postcards of Heart’s Delight Farm, Chazy, and the North Country. His postcard collections showcased the farm and the work he was doing in this region. They were likely being sent out to business associates, friends, and family as collectibles or share brief news.
The Golden Age of Postcards
Miner’s production of postcards coincided with a Golden Age for the media. 1907 to 1915 saw what is known as the Golden Age of Postcards both in the United States and internationally. This was sparked by advances in photography and printing that made them easier and cheaper to produce. Postcards allowed people access to photographs and imagery that was previously inaccessible. Just like today, it was common for people to collect these postcards rather than send them as correspondence. Even when sent with an accompanying message it was often brief and stated nothing of importance. The production of postcards was also more accessible. Almost anyone could send a photograph to a printer for a mail order postcard contract and receive their very own custom postcards, leading to the production of postcards for nearly every town and site in the country.
W.H. Miner’s Postcards
The postcards that Miner produced generally depicted scenes of Heart’s Delight Farm and his other undertakings in the North Country, including a series for the Alice T. Miner Museum, the Physicians Hospital, and Kent Delord House. Luckily, Miner took numerous photos of the farm and his projects. As a result, we can see that most of the images used in postcards come directly from his own photographs. Most of the postcards feature a black and white photograph, but in a few cases, he produced colored images of these photographs. This collection of postcards here—what we will call his 1911 series–show familiar buildings and scenes, glimpses of working on Heart’s Delight Farm, several of the farm’s famous animals, and scenes of nature.
Production of Postcards
At the turn of the century photography was becoming more accessible to the upper middle class, with more families owning their own cameras. Lithography, a printing technique, was also gaining popularity as it allowed for printing at larger quantities and was easier and more versatile than other types of printing such as woodcuts and engravings. These two factors, along with some legislation that allowed people to write on the back rather than the image of the postcard, combined to ignite the boom in postcards popularity.
The lithographic process is based primarily on the principle that water and oil do not mix. Originally discovered by Alios Senefelder, the process originally utilized a block of limestone, but has since been developed to work with aluminum, mylar, and zinc plates. An image is “etched” into the surface through a chemical process which ultimately makes specific areas repel water and others attract water. An oil-based ink is then applied to the areas repelling water and the image is printed. Some common printing techniques during Miner’s time are listed below.
This is a technique that creates prints from a gelatin surface through the lithographic process. A photographic negative is used to create a continuous tone printing surface on the gelatin. The use of light sensitive materials allows for the transfer of the image, as the gelatin hardens where it was exposed to light through the photo negative.
This process is very similar in principle to collotype, in that it is a photomechanical lithographic process. Instead of producing a continuous tone with the gelatin, photolithography uses a halftone screen to reproduce the tones of a photograph. This image is then transferred to the lithographic stone or plate via exposure of a light sensitive material.
Like the previous two techniques, this printing technique uses a photo negative and light sensitive materials. Unlike the two previous techniques which are both lithographic, this is an etching technique. A copper plate is grained in a process similar to aquatint. Then a light sensitive image is applied to the copper plate and the areas that harden act as a resist to the acid that etches the plate.
Recognizing Printing Techniques
It isn’t known how much attention Miner paid to how his postcards were produced, beyond their final aesthetic appeal. We can see examples of these three contemporary printing techniques in his collections. Distinguishing between these printing techniques can often be done visually, usually with the aid of a microscope.
When identifying collotypes, one is looking for a characteristic reticulated pattern–a series of irregular, crescent-like shapes. In contrast, a photolithograph, when under a microscope, shows a matrix of dots. Photo engravings also show a gravure pattern under magnification.
In studying the postcards from Miner’s 1911 series under a microscope, we can see the reticulated pattern of the collotype. This series of images was also colored, this could have been accomplished by hand coloring the images with watercolor or pastel, or by utilizing additional plates in the printing process. In some cases, with these we can see embellishment to the original image, combining images and perhaps adding some animals that weren’t there initially.
In contrast, some of his other series, such as the one done for the Alice T. Miner Museum in 1924 are likely photo engravings. We are lucky enough to have a number of printing plates from several of Miner’s later postcard runs, all of which appear to be photo engravings, as they are copper plates with an etched image.
There are still other postcards he produced whose printers utilized other techniques. In one image printed in Germany we see the use of photolithography by a dot matrix that is visible under the microscope.
1911 Postcard Collection