Popular print  

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Popular Prints is a term for printed images of generally low artistic quality which were sold cheaply in Europe and later the New World from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, often with text as well as images. They were the first mass media. After about 1800 and the invention of cheap paper, the types and quantity of images greatly increased, but other terms are usually used to categorise them.



From about 1400, there began a "visual revolution that inundated Europe with images during the fifteenth century" (Field) as the woodcut technique was applied to paper ,which was now manufactured in Christian Europe, instead of being imported from Islamic Spain. In the 1400s the great majority of these images were religious, if playing cards are excluded. They were sold at churches, fairs and places of pilgrimage. Most were coloured, usually crudely, by hand or later by stencil. One political cartoon relating to events in 1468-70 has survived in several different versions (many from years later). Old master print is a term that at this period includes popular prints, but later is restricted to more expensive and purely artistic prints.

Although early information as to prices is almost non-existent, it is clear from a number of sources that small woodcuts were affordable by at least the urban working-class, and much of the peasant class as well.

During the middle of the century the quality of the images became typically very low, but there was an improvement towards the end, partly because it was necessary to keep pace with the quality of images in engravings. Engravings were always much more expensive to create, as they needed greater skill to create the plate, which would last for far fewer impressions than a woodcut. They did not come into the popular prints category until the nineteenth century, when different techniques made them much cheaper.


Broadsheets, also known as broadsides, were a common format. They were usually single sheets of paper of various sizes, typically sold by street-vendors. Another format was the chapbook, usually a single sheet cut or folded to make a small pamphlet or book. In Spain there were pliegos, in Portugal the papel volante, and in other countries other names. These covered a great variety of material, including pictures, popular history, political comment or satire, news, almanacs (from c1470), poems and songs. They could be very influential politically, and were often subsidized by political factions for propaganda purposes. See Broadside (music) for their musical use. The Reformation hugely increased the market for satirical and polemical prints in all counties affected. In France the Wars of Religion ,and in England the English Civil War and the political convulsions after the Restoration all produced huge quantities of propaganda and polemic, in images as well as text.

Despite being often issued in large numbers, their survival rate was extremely low, and they are now very rare, with most having not survived at all. This has been demonstrated by analysis of the records of the London Stationers Company's records from 1550 onwards; some blocks were in print for over a century with no copies now surviving. They were very commonly pasted to the walls of rooms. Paper was still sufficiently expensive that all available spare pieces tended to be used in the toilet.

After 1600

Newspapers began in the early 1600s, as an upmarket and expensive form of broadsheet (still a term for a large-format newspaper). The first in English came in 1620. [1] During this century books also became much cheaper, and began to replace some types of popular print. These trends continued during the next century, and although most of the traditional types of popular print lived on until the nineteenth century or beyond, they were by then part of a much wider print culture, and the term is generally not used of them. One type of publication continuing into the twentieth century is the Brazilian cordel literature ("string literature" - it is hung on strings by the sellers) that continue to use woodcuts, and is part of a continuous tradition going back to the Portuguese papel volante of the seventeenth century. Lubok prints in Russia were another local variant.

See also



  • Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640,Cambridge UP,1991
  • Richard Field, Fifteenth Century Woodcuts and Metalcuts, National Gallery of Art,1965
  • A Hyatt Major, Prints and People,Metropolitan Museum of Art,1971 (reprints Princeton, 1980),ISBN 0-691-00326-2

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Popular print" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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