Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures

About This Collection

Pictorial sections, once limited to weeklies and periodicals, became part of the daily newspaper in the latter half of the nineteenth century. American newspapers competed for readers using investigative exposes, illustrations, and cartoons. William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer attracted new readers to their papers in the 1890s by using photoengraving to publish news photography.

In the early 1900s, a specialized photoengraving process, that is, rotogravure printing, became the latest tool in the circulation wars. Capable of producing quality halftone reproductions of photography and artwork at a high speed, even on inexpensive newsprint paper, rotogravure printing allowed newspapers to bring high quality illustrations to the masses.

First used in German newspapers, rotogravure was introduced to the American public by the New York Times in a special pictorial section for Christmas, 1912. Beginning March 29, 1914, the Times became one of six newspapers to regularly publish rotogravure art sections as a separate section of the newspaper, mid-week and on Sundays. In 1942 the rotogravure section became a part of its Sunday magazine.

During World War I (1914-18) rotogravure sections captured the details and intensity of the fighting, introduced technological innovations to a curious and interested American public, and documented the work and play of the home front. These pictorials were important tools for promoting U.S. propaganda and influenced how readers viewed world events. Images from the battlefields and dramatic coverage of casualties from the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat contributed to the U.S. decision to join the war.

The Sunday rotogravure sections of two of the most prominent U.S. newspapers of the day, the New York Times and New York Tribune, highlight the variety and diversity of pictorials. In addition to high quality photographs depicting noted personalities of the day, events during the war, celebrations and memorials, and high fashion and the arts, the sections include advertisements.  Rotogravure pictorial sections proved very popular with readers, and more importantly, with advertisers. These sections became the most widely read section of the paper and provided a great opportunity to reach new customers.

This online collection is drawn from three primary sources: The War of the Nations: Portfolio in Rotogravure Etchings, a volume published by the New York Times shortly after the armistice that compiled selected images from their “Mid-Week Pictorial” supplements of 1914-19; Sunday rotogravure sections from the New York Times for 1914-19; and Sunday rotogravure sections from the New York Tribune for 1916-19.

The War of Nations is particularly rich. This volume contains 1,398 rotogravure images with brief descriptive captions, broad organizational headings, and a table of contents; 32 maps that describe military engagements throughout the war; and a 3-page appendix that provides a chronology, statistics, treaty excerpts, and highlights of wartime events.

Rotogravure collections were chosen for digitization since few quality originals exist in newspaper format due to paper deterioration. Although microfilm of the New York Times and Tribune is readily available both in the Library’s Newspaper & Current Periodical Room and in many libraries across the country, pictorial reproduction on microfilm is so poor as to make them unusable. Rotogravure images in particular are of such poor quality on microfilm that they fail to meet most user needs. Whole sections were digitized to faithfully represent integration of rotogravure pages with the rest of the New York Times and New York Tribune pictorial sections to demonstrate their use as attention getters next to less attractive pages.

Scanned images of the New York Times pictorial sections of 1914-19 were taken from a collection of that paper’s volumes generously donated by Mrs. Sandra Baden to the Library of Congress’s Serial and Government Publications Division. Rotogravure sections of the New York Tribune were taken from the Division’s collection of bound volumes for scanning.

Multiple copies of The War of the Nations: Portfolio in Rotogravure Etchings are available in the Library of Congress. In 1985 the Library prepared a microfilm edition from an original 1919 print copy of this volume; the printed illustrations reside in the Prints & Photographs Division. A reprint edition dated 1977 is also available in the Library’s General Collections. The Serial and Government Publications Division received a donated copy of the 1919 edition from Mr. Daniel Pollen; this copy was used for scanning.