Among the many treasures of the Library of Congress’s online catalogue are several thousand digital images of antique photochrom prints.
The prints were colored images made from black-and-white photographic negatives transferred onto lithographic printing plates. The process was invented at a Swiss printing company in the 1880s. By the mid 1890s, it had been licensed it to many other companies, including the American Detroit Publishing Company, which had exclusive rights in the U.S.
In 1898, Congress passed an act allowing private publishers to print postcards that could be mailed for only a penny each — half the rate of a letter. Millions of photochrom postcards were purchased — and often collected in albums or framed — in the first two decades of the nineteenth century.
Wikipedia describes the process:
A tablet of lithographic limestone, known as a “litho stone,” is coated with a light-sensitive coating, comprising a thin layer of purified bitumen dissolved in benzene. A reversed half-tone negative is then pressed against the coating and exposed to daylight for a period of 10 to 30 minutes in summer, up to several hours in winter. The image on the negative allows varying amounts of light to fall on different areas of the coating, causing the bitumen to harden and become resistant to normal solvents in proportion to the amount of light that falls on it. The coating is then washed in turpentine solutions to remove the unhardened bitumen and retouched in the tonal scale of the chosen color to strengthen or soften the tones as required. Each tint is applied using a separate stone bearing the appropriate retouched image. The finished print is produced using at least six, but more commonly from 10 to 15, tint stones.
Often the printer was provided with notes about realistic colors, but sometimes he had to work from his imagination alone. However, Detroit Publishing’s catalog said that its photochrom prints joined “the truthfulness of a photograph with the color and richness of an oil painting or the delicate tinting of the most exquisite water color.”
In these images of Belle Epoque Paris, the printer used ivory, pink, and apricot for the buildings and ground, quiet blues and greens for water and sky, and put a buttery light at the horizons. The tints soften and still the monumental spaces on this walk from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe at L’Etoile.
(All photos were taken by the Detroit Publishing Company, ca. 1890-1900; all via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. To scroll through the images in full size, click on ‘Continue reading’ below and then on any of the thumbnails in the gallery.)
The Tuileries Garden. Its name came from the tile makers (tuileries) who were removed from the site on Catherine de Medicis’s orders so that she could build a (later-destroyed) palace and grounds. The palace garden was redesigned in the 17th century by André Le Nôtre for Louis XIV.
Place de la Concorde. During the revolution, the guillotine was placed here and took over a thousand lives. Later, the space was named la Concorde in a gesture of reconciliation. Since 1833, its central feature has been the 3,200-year-old obelisk from Luxor, Egypt.