Lithography, invented in Germany in 1798 and now considered the first and most important method of planographic printing (printing from a flat surface, or plane), is based on the chemical principles that oil and water do not mix but will attract like substances, and that both will adhere to a porous ground, such as a stone. The process came into widespread use in the 1820s as commercial printers and artists realized that images could be drawn as easily on stone as on paper, and that the stones could be reused. All methods of drawing could be used on the stone, including pen-and-ink, chalk, or crayon, and by about 1830 a watercolor-like wash, applied with a brush, was used to provide tints known as lithotints. Only after the development of cheaper printing methods such as wood engraving and lithography did it become possible to print inexpensive illustrated medical textbooks. Although lithographs could be produced more easily, and generally more cheaply, than relief or intaglio illustrations, color was still expensive since it had to be applied by hand and so was used only for relatively upscale colored scientific and medical books.

During the nineteenth century, lithographers perfected the art of printing in color by using multiple stones to achieve very complex colored images through a process known as chromolithography. Cheap color printing was then available for the first time in the history of printing. While the most pervasive use of chromolithography was in advertising, it was also used extensively for making popular prints as well as for scientific and medical illustrations.


Francisque Poulbot
Detail from: "Joyeux Noël, Bella C. Landauer," [1928]
The New York Public Library
To better understand the chromolithographic process, view selected progressive proofs of Prang's Prize Babies, a popular print of the late nineteenth century made from 19 stones.
Images of these items illustrate but a few of The New York Public Library's major holdings in science and medicine as well as items from other institutions which were featured in the exhibition Seeing Is Believing,on view from October 23, 1999—February 19, 2000 at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library, and related publication.

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