Picturesque California

 In the late 1880s the far western states were attracting new residents from across the United States and around the world. This was especially true of the largest western state, California, which had joined the union in 1850: by 1880 its population surpassed 860,000 and would grow in the next decade to over 1.2 million—less than Virginia’s but more than Maryland’s, two states that had been absorbing immigrants since the seventeenth century. With several rail lines now completed, many immigrants, as T. S. Van Dyke wrote in Picturesque California, came in "Pullman cars instead of ‘prairie schooners’" and "built fine houses instead of log cabins." Yet for most Americans, the Far West was still largely unknown. The great exceptions were the region’s prime natural wonders, Yosemite Valley, the giant sequoias, Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Canyon. Some would have seen oil paintings, stereographs, or photographs of these famous sites, and many more would have seen wood-engraved illustrations in inexpensive periodicals with national circulations.

In 1888, the San Francisco-based publisher James Dewing (ca. 1846-1902) launched a project to provide the most comprehensive visual coverage of the Far West yet available: Picturesque California and the Region West of the Rocky Mountains, from Alaska to Mexico. Edited by John Muir, who wrote much of its text, it was the first major illustrated work on the West produced primarily by westerners. Sold by subscription, the work first appeared serially in thirty parts, with more than eight hundred images produced by an array of printing technologies.

James Dewing, originally from Connecticut, had joined his brother in San Francisco after serving in the Union Army. By 1871 he was a partner in Francis Dewing and Company’s publishing firm. After Francis’s death in 1883, James Dewing operated a bookstore and publishing office and with other family members manufactured and sold pianos, organs, and school furniture. In January 1887 the J. Dewing Company was incorporated with a capital stock of $250,000, presumably from investors interested in Picturesque California’s publication. By 1888 the firm had established a New York office, no doubt to help promote the book.

Little is known about Picturesque California’s early genesis. But clearly, Dewing was well enough connected to engage John Muir (1838-1914) as editor and principal writer. Muir was not yet the household name he is today or even the nation’s premier conservationist (he would found the Sierra Club in 1892). Still, he was well known for his expertise on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Yosemite Valley, which President Lincoln had made a state park in 1864. An early review of Picturesque California described him as "the man of all others who has most lived with and expressed nature in California." His articles expounding his theories on Yosemite’s formation and describing the glaciers he had found in the Sierras had appeared in the San Francisco periodical the Overland Monthly from 1872 and in Harper’s and Scribner’s, the nation’s leading illustrated monthly magazines, from 1875 through the 1880s. Dewing’s invitation to edit Picturesque California came at an opportune time for Muir. As a father and principal breadwinner, exploring the Sierras and California’s other natural wonders had become impractical for him. He accepted the commission and reworked some of his earlier articles in preparing his contributions.

 
In 1888, the San Francisco-based publisher James Dewing (ca. 1846-1902) launched a project to provide the most comprehensive visual coverage of the Far West yet available: Picturesque California and the Region West of the Rocky Mountains, from Alaska to Mexico. Edited by John Muir, who wrote much of its text, it was the first major illustrated work on the West produced primarily by westerners. Sold by subscription, the work first appeared serially in thirty parts, with more than eight hundred images produced by an array of printing technologies.
 
The original etchings, numbering only fifteen among the 120 plates, are some of the most appealing of the book’s illustrations. To prepare an intaglio etching, the artist uses etching needles and other tools to scratch through the ground covering the metal plate and then uses acid to bite the lines he or she has created. The incisions hold the ink and with the pressure of the printing press the ink is absorbed by the paper. The late 1870s and 1880s saw a revival of interest in the centuries-old process in the United States and publishers began including etchings in their most elaborate illustrated books
 
"Visions of ineffable beauty and harmony, health and exhilaration of body and soul, and grand foundation lessons in Nature’s eternal love, are the sure reward of every earnest looker in this glorious wilderness."—John Muir
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